Gurpreet Singh: India enters its own McCarthy era
This week, Indian police raided the houses of well-respected human-rights activists and writers. At least five of them were arrested.
If the continued witch hunt of leftists across the world's so-called largest democracy is any indication, India has now entered its own McCarthy era under a right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
Those being detained are a Telugu poet and a political activist, Varavara Rao, and human-rights lawyer Sudha Bhardawaj. Others taken into custody are two published authors, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira, and a former Mumbai college professor, Vernon Gonsalves. Ferreira and Gonsalves had been arrested and thrown into jail in the past too.
Among those whose houses were raided are Anand Teltumbde, an eminent columnist and an activist who visited Vancouver in 2016.
While these individuals were taken into custody in different parts of India, what binds them together is their deep involvement in advocacy for the poor and marginalized, especially Adivasis (Indigenous peoples). They continue to face displacement from their traditional territories by the extraction industry looking for access to mineral-rich lands with the backing of the state.
Maoist insurgents who've been active in tribal areas have a big following among Adivasis, who often take up arms due to the high-handedness of the police and security forces. Many Adivasis see Maoists as protectors in their fight for survival from barbarity of the state.
Police have not only branded those arrested as Maoist supporters, but some caught up in the dragnet are being accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This followed the arrests of five more political activists several months ago.
They too are facing similar allegations. These have been strongly refuted by their relatives and supporters, who believe that all this is being done to stifle voices of dissent and win sympathy for Modi, who might face a tough general election next year.
To be fair to the Modi government though, the previous Congress government started the anti-left rhetoric by describing Maoists as the single largest threat to the internal security of the country. Congress officials had signed business deals with extraction industry who've always wanted to get rid of the Adivasis to ensure complete and unfettered access to natural resources.
The previous Congress government launched a controversial paramilitary operation, Green Hunt, in the tribal belt, giving security forces immunity to deal with insurgents through extra-judicial means. This led to repression of Adivasis in the name of a war on terror.
A disabled Delhi University professor, G.N. Saibaba, mobilized public opinion against Operation Green Hunt in urban areas. He was first arrested in 2014 before Modi came to power. Saibaba continues to languish in the jail under inhuman conditions.
However, the BJP's die-hard right-wing politics has made matters worse. The degree of intolerance has certainly increased.
Whereas Hindu extremists who wish to turn India into Hindu theocracy continue to attack religious minorities with impunity, the government has directed its energy to deal with "left-wing extremists" in the name of national security and progress.
Any genuine criticism of uneven development and growing impoverishment can invite the wrath of the Indian state. Those questioning the power are frequently branded as “anti-nationals” or “urban Naxals”.
The latter terminology is in reference to the Naxalite movement of late 1960s that drew inspiration from the armed Chinese revolution of Mao Zedong. The current Maoist resistance is a new avatar of the Naxalite movement which had its origins in the village of Naxalbari in the Indian state of West Bengal.
It witnessed an uprising of tillers for the right to land ownership.
World-renowned author Arundhati Roy and others have reacted sharply to the recent developments. They have warned that India is witnessing a situation worse than the state of emergency that was imposed in 1975 by the then Congress prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
Back then, a number of activists and dissidents were arrested and tortured. Ironically, Modi, whose party was in opposition, went underground during that period.
It's been well established that his BJP is far more intolerant to the left. The most glaring example was the recent toppling of Lenin’s statue in Tripura state when the BJP captured power after trouncing the ruling Marxists in the assembly elections.
Not only was the statue of the towering Communist leader pulled down by mobs, BJP supporters justified this action over social media. This was in sharp contrast to the Congress Party’s friendly and/or love-hate relationship with parliamentary Communists.
It is a separate matter that both the Congress and BJP remain equally intolerant to revolutionary Communists who do not believe in electoral politics. Maoists continue to be on the Indian state's list of banned terror groups, whereas Hindu extremist groups involved in violence remain off the list.
The current government has now adopted a more aggressive approach toward Maoists.
The embedded mainstream media’s continual portrayal of Saibaba and others as “urban Naxals” indicates the mindset of the government, which is that any criticism of its policies won’t be tolerated.
In fact, Sudha Bhardawaj was branded in that way by a pro-government TV channel weeks before her arrest. This only indicates that the space for questioning the power continues to shrink rapidly. The left, in particular, remains more vulnerable.
As the election year draws near, the Modi government might try to use every tactic to beat the left to attract more support from the growing and generally self-centred middle class. It's always willing to buy into slogans that give hope of economic and national security, however hollow they might be.
For them, Adivasis and Maoists remain synonymous anyway. In their minds, a thinking Adivasi is a potential Maoist insurgent.
The easiest way for Modi to convince them of this is to call Maoists and their supporters as anti-development. Religious nationalism becomes a handy tool.
If the BJP is able to sustain the support of the Hindu majority by playing identity politics, then to survive in the long run, the left certainly needs to worry and get united in spite of its many contradictions.
Paradoxically, if these arrests have done anything good, it has brought the leftist parties together. Mainstream Communist parties who do not agree with Maoists and their supporters in urban setting have also reacted strongly against the persecution and harassment of the activists.