Contesting the draconian laws that turn dissent into a menace – A profile of Dr Anand Teltumbde
In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project launched Profiles of Dissent — a new series centered on remarkable voices of dissent and courage in India and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces. These are prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders who have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The profile features prominent Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde, who is held under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) along with 10 other activists, poets and lawyers who have been arrested for being allegedly involved in the Bhima Koregaon case. Dr Teltumbde is an internationally respected human rights activist and a staunch opponent of the current Indian political regime.
“At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. They imprisoned all those prisoners of war, of course, not for treason to the motherland…They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956
‘Political Prisoner’ is a category of criminal offense that sits most egregiously in any civilized society, especially in countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It is a thought crime: the crime of thinking, acting, speaking, probing, reporting, questioning, demanding rights, and, more importantly, exercising one’s citizenship. But these inhumane incarcerations do not just target private acts of courage, they are bound together with the fundamental questions of citizenship, and with people’s capacity to hold the State accountable. Especially States that are unilaterally and fundamentally remaking their relationship with their people. The assault on the fundamental rights has been consistent and ongoing at a global level and rights-bearing citizens are transformed into consuming subjects of a surveillance State.
In this transforming landscape, dissent is sedition, and resistance is treason.
While the Indian State has a long history of ruthlessly crushing dissent, a new wave of arrests began in 2018. Eleven prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They are accused of being members of a banned Maoist organization, plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and inciting violent protests in Bhima Koregaon. To date, no credible evidence has been produced by the investigating agency, and those accused remain incarcerated without bail. Since the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest began in December 2019, students, activists, and peaceful protesters have been charged with sedition, targeted with violence, and subjected to arrests. Since then, more arrests have followed specifically targeting local Muslim students leader and protestors, including twenty-seven-year-old student leader Safoora Zargar, who is currently pregnant.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, India’s leading public intellectuals, opposition leaders, writers, thinkers, activists, and scholars have written various appeals to the Narendra Modi government for the release of India’s political prisoners. They are vulnerable to COVID-19 contagion in the country’s overcrowded jails, where three coronavirus-related deaths have already been reported. In response, the State has doubled down and rejected all the bail applications. It also shifted the seventy-year-old journalist Gautham Navlakha from Delhi’s Tihar Jail to Taloja, without any notice or due process – Taloja is one of the prisons where a convict has already died of COVID-19.
A fearful, weak State silences the voice of dissent. Once it has established repression as a response to critique, it has only one way to go: become a regime of authoritarian terror, where it is the source of dread and fear to its citizens.
How do we live, survive, and respond to this moment?
In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project is launching Profiles of Dissent. This new series centers on remarkable voices of dissent and courage, and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces.
Profiles of Dissent is a way to question and critique the State that has used legal means to crush dissent illegally. It also intends to ground the idea that, despite the repression, voices of resistance continue to emerge every day.
The following excerpt is published from maraa, READ ALOUD: Ideas Can Never Be Arrested. You can read Varavara Rao’s profile here, the profile of Sudha Bharadwaj here, that of GN Saibaba here and Gautham Navlakha’s profile here.
Anand Teltumbde is a public intellectual and a civil- rights activist based in Goa. He has a long association with peoples’ struggle spanning over three decades backing his theorizations on various issues. Trained in technology and management from the top institutes in the country, he marshals his insights of the modern techno-managerial world to sharpen strategies of struggles. He has authored many books and written numerous articles. Some of his books are: “Dalits: Past, Present and Future”, “Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt”, “The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid” and, most recently, “Republic of Caste”.
Date of raid: 28 August 2018
Charges: Anand Teltumbde was raided on the morning of 28 August 2018. Laptops, mobile and books were seized. The raid was conducted based on fabricated connections to the Bhima Koregaon violence which happened earlier in the year in January, as well as his connection to Elgaar Parishad. Teltumbde released a statement criticising his raid: “The entire process is conducted as though I was a dreaded terrorist or a criminal”…“The police could have enquired with me whatever they wanted to, either by sending a police official or calling me to the police station. But the entire intention is to create an atmosphere of terror and project that I had already done some dreaded crime.”
Teltumbde urged the judiciary to take note of the “monumental harassment and torture”… “I am definitely critical of the present regime but, unlike many others, fault the entire post-colonial construction of the state for its rise,” Teltumbde said. He pointed out that he had written books criticizing the practices of Maoists and their reliance on violence.
“I, like many other people who have been targeted by people, was not even in the conference,” Teltumbde said. “With what stretch of imagination, could I have even been suspected to have connection with these things? The entire episode is based on a letter police produced, the authenticity of which is far from established.”
Location of work: Goa
Update 15 July 2020: On 15 July 2020, Dr. Teltumbde turned 70 in Mumbai’s Tolaja prison where he’s been imprisoned for 90 days. He was arrested by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) on 14 April 2020, and charged under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code along with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for his alleged involvement in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon riots. Along with other BK11 political prisoners, he remains incarcerated during the global pandemic and held under unhygienic conditions. He has been denied access to books and other writing material. On this day, Dr Anand Teltumbde along with Gautam Navlakha have been awarded the Shakti Bhatt Prize to honor their lifelong intellectual and literary achievements.
Labeling Dalits and Adivasis as Maoists is an old state strategy for crushing dissent and criticism an excerpt from Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva by Anand Teltumbde
Despite its mode of expression, the much-maligned Naxalite movement is essentially an act of dissent, a public protest, a fact occasionally acknowledged by the government itself, although the actions of the latter never reflect this admission. The state has always preferred to criminalise Naxalites, to the extent of waging a full-fledged war upon tribal populations in the guise of fighting Naxalism. It extends this attitude to all those who question the government’s violations of civil rights. The government labels them as Naxalites/ Maoists and unleashes its repressive might on them.
Many legal luminaries and activists, who have taken it upon themselves to defend the civil rights of citizens as per the Constitution, aver that the ordinary laws available to the government are capable, if operated equitably, of tackling any criminal activity of which the state accuses Naxalites. Instead, the government has preferred to create a range of draconian laws expressly to deal with the Naxalite “menace”. There is no empirical evidence that such laws have achieved anything apart from misrepresenting the notion of security: alienating the interests of state security from the security of the population.
Invariably, they have operated as oppressive tools against defenceless people and thereby aggravated the very problem that they were supposed to solve.h Sudhir Dhawale, a well-known social activist in Maharashtra, who was arrested by the police for his alleged links with the Maoists, was released from Nagpur’s central prison in May 2014 after being acquitted of all charges. Yet, he had had to spend forty months in jail as an undertrial. Eight of his co-accused were also acquitted with him. In 2005, the Dalit poet Shantanu Kamble was arrested on similar charges and tortured for over a hundred days before he got bail. He now stands cleared by the court of all charges. The radical political activist, Arun Ferreira, confined in jail for well over four years, was tortured and harassed, repeatedly arrested in fresh cases after being acquitted in earlier ones, before he could finally get bail in January 2012.
The lesser known cases of the arrest of twelve members of the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch of Chandrapur in January 2008 and of Bandu Meshram from Nagpur on very similar charges also come to mind. All these people have been acquitted but not before undergoing mistreatment at the hands of the police and the humiliations of jail life. There are scores of other cases from remote rural areas where young women and men were arrested on the vague charge of being Maoists, many without the charges even being framed, who now face the ruin of their youth and future as they await trial without any support or legal aid.
As the state opened hostilities against its own people, it came out with the high-pitched propaganda about Naxalites building an urban network. It implied the threat that any criticism of government action against the Naxalites would be construed as support for them and attract the wrath of the state. In 2007, an example was made of Binayak Sen, a revered doctor with an impeccable record of public service, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. Sen—out on bail currently by order of the Supreme Court—paid a heavy price for exposing the Chhattisgarh state’s unconstitutional operations.
While the anti-national tag has come to refer to all left-liberal civil rights activists and protestors in urban spaces, another accusation hurled repeatedly, if they dare to protest against the state, is that they are simply subsets in the Venn diagram of Naxalites. In Maharashtra, most people arrested as Maoists are Dalits and Adivasis. The Maoist label is compounded by their caste identity which already renders them vulnerable. Although the ruling classes have succeeded in enervating the Dalit movement, the Ambedkarite consciousness among Dalits remains alive. It occasionally manifests itself in militant outbreak against the system’s excesses, as in the wake of the Khairlanji murders and the more recent actions of the Bhim Army in response to the violence against Dalit households in Saharanpur, UP. It is this kind of incipient dissent the state wants to nip in the bud by pinning the label of Maoism or Naxalism on Dalit and Adivasi youth in particular. Sudhir Dhawale expressed this idea in clear terms to the Indian Express (May 23, 2014), following his release from prison:
“Dissenting voices are stifled. We rarely see the oppressed caste fight back. Sustained agitation that we saw post-Khairlanji [against caste atrocities] is no more a common sight. Many of us who participated in protest rallies then (post-Khairlanji) have been booked in cases. We were labelled as ‘Naxals’.”
With the arrest of Dhawale, the well-known Dalit social activist and editor of Vidrohi, yet another Binayak Sen emerged. Not an exact copy, as Binayak Sen comes from a bhadralok family, earned his postgraduate degree from a prestigious medical school, has an enviable academic record and certain well-deserved decorations received in the course of his professional life. Sudhir Dhawale comes from a poor Dalit family, he is moderately well- educated and has lived without any notable social acclaim so far. What makes their cases similar, apart from their unflinching dedication to the oppressed, is the neurotic behaviour of the state towards them.
Sudhir Dhawale has been a political activist right from his college days in Nagpur when he was part of the Vidyarthi Pragati Sanghatana, a radical students’ organisation in the 1980s. He never hid his ideological leanings or association with the mass organisations that professed Marxism- Leninism, loosely identified as Naxalism, and now lumped together with Maoism by the state, after the merger of the most militant Naxal parties— CPI (ML) (Peoples’ War) and the Maoist Communist Centre—into CPI (Maoist). He denied any connection with the Maoist party or its activities, least of all the violent actions committed by it. Starting in 1995, Dhawale worked actively to resist atrocities against Dalits and campaigned for the effective implementation of the PoA Act. After moving to Mumbai, he became active in the cultural movement and took part in organising an alternative Vidrohi Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in 1999 in protest against the mainstream literary gathering which is heavily sponsored by the state government. This initiative took the form of the Vidrohi Sanskrutik Chalwal (Forum for Cultural Resistance), with its own bimonthly organ, Vidrohi, of which Dhawale became the editor. Soon Vidrohi became a rallying point for radical activists in Maharashtra. He drew on his literary flair to write pamphlets and books propagating revolutionary ideas in support of the ongoing struggles of adivasis and Dalits.
After the Bombay police gunned down ten Dalits and injured several persons protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue in Ramabai Nagar on July 11, 1997, Dhawale was among those at the forefront seeking justice. He played a leading role in the foundation of Republican Panther on 6 December 2007—Ambedkar’s death anniversary— which identifies itself as “a movement for the annihilation of caste”. He was active in the state-wide protests that erupted after the gory caste atrocity at Khairlanji, protests perversely attributed to the Naxalites by the then Home minister of Maharashtra, RR Patil. That was when Dhawale came under the police scanner.
Dhawale was arrested by plain-clothed police officials on January 2, 2011 at the Wardha railway station, while returning from a literary conference held in the town. He was charged under Section 124 of the IPC and Sections 17, 20 and 39 of the UAPA, which amounts to sedition and waging a war against the state. When questioned over the arrest, all the police had to say was that they had found incriminating literature in his house and that one Bhimrao Bhoite, an alleged Maoist who was arrested earlier, had mentioned his name. The literature in question was eighty-seven books by Ambedkar, Marx, Lenin and Arundhati Roy, confiscated by the police in a raid on his house during which they ransacked the place and took away his computer and books, the possession of none of which is remotely illegal. Rather, the illegality lay, as he alleges, in the entry and search of his Mumbai apartment in the presence of only his two children, both minors.
These cases represent the plight of thousands of tribals and Dalits in India. A plethora of constitutional provisions are in place to protect the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and yet, in practice no SC/ST law comes to their rescue or penalises the culprits. Why? Because they have been given the dreaded label of “Maoist”, an identity inconsequential in law as decreed by the Supreme Court but deemed self-evidently criminal by the police. To be designated a Maoist is to be implicitly considered “the greatest internal security threat to our country”, to use Dr Manmohan Singh’s words on Naxalism. The facts speak otherwise. The police who abuse and insult the poor, beat and torture them, molest and rape women, indulge in forgery and lies and foist false cases on innocents to cover up their own misdeeds are the main catalysts in manufacturing Maoists.
Politicians who tacitly promote police criminality and endanger democracy are the real internal security threat to our country. A cursory look at the so-called Maoist cases will reveal that the main intention of the police is to harass people by keeping them in jail for as long as possible. Their muddled logic informs them that such heinous treatment of leading activists would terrorise the general public into submission. Empirical evidence goes to show the contrary. Neither are the activists who are subjected to such blatant atrocities and injustice scared into giving up their activism, nor has there been any decline in the incidence of dissent. Rather, these acts of lawlessness by state actors further alienate people from the system and impel at least some of them to become Maoists.
All that is reflected in these episodes is the Indian state’s intention to harm its own people, no matter how high the costs to the country. There are thousands languishing for years in Indian jails for the “crime” of being Maoist. Invariably each one has suffered illegal torture during police custody and humiliating conditions thereafter during judicial custody. Custodial torture and lawlessness of the police are the norm in our democracy. India signed the “United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” in 1997 but is yet to ratify the treaty in domestic law. India does not have any specific law against custodial torture, nor does it have robust procedural safeguards against custodial violence. This directly feeds into the lawless behaviour of the police. One may not quarrel with the professional privilege of the police to arrest people and frame charges based on whatever information they may have, but these charges are subject to judicial scrutiny.
When executive privilege is wantonly and grossly misused – as repeatedly established – one expects that some kind of check would be instituted against the lawlessness of the police. As it turns out, there is effectively none. The police can arrest anyone they want as a Maoist, torture and entangle them in a few dozen cases, which would easily mean jail time for a minimum of four to five years irrespective of what the court finally decides. One can see a pattern in Maoism-related cases where police lawlessness emerges as the sole culprit.
More in this series
“We are witness to systematic abuse by authorities wielding arbitrary powers” – A profile of Gautam Navlakha