Police detain a woman activist during a protest against the arrest of revolutionary writer Varavara Rao and other activists in connection with Bhima-Koregaon violence, in Hyderabad on Wednesday, Aug 29, 2018. (Source: PTI)

Worrying Days for Dissent in India

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Indian liberals are reeling from a shocking set of arrests this week: Synchronized police raids targeted some of the country’s best-known civil-liberties activists. Authorities have been vague about why they were arrested; many are being held under a draconian national security law that permits detention for six months without formal charges. But, judging by what police officials have leaked to the media -- and what members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have told news channels -- the accused are all supposedly “Naxalites.”

For many Indians, this sounds like an accusation from the distant past. Back in the 1970s, a Maoist insurrection began in a small town called Naxalbari; its political descendants came to be known as Naxalites. They’ve vanished from the towns of the more prosperous India of today. But, in the forests of central India, where the hand of the state has often been brutal, a Maoist insurgency continues to smolder, though with far less intensity than just a decade ago when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it India’s greatest threat.

Now, accusations -- few of them official, most through leaks to conservative, government-friendly TV channels -- suggest that the arrested activists were part of a giant Maoist terrorist conspiracy. Many Indians understandably find that hard to believe -- not only because the Naxalites have never shown any such capability, or because no real evidence has been provided, but also because apparently these plugged-in lawyers, professors, poets and writers were communicating their deep, complicated and nefarious plans through old-fashioned letters.

Nor does the background of those arrested suggest they were likely to conspire against India. One of them, for example, was trained as an engineer at India’s best-known college and then relinquished her U.S. citizenship to work for decades as a lawyer and trade union organizer. Others are well-known academics, journalists or poets. Yes, all of them are dissenters. But this feels a bit like U.S. authorities rounding up Noam Chomsky and the board of the ACLU under the Patriot Act.

India is not yet anything close to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There are still courts in this country that are independent, and police forces that don’t operate purely at the behest of powerful politicians. Even so, perhaps for the first time, we’ve been given a glimpse of what a Putinized India might look like: a campaign against “urban Naxals,” or dissenting intellectuals, promoted by hyper-nationalist TV stations, followed by raids and arrests under illiberal laws that we have allowed successive governments to put on our books.

There’s one even worse twist to these particular arrests -- and that’s the caste angle. (In India, sadly, there is more often than not a caste angle.) One of the supposed accusations against the arrested activists is that they incited violence at a festival celebrated by India’s Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” on New Year’s Day. This festival reflects India’s complex loyalties and multiple histories: It celebrates the East India Company’s victory, centuries ago, over the Maratha Empire. The victory matters to Dalits because, on this occasion, many of the Company’s foot-soldiers were Dalits; by contrast, the Brahmin-led Maratha Empire lives on in Dalits’ memories as particularly harsh in its oppression of lower castes. Dalits have for decades commemorated the occasion peacefully; this year, oddly, violence broke out.

The connection between the activists and the violence is particularly weak; most of them weren’t even there. In fact, originally the police wanted to investigate and arrest two well-known local Hindu nationalist leaders, one of whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers to as “Guruji” or teacher, in connection with the incident. As recently as last week, police actually did arrest different Hindu extremists in the possession of bombs and explosives, allegedly intended to be used in attacks across Maharashtra. Leading Dalit politicians claim the activists’ arrests are meant to be a distraction from the real cases being built up against the Hindu extremists.

The January disturbances were unusual and shocking. For decades, Dalits have looked to India’s liberal Constitution -- written in fact by a Dalit, the Columbia-trained lawyer B.R. Ambedkar -- as the guarantor of their rights. In the past few years, however, as more conservative governments have taken power across India’s states and graphic videos of violence against Dalits have gone viral -- the political system seems insufficient to contain their anger.

This week, the Indian state seemed to be bending the liberal principles of Ambedkar’s constitution to lock up Dalits and their allies. We should all fear the consequences of seeding deeper divisions into an already turbulent society.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.