Activists from various organisations make a human chain in protest against the arrest of five activists, in Patna on August 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Diary Of A Hallucinating Liberal, Err… Urban Naxal

BloombergQuintOpinion

Indian democracy hallucinated wildly this week. Intellectuals and activists were crudely arrested, Supreme Court judges got riled up, police were unusually combative, ruling party honchos became acerbic, mainstream news outfits woke up from a self-induced slumber, liberals agitated, and trolls got even more vicious. Even by our febrile standards, it was surreal.

Diary Of A Hallucinating Liberal, Err… Urban Naxal

The Infamous Five

Sudha Bharadwaj, after finishing primary education in England, studied for her engineering degree at IIT Kanpur. Her mother, Krishna Bharadwaj, a renowned economist, founded JNU’s Center for Economic Studies and Planning. Sudha gave up her American citizenship to work with Shankar Guha Niyogi, the founder of Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha. After Niyogi’s assassination in 1991, she took a degree in law at Durg College, and defended tribals’ and Dalits’ rights at the lower courts in the badlands.

Gautam Navlakha is a respected journalist (writing for the Economic and Political Weekly, among other publications), author and human rights activist. He is an outspoken critic of military operations in Kashmir, especially the use of pellets to blind children.

Vernon Gonsalves, a former academician who taught at HR College in Mumbai, was arrested in 2007 for being a “top-level Naxalite” and keeping lethal “explosives” in his house. He was even convicted under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Arms Act by a local Mumbai court.

He was in jail for six years, until he was acquitted in 17 cases in 2013.

Arun Ferreira’s story is eerily similar to Gonsalves’. An alumnus of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, he too was arrested in 2007 for undertaking “covert Naxalite activity”. Eleven cases, including sedition, were filed against him.

But he was acquitted in 2011, only to be re-arrested upon release.

Later he got bail.

Finally, here is the most contentious case of 78-year-old Varavara Rao. He is a copious revolutionary poet wedded to extreme Leftist ideology (also called ‘Maoism’ in India). He has faced political incarceration all his life, first arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act in 1973, followed by another stint during the Emergency in 1975. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the Andhra government in 1985 and captured. His prison diary Sahacharulu (1990) was translated as Captive Imagination in English. Eventually, he was acquitted of all charges in 2003, after spending 17 years in prison. There was a poignant corollary to his arrest last week when the police raided his daughter’s and son-in-law, Professor K Satyanarayana’s, house in Hyderabad. The police asked the daughter: “Your husband is a Dalit, but you are a Brahmin, so why are you not wearing sindoor?” An equally egregious question was put to the professor: “Why are you reading books on Mao and Marx? Why are there photos of Phule and Ambedkar in your house, but no photos of Gods?” The police took away hard disks containing two decades of Professor Satyanarayana’s literary work; unfortunately, he had not taken a back-up.

Revolutionary writer P Varavara Rao,  being produced at a court in Pune on  Aug 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Revolutionary writer P Varavara Rao, being produced at a court in Pune on Aug 29, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Climate of ‘Fear’ Among Rights Groups as India Arrests Activists

Theatre Of Absurd Hallucinations

The synchronised arrests of these public intellectuals by the Pune police were just the beginning of the hallucinations. The original First Information Report was not based on any police investigation, but a private complaint filed by a right-wing activist.

It did not mention even one of these five ‘accused’ persons.

None of them was present at the meeting at which the conspiracy to create an “Anti-Fascist Front” to foment violence was supposed to have been hatched. In any case, that had happened a good nine months back. Their opponents said they were “active members” of the banned CPI-Maoists who had been “repeatedly jailed” in the past, conveniently omitting that all had been repeatedly acquitted of every charge too!

The Supreme Court bench took great umbrage at these, well, policing hallucinations. “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy; if it’s not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst”, they averred. They instructed that all the accused be removed from police remand and kept under house arrest. Simultaneously, the Delhi High Court was astounded that lower court magistrates had ordered arrests based on Marathi documents they did not understand (and which the Pune police had several weeks to translate into English).

But now the hallucinations intruded into the ‘accused’s’ households. Gautam Navlakha and his life-partner were initially barred from shutting their bedroom door to retire for the night. Sudha Bhardwaj had to allow five police-women to stay in with her. ‘Loose items’ like eggs and vegetables could not be brought from the market; only pre-packaged food like Maggi noodles was permitted. The following day the police launched a media trial, showing letters and other ‘evidence’ to journalists at a nationally televised press conference, violating the spirit of the Supreme Court’s legal sanction. Sudha Bhardwaj penned a pain-staking, hand-written note refuting every charge against her, but the police-cum-propaganda-media circus continued. It was the theatre of the absurd.

Human rights advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, after she was arrested by the Pune police, in Faridabad on  Aug 28, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Human rights advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, after she was arrested by the Pune police, in Faridabad on Aug 28, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Outrage Over Multi-City Raids, Arrests Of Rights Activists

Daytime Hallucinations Usually Become Nightmares

As I slipped into a troubled sleep that night, I had a nightmare...

My car was surrounded by an angry mob of young Bajrang Dal volunteers, their glowering faces pressed against the windows, eyes flashing, nostrils flaring, fists pounding the glass.

Mob: You corrupt Leftist, how could you buy such an expensive car?

Me: Leftist? Gosh, who told you that? I am an entrepreneur. I celebrate the creation of wealth.

Mob: No, our best right-wing trolls call you a “dirty leftist” on Twitter. Their word is the Gospel truth for us.

Me: You’ve got to be kidding. I am a staunch critic of Communism, which I believe is a failed ideology. I believe in well-regulated free markets. I abhor the big state which strangles enterprise. I detest government intrusion in our lives. Yes, I support a strong welfare state which protects the disadvantaged – here, read what I’ve written on why India needs to completely “unmix” its economy.

Does this read like a Leftist doctrine to you?
Left Front Chairman Biman Bose and other activists participate in a rally to protest against the recent police raids on the premises of social activists and their house arrest, in Kolkata on August 30, 2018. (Photograph: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI)
Left Front Chairman Biman Bose and other activists participate in a rally to protest against the recent police raids on the premises of social activists and their house arrest, in Kolkata on August 30, 2018. (Photograph: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI)

Mob: Oh, c’mon you Libtard (the invective was spat out), we’ve seen your liberal videos, supporting Muslims, Gays….

Me: Aaah, so you think I am a Leftist because I am a Liberal? How can you equate the two? Yes, some of my cultural liberalism overlaps with Leftist ideology, but remember, I am an implacable foe of their economic thought, which I believe is obscurantist…

Mob (cutting in rudely): If you are so anti-Left, then why do you publish Leftist intellectuals?

Me: That’s because I am a Liberal! I may disagree with you, but I will support your right to propagate your ideology freely. At the core of liberalism is the agreement to disagree. As an enlightened editor, I will defend your right to publish your thoughts even if I ‘violently’ refute those in my writings.

So, if you really want to pigeon-hole me into an ‘ism’, then I am a ‘Right of Centre Liberal’.

Mob: Shut up, you scumbag. Don’t even whisper the word ‘Right’. You are anti-Hindu. You’ve given stock options to Muslims.

Me: Of course, I have. Stock options are given on merit, not religion. In the very first business I founded, I gave a 5 percent stake to an accomplished film-maker and camera-man. He happened to be Muslim, so what? As for being ‘anti-Hindu’, how can you say that? I’ve read the Hanuman Chalisa every day for the last 33 years. I am a diehard devotee of Lord Hanuman. Although I also believe that you can be a good Hindu even if you’ve not read a scrap of a scripture in your life.

Mob (anger rising): Beware, you idiot, don’t abuse our scriptures... and why haven’t we ever seen you in a temple? You don’t fast during Navratras, because we’ve seen you drinking and eating all kinds of un-Godly food during those holy days.

Me: But where is it written that I must go to a temple to demonstrate my religiosity? In which scripture? The Bhagavad-Gita? The Ramayana? On the walls of the Khajuraho Temple? Where is that written? I don’t go to a temple because a disability does not allow me to take off my shoes; and since the temple priests don’t allow me to walk in with my shoes on, it’s just easier to avoid going into the garba-griha (the holiest spot in a temple).

Me (continuing): And by the way, even if I did not suffer from this disability, I would perhaps have never gone inside a temple. I am cool with that – go to a temple or mosque or gurudwara or church if you feel good about that; and if you don’t, no sweat at all. But I do pray to my God every day. And yes, I eat and drink merrily through Navratras, because I do not believe in any ritual.

Equally, I do not impose my views on anybody.

My mother fasts for those nine days, and I respect her for that. I don’t fast or observe any denial, and she loves me without any fuss despite that. We’re liberals.

Mob (tempers reaching a crescendo now): You pretender, irreligious man; you “non-sanskari” skunk; why does your wife still keep her maiden name?

Me: So, what’s wrong with that? She has her own identity, and I am proud of her for that. Even Lord Krishna believed in the full equality of man and woman…

Mob (now out of control, breaking through the windows, beginning to lynch my driver and me): What, you are desecrating Lord Krishna? Are you insulting Lord Hanuman? Are you abusing Lord Rama? You don’t deserve to live, you bloody urban Naxal…

Members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini at a protest. (Photograph: PTI)
Members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini at a protest. (Photograph: PTI)

I woke up in cold sweat, physically feeling the swarthy paws picking the flesh off my bones. It took me a while to figure out that my lynching was not real, that I had had a terrible nightmare.

As I sipped water to calm my nerves, I realised, in the dead of that awful night, that my hallucination was a hallucination!

Because it wasn’t a hallucination. It was the bitter truth.

In today’s India, whether you are an atheist or believer, a karma-yogi or ritually devout, a Leftist or Liberal, a fast-keeper or temple-goer or neither, heaven help you if you disagree with ‘the mob’.

Then you are simply an ‘Urban Naxal’.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.