On June 6, the police in the Indian State of Maharashtra arrested five activists for having organised the Elgar Parishad – a public meeting conducted on December 31, 2017 – to celebrate the bicentenary of the historic battle of Bhima-Koregaon. The meeting was also to discuss ways to counter the rising right-wing tide in India. In the aftermath of the arrests, the government also claimed to have ‘discovered’ a letter which proved that these activists were part of a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their arrest has sparked a strong backlash and condemnation by organizations within India and across the world. Organizations in India have circulated this statement for endorsements in India and internationally to pressure for the release of these activists. ENDORSEMENTS CAN BE SENT TO [email protected]
We, as an international community of activists, lawyers, artists, academics, students and citizens strongly condemn the unlawful persecution and arrests of pro-people activists Shoma Sen, Advocate Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, and Mahesh Raut by the Maharashtra Police and demand for their immediate and unconditional release.
At around 6 am on the 6th of June, Professor Shoma Sen – Head of the English Department in Nagpur University and a long time Dalit1 and women’s rights activist, Advocate Surendra Gadling – General Secretary of the Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers (IAPL), who has been relentlessly fighting cases of human rights violations, Sudhir Dhawale – editor of the Marathi magazine Vidrohi and founder of the Republican Panther – Caste Annihilation Movement, Rona Wilson – human rights activist and Secretary of Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP) and Mahesh Raut – anti-displacement activist working with Gram Sabhas in the mining areas of Gadchiroli, Central India and a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow – had their houses raided and were arrested from different locations in Nagpur, Bombay, and Delhi by the Maharashtra police. This was reportedly in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon agitation that took place in January 2018.
For those who don’t know, the Bhima-Koregaon agitation refers to the planned violence and rioting unleashed by right wing Hindutva forces enjoying the patronage of the ruling party at the Centre and the State. These forces attacked the peaceful procession of tens of thousands of Dalit-Bahujan people marching to commemorate the bicentennial of the legendary victory of the Dalit forces against the dominant upper caste Peshwai regime in 1818, in Pune, Maharashtra. Several persons were injured and one even succumbed to their injuries due to the attack. However, the two main accused, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, both members of right wing Hindu supremacist groups are roaming free without any strict police action or charges even today. In response to the attacks from right-wing forces, Prakash Ambedkar – a leader of the Dalit movement, and founder of the Bharatiya Republican Paksh – Bahujan Mahasangh Party, called for a strike that was observed across the state of Maharashtra and supported by several Dalit, Maratha and Muslim groups. This was a historic act of diverse oppressed communities coming together against the new dominant Peshwai – a neoliberal, fascist, brahminical State. The police retaliated by conducting mass arrests of more than 5000 Dalit-bahujan protesters including children, while the mainstream media blacked out this witchhunt.
All the activists arrested on the 6th morning were already being harassed by the State and its organs because of their work against State-sponsored violence on oppressed groups like the dalits, indigenous peoples, muslims and women. While people like Mahesh Raut have been fighting alongside local communities against State and corporate land grab, and the resultant exploitation of indigenous communities and natural resources, Adv. Gadling has been fighting out these battles in the court room and representing many Dalits and indigenous people accused and arrested under false charges and draconian laws. He is also a legal counsel in the case of Dr. G.N. Saibaba, a Delhi University professor with 90% disabilities, who has been accused of having Maoist links and whose case is coming up for hearing soon. Similarly, Shoma Sen has been intensely involved in various human rights campaigns against State repression and has regularly raised her voice to bring out true stories from the ground, both in her role as an academic and an activist. Sudhir Dhawale is a well-known Dalit rights activist and writer who was arrested in 2011 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) but was acquitted in 2014 due to lack of evidence. Rona Wilson is a long-time activist and strong critic of draconian laws such as UAPA, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). It is hardly surprising that these five activists who have vocally opposed state repression, have been booked under the charges of UAPA, a draconian law that infringes on basic freedoms by criminalising any ideology or association declared a threat to the State.
In April, these activists had their houses raided, electronic equipments and documents seized by the Maharashtra Police, who also raided the homes of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) cultural activists Rupali Jadhav, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe, Dhawala Dhengale and Republican Panther activist Harshali Potdar. The initial FIR at Vishrambaug Police Station, Pune, named Sudhir and other KKM members. FIRs had also been filed against Dalit activist and MLA Jignesh Mevani from Gujarat and student activist Umar Khalid who had been invited to speak at the Bhima-Koregaon celebrations. Later, the prosecution made an appeal to add the names of Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson to the chargesheet. The names of Mahesh Raut and Shoma Sen were never mentioned in court papers. The recent arrests of these activists in the context of the Bhima Koregaon agitation is suspicious as some of those arrested weren’t involved in the celebrations or the agitation that followed. However, when seen in the context of today’s fascist regime, it reeks of a well-planned, desperate move by the State to remove all voices that stand to challenge or critique it, like it has been doing all along – in different parts of India- Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Kashmir and the North East, and elsewhere.
Today we live under a fascist state which kills with impunity and will go to any lengths to preserve existing structures of inequality fuelled by neoliberal, communal, capitalist, patriarchal and casteist forces, to protect the interests of the big corporations, the dominant classes and castes. On the one hand, the State is trying to deter people’s power from rising to challenge it by using the very power and platforms vested in it by the people in good faith and on the other, it is promoting a new kind of vigilantism and hooliganism where anyone fulfilling the State-corporate agenda goes scot-free and those trying to protect constitutional and democratic values get maligned, threatened, incarcerated and even killed.
This attack on activists is nothing new under this regime. Rational thinkers like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were brutally murdered by members of right wing Hindutva groups in broad daylight. Common citizens like Junaid, Akhlakh and Pehlu Khan are being lynched simply because they don’t fit the bill of the good Hindu citizen in a strong Hindu nation. Trade unions like the MSS (Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti) in Jharkhand are being banned and several rights-based groups and individuals are being blacklisted, having their bank accounts frozen or are being accused in false cases. People’s leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Raavan’ of Uttar Pradesh and Bacha Singh of Jharkhand , journalists like Teesta Setalvad, professors like Dr. G.N. Saibaba, student activists, cartoonists and all democratic voices are being booked and branded under draconian laws. Media trials, a culture of fake news and social media persecution are being used to poison public sentiments against those who are daring to speak truth to power and to instil fear in the hearts of the rest. There is blatant lawlessness as those vested with the power of maintaining law and order, and justice are turning into the biggest abusers thereof. The murder of citizens protesting the Sterlite copper factory by the police forces in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu or the fake encounter killings of 40 alleged ‘Maoists’ in Gadchiroli recently, many of who were minors and local adivasis (indigenous people), are only among the latest in a series of such violations – a chilling reminder of how it is not some alleged underground organisation but the very State in which people have vested their power and good faith that is openly threatening democracy, peace and stability.
- This brutal clampdown on Dalit assertions by a Brahminical state and neoliberal fascist regime.
- The continuous violent suppression of dissenting voices and defenders of most marginalised groups in the name ofcurbing anti-national threats and Naxal terror.
- The shameless impunity given to the Police and military/para-military forces to protect the interests of corporatesand dominant class/castes.
- The free reign given to vigilante groups to protect and promote the idea of a Hindu Nation, by a State that claims tobe secular and democratic.
- The blatant abuse of power by the State using draconian laws like UAPA, AFSPA, and POTA as weapons to silencepeople protesting the anti-people agenda of the Government of Maharashtra and Government of India.
- The media trials and building of false narratives along with judicial delays and irregularities leading to poisoning ofpublic opinion around those arrested.
- The immediate and unconditional release of Professor Shoma Sen, Advocate Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and other political prisoners of the Indian State.
- The immediate and complete strikedown of UAPA and all draconian laws such as AFSPA, POTA used to terrorize people across the country and give unchecked power to the police and the military.
- An end to the vindictive harassment and state repression of all those activists and intellectuals who organized or spoke at the Elgaar Parishad
- A high-level investigation into the widespread violence organized against Dalit, OBC and Muslim communities in the aftermath of the Bhima-Koregaon commemoration.
- Immediate arrest of Sambhaji Bhide on serious charges of rioting, attempt to murder and under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, and cancellation of bail of Milind Ekbote.
1. Dalit is a term used to describe a group historically oppressed by the hugely exploitative caste system which deems certain groups as fundamentally superior while relegating others to menial tasks and a life of indignity.