India: The crackdown on Dalit activism

A prominent Indian intellectual and scholar is the latest activist being targeted by BJP statecraft, writes Tamsin Day.

Marathas and Dalits in a joint protest against agricultural labour standards. Credit: Midhanesh

The latest crackdown on dissent in India is a sobering one. Public intellectual and anti-caste activist Anand Teltumbde is facing imminent arrest under charges of attacking India’s ‘integrity and sovereignty’ under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

He has a matter of weeks to secure bail, before facing arrest by the Pune police – a charge that was upheld by the Indian Supreme Court.

Specifically, Anand was accused of incitement to violence at a conference. His house was raided in an attempt to find evidence of the charges, and sees this as a part of a campaign to brand activists as ‘urban Maoists’.

Speaking to New Internationalist from the West Indian state Maharashtra, he said: ‘It all started with a conference named Elgar Parishad to observe the 200th anniversary of the last Anglo-Maratha battle that was fought on 1 January 1818. It was won by a small band of army in which Dalit soldiers were martyred. It marked the end of brahmanic [upper-caste] rule of Pehswas, said to be extremely oppressive to the Dalits.

‘Since the organization of the Elgar Parishad reflected [the] coming together of the Marathas and the Dalits, two significant communities in Maharashtra politics, they [Sangh Parivar – a pro-BJP ultra-nationalist group] wanted to create a rift by engineering riots on 1 January when some half a million Dalits customarily congregated at the obelisk standing in commemoration of the martyrs at Bhima-Koregaon.

‘The BJP developed this innocuous event into a big “Maoist” plot and, through its police, arrested noted civil rights activists and their known detractors from all over the country to create an impression that there was a wide network of Maoists in urban areas.’

Fearing arrest, Anand told New Internationalist: ‘If they succeed in arresting someone like me they it will send a scare wave to every existing as well as potential detractor and dissenter

Writing in Scroll, Anand explains that the police devise a strategy to gather and produce false evidence, to discredit activists.

‘The police have devised a strategy to create an excuse to raid the homes of their targets in order to get hold of their computers. A school child could explain how easy it is to insert documents into a hard disk at specified places by tinkering with the time clock of a computer. I say this with the authority of a practitioner and teacher of Information Systems.’

Novelist Arundhati Roy spoke in defense of Anand in a statement to Scroll, saying: ‘He has been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which means he can be held without bail for months together on the basis of little or no evidence. The crimes he is being accused of, just as in the case of a host of other teachers, lawyers, activists and ordinary people who have been incarcerated in their hundreds, are beyond preposterous.

‘To arrest him is to try and silence a powerful and unique Dalit voice with an unimpeachable intellectual track record. His impending arrest cannot but be seen as a political act. It will be a shameful and shocking moment in our history.’

Fearing arrest, Anand told New Internationalist: ‘If they succeed in arresting someone like me they it will send a scare wave to every existing as well as potential detractor and dissenter.

‘But things are having unprecedented public backlash. One hopes, they are watching. The wave of protest has caught on the students, youth, professional classes and international community. BJP will pay the cost in the forthcoming elections which they are desperately trying to win.’

A petition to drop the charges signed by academics worldwide has surfaced. The petition, which includes signatories such as Noam Chomsky and Cornell West, condemns the ‘preposterous’ and ‘imminent’ arrest that Dr Teltumbde faces and the ‘fabricated case filed by the Pune police in India under which ten other eminent persons, including human rights activists, lawyers, and public intellectuals, are already under arrest.’