(Image coutesy: PTI and Firstpost)
The recent arrests of “human rights activists” or “urban Naxals”, depending on which channel you are tuned in to, shows again how difficult it is to deal with the Naxalism problem in India.
It is easy to make out those who provides the boots on the ground, wearing as they are military fatigues and carrying deadly automatic firearms, and deal with them as you do with enemy combatants.
Enabling though, which is what I believe defines the label “Urban Naxal”, is impossible to define, and even more impossible to legislate.
It is because short of carrying, storing, and distributing arms and making payments for direct procurement of said arms, much of what constitutes greater Naxalite activity is protected by law. Lawyers have every right to defend Naxalites in courts, doctors are oath-bound to provide them medical help, professors are allowed to challenge the existing order and provoke.
It is not illegal for the Roys to justify violence on the Indian state by calling Naxals as “Gandhiians with guns” or for the advancement of the good violence-bad violence argument—that the violence of the powerless is noble, the violence of those that are in power is not. It might be illegal, because of British era sedition era laws, to ask for the breakup for the country in so many words, but you can easily do the “wet sari move of 90s Bollywood”, that is do what you want to do, but after putting a white sari and water on it, you can put Hindu patriarchial savarna hegemony as a placeholder for the Indian state, you can totally get creative, and legitimately side-step the law. This is incidentally why our favorite krantikaari Umar Khalid denies in every interview that he was part of the gang which raised “Bharat ke tukde honge” because he knows that’s illegal and could lead to jail time, which means less time in front of the media, promoting his personal brand. But then he praises Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri separatist and terrorist, which he knows is legal, the “Choli main dil hai mera” pullback, which then allows his supporters in the media to moan “Haaaaaaiiii” in that Ila Arun quarter-orgasm style, even though, if you think of it, supporting the dissolution of India and supporting a man who is working towards the dissolution of India is not much different.
Which brings me to the fundamental problem of fighting Naxalism. The people who want the destruction of the Constitution fight their battles under the protection of the same Constitution, those people who want to dismember India as a nation seek the protection afforded by the same nation. I know there is more iron in that irony than in Bailadila, but that is the price of being a democracy. “Screw the laws, screw due process, just throw the anti-nationals all into jail” might be a good talking point on your Whatsapp group, but just cannot be what drives law enforcement. Rounding up a few of those considered as enablers might provide good optics for a week, and one might even convince a lower court judge as to their culpability, but inevitably most of these cases get overturned at the higher courts, because law enforcement cannot make the connection between their legitimate activities and those that are demonstrably illegitimate. And once that happens, the narrative of the oppressiveness of the Indian state is strengthened and further legitimized.
Take for example, the latest arrests. Take for example, one individual, Ms. Sudha Bharadwaj. And take for example, one of the accusations against her, of being part of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. The sole evidence provided for this, so far, has been a handwritten letter, purportedly from her, asking for a Rajiv Gandhi-style assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, a letter that to my knowledge was first shown to the world by Republic TV, and then cited by Maharashtra Police, and not, again as far as I know, part of a NIA investigation, which it should be, if it indeed was such a conspiracy.
There is a lot going here that does not pass the smell test. Someone putting down in a letter “I want to kill the Prime Minister” is kind of like Shakti Kapoor as Batuknath, the confidence trickster, talking to the camera, while dancing in delight: “Main lakhpati banoonga, sab kuch mera, haan sab kuch mera”. Funny in Chaalbaaz, not so much as in evidence. Second, if Sudha Bharadwaj is the supreme mastermind as she is being claimed to be, she would know that killing the sitting Prime Minister, without doubt the politician in India today with the biggest personal brand, would give the same “Hindu fascist forces” that the people of her ideological persuasion so obviously despise, the 2019 election in a gift wrap, and the next one too, even with two demonetizations in the middle, given the sympathy wave that would be generated.
It just doesn’t make any sense. The extreme Left may be a lot of things, but they are not stupid.
But let’s turn it around. What if she was guilty, no matter how unlikely I personally believe that to be the case. The thing is that our law enforcement agencies are not able to make charges stick when it comes to “anti-national” acts. Geelani walked. Afzal Guru almost walked. Kasab was unlucky, he got caught on tape and with a gun in his hand.
They fail for two reasons. Firstly, their own lack of investigative competence. They have turf wars, they want to talk to the media first, they do bad detective work, then use strong arm to cover up bad detective work, they do not follow standard procedure during detention, and they neglect the small things, wrong names and wrong dates and inconsistent charge-sheets. Needless to say, they get exposed on every one of them in court.
They get exposed that bad because of reason number two, the people representing those accused of “anti-national” violence, are pretty much the very best legal minds India has. If you think Chennai Super Kings has the most committed fans, well whistle podu to you. They can get Justices to get up at mid-night, they can get the courts to act with a speed that common people can only dream of, and when they stand in court, they bring the full authority of their personas and their reputations and the full power of their indignant outrage to bear.
If you are going to go up against this well-oiled machinery, the government has to have all their ducks in a row. Which they pretty much never do.
Now the counter-argument is that even the government knows that they cannot convict, that the punishment is the process. This is of course true for most of us working a nine to five job, armchair whatsapp activists at best, being arrested and having regular court dates would pretty much break us for good. But we are not talking about us, we are talking about activists, pretty extra-ordinary people, those who believe in something, for whom the cause is bigger than their own individual interests, which is why I, despite disagreeing vehemently with them politically, still respect their commitment.
Kejriwal they are not.
For these individuals, the process is not as much punishment, as it is the ultimate validation of their struggle. It also brings attention to their individual causes, Dr. Binayak Sen became an icon after he was arrested, and I am sure that many who had not heard of Sudha Bharadwaj before will know hear of her, and I am not just talking about Sharma uncle who lives in the corner house, but Sweden and Norway, and human rights bodies, and people with funds and influence.
While we remain, more than ever a nation divided, depending on whether you follow NDTV and The Wire vs Times Now and Republic, what I believe we should all agree on, in the political interests of all concerned, is to insist that our government have a coordinated investigative and media outreach policy when it does such high-profile arrests, that the government goes all out or not at all, that they move only after they have collected enough evidence using legally validated means, in a way that gives them a high chance of conviction, that they do their prep work before coming to the exam hall.
Again I may be proven wrong, but based on what I see, that does not seem to be the case.