Why democracy is under siege in India

September 20, 2018

A series of police raids in India last month that led to the arrests of prominent activists is a further escalation of the right wing government’s authoritarianism and scapegoating. Pranav Jani explains what’s at stake — and how the left is responding.

“JUST AS we are euphoric, and there is enough reason to be euphoric, we can also see the times we are living in. There are gross human rights violations of activists, social workers, and it has been going on for a long time.”

These are the words of Poushali, an LGBTQ activist celebrating the end of the legal ban against consensual gay sex in front of the Supreme Court of India on September 6.

As Poushali emphasizes, the euphoria was widespread and fully justified: The end of the ban, the result of the struggle of generations of LQBTQ activists, was a historic day for human rights in India.

As the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the anti-gay portion of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a legacy of British colonialism, it took a firm stand against homophobia, calling the law “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary.”

And the Court went further: It not only decriminalized gay sex, but insisted that queer Indians deserved all of the rights and protections of the Indian Constitution. Justice Indu Malhotra stated that history “owes an apology to members of the community for the delay in ensuring their rights.”

Protesters rally against a wave of police raids against human rights activists
Protesters rally against a wave of police raids against human rights activists

Yet to activists like Poushali, this victory needs to be not an end, but a beginning — in struggling for greater rights for LGBTQ people and in protesting the accelerating detention and incarceration of political activists under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Thus, among the posters in front of the Supreme Court celebrating the verdict and affirming queer love were signs that explicitly joined the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights with the struggle for freedom from police and state repression.

These signs called for the scrapping of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) of 1967 that allows the government to detain anyone deemed to be opposed to the sovereignty and integrity of India.

Under the UAPA, five human rights activists were arrested as part of a major, nationwide police raid on August 28. While the Supreme Court had shown them a degree of leniency, it still commanded them to remain under house arrest until September 17.

By explicitly pointing to August 28, Poushali and fellow activists were righly drawing attention to a larger crisis in Indian democracy, even as they celebrated the September 6 victory.


AUGUST 28 marked the accelerating repression of the Indian state under Modi’s Raj.

In an orchestrated series of raids, police from Pune (90 miles southeast of Mumbai) sent teams to cities across the country, targeting the homes of poets, lawyers and intellectuals who have been prominent in fighting for the rights of Dalits (the most oppressed castes) and Adivasis (Indigenous peoples), and for human rights in general.

Five prominent activists from different parts of the country were arrested under the UAPA and sections of the Indian Penal Code: Sudha Bharadwaj (a lawyer from Faridabad), Gaurav Navlakha (a journalist from Delhi), Varavara Rao (a poet from Hyderabad), Arun Ferreira (a lawyer from Thane) and Vernon Gonsalves (a lawyer from Mumbai).

The homes of Dalit scholars K. Satyanarayana (Hyderabad) and Anand Teltumbde (Goa), civil rights activist Stan Swamy (Ranchi), and Hyderabad journalists Kranthi Tekula and K.V. Kurmanath were raided.

Police ransacked homes, seizing laptops, hard drives and mobile phones. They scoured bookshelves — turning possession of books by Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Dalit leader Dr. B.R Ambedkar into evidence of criminality.

Kurmanath told reporters that the police were particularly interested in Dalit writing. When he showed them an anthology of Dalit short stories in Telugu, they were outraged — “as if it were a crime to read books about Dalits,” Kurmanath said.

As Satyanarayan told The Hindu:

They kept addressing me as “professor” all the time, but they were also insulting my position: ‘Have you really read all these books? Do you need a university like this? What is its use to society? Girl students wear short dresses, this is a campus following foreign values,” and so on. The assaultive gaze moved from me to my university, my students, my cultural life, my values; they wanted me to be somebody else. It was very clear they wanted to humiliate me.

As the New Socialist Initiative wrote in a statement against the raids and arrests, “Police had the gall to question [Satyanarayna’s] wife why (despite being a Brahmin) she has opted for intercaste marriage (with a Dalit) and why does not she puts sindoor [the customary mark of a married Hindu woman] on her forehead.”


THOSE ARRESTED have been charged with inciting the violence at Bhima-Koregoan, near Pune, on January 1 of this year, when a popular, annual Dalit festival, drawing hundreds of thousands of Dalits, was attacked by a Hindu fundamentalist mob. Days of protests and strikes followed, flowing into Mumbai and leading to one death and significant property damage.

Since that day, rather than going after the right-wing organizations and hooligans involved in the violence, the government has been trying to claim that the Dalit groups were following the lead of leftists, particularly members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has been active in battling the government in tribal regions of eastern and central India.

In fact, the web of conspiracy that the government is trying to construct includes accusations that the arrestees were involved in working with Maoist rebel insurgents, plotting the assassination of Narendra Modi, and abetting activists organizing for rights and freedom for Kashmir, the border region where India maintains a brutal occupation.

Police say that the August 28 raids and arrests were based on evidence gathered from the June 6 arrests of five other activists, also detained under the UAPA for Maoist associations and the Bhima-Koregoan violence. These are Sudhir Dhawale (a Dalit activist and editor of the Marathi Dalit magazine Virodhi), Rona Wilson (a Delhi activist who worked with jailed professor G.N. Saibaba), Surendra Gadling (a lawyer in Nagpur), Shoma Sen (a professor in Nagpur) and Mahesh Raut (an activist in Nagpur).

But 80-year old Varvara Rao refuted these claims: “The police cannot do anything other than arrest me and foist false cases against me. The people arrested by the Pune police had all been working for the downtrodden and the release of political prisoners. They are not involved in murder politics.”

Alongside these arrests, a trial-by-media is going on. Activists for Dalit and Indigenous rights, Kashmiri self-determination and human rights have long been painted with the “anti-national” brush.

Now — as the Radical Socialists explained in a statement — a new term, “Urban Naxal,” is circulating among media outlets like Republic TV.

The aim is to suggest that these activists are the urban counterparts to the Maoist “Naxalite” guerillas fighting the government in rural areas. That image itself is a construct, as the Maoists are diverse in their ideology, organization and areas of work.

The association is intended “to deprive citizens, accused of being urban Naxalites, the democratic rights that everyone is supposed to have,” in the words of the Radical Socialists.


THE IDEOLOGICAL dimension of the government and media narrative is clear. Various sites of insurgency and protest — by Dalits, by Kashmiris, by Maoists and the left, by human rights lawyers and writers, by students and professors — are to be linked together with labels like “urban Naxal” and “terrorist” to scare ordinary people into submission.

This attack on individual writers and lawyers is part of a larger context of violence.

During the last four years of BJP rule, India has witnessed everything from full-scale pogroms, to street-level lynchings of Dalits and Muslims, to the repeated suppression of campus activism, to so-called “anti-Romeo” policing of youth designed to keep communities apart.

Sometimes vigilantes carry out the violence, and sometimes police do, but all of this is part of a divide-and-conquer strategy that depends on whipping up hatred and prejudice.

By persecuting everyone from the most downtrodden and oppressed to middle-class activists, students and lawyers, the Modi government, the police and right-wing forces are sending a message: Do not resist, or you will pay a price.

As this article was being written, for instance, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi reported violence and beatings by members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), after the left swept the JNU Students’ Union elections.

The list of individual activists and writers killed by vigilantes continues to grow.

In September 2017, the outspoken journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed outside her home in Bengaluru — and many in the media had the gall to blame her for her own death. Communist leader Govind Pansare was killed in September 2015, and a Hindu fundamentalist activist was arrested for the crime. The rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Malleshappa Madivalappa Kulburgi were killed in 2013 in Maharashtra and Karnataka, respectively.

Plus, the incarceration of G.N. Saibaba, a Delhi University professor, has angered many on the Indian left and in the wider human rights community. Arrested first under the UAPA in May 2014 for being “an urban contact” of the Maoists, he was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 despite his severe disabilities.


THE INDIAN left, unions and social justice activists were quick to come together to condemn the raids.

Writer and activist Arundhati Roy — no stranger to being targeted for repression herself — spoke for many when she said the raids felt like the 1975-77 declaration of emergency under Congress Party leader Indira Gandhi, which saw the suppression of civil liberties and the muzzling and jailing of intellectuals and the press, alongside attacks on workers and the poor. Roy wrote:

That the raids are taking place on the homes of lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals — instead of on those who make up lynch mobs and murder people in broad daylight — tells us very clearly where India is headed...What is happening is absolutely perilous. It is in preparation for the coming elections [in 2019]. We cannot allow this to happen. We have to all come together. Otherwise we will lose every freedom that we cherish.

In its statement, the group Radical Socialist insisted that the “growing openness of the far-right violence needs to be understood with clarity”:

The attacks on secular and rationalist activists, leading to the murders of Kalburgi, Pansare, Dabholkar, Lankesh; the attempt a few days ago on Umar Khalid; the mass lynchings in the name of cow protection in large parts of north India; the attacks on Dalits and Adivasis including driving Rohith Vemula to suicide, the violence in Una, and the violence in early 2018 in connection with the annual celebration by Dalits of the Bhima Koregaon battle; the violence unleashed by state as well as far right forces on Adivasis; are all tied together.

Demonstrations and rallies emerged everywhere, petitions have been circulated against these atrocities, and even the Supreme Court showed a little leniency, first rebuffing police requests to disqualify a petition from well-known intellectuals like Romila Thapar and Prabhat Patnaik, and then allowing those arrested to remain under house arrest until September 17.


THOSE WHO have been detained are extremely well known, have stood up for the rights of oppressed continuously and have faced persecution before.

For example, Sudha Bharadwaj is a human rights lawyer who has fought for Adivasi and workers’ rights for 30 years in the state of Chattisgarh. A member of the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, she participated in the National Human Rights Council in 2013, investigating the government’s “Salwa Judum” massacres in 2009 in Kondasawali village.

As the Indian Express reported: “A day after Sudha Bharadwaj’s arrest, there were small, symbolic protests...against the police action throughout Chhattisgarh by different groups that have worked with her over the years. There were protests held by union workers of Bhilai Steel Plant, among her lawyer colleagues in Bilaspur, and from people across social organisations in Raipur.”

A statement by the Federation of Central Universities Teachers Association stands out. It defends Prasad Pannian, a professor who, in another incident, was suspended as chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the Central University of Kerala-Kasargod for writing a Facebook post opposed to the university’s handling of Ganthoti Nagaraju, a Dalit activist and researcher.

Rallies and solidarity statements like these are helping to connect local organizations and struggles to the fight against persecution of individual activists — and draw attention to the larger struggles of the oppressed and exploited.

Those targeted, like K. Satyanarayana, are defiant. In a detailed interview with The Hindu, speaking of his struggles as a Dalit, Satyanarayana reads the targeting of intellectuals like him as an attempt to devalue his work in Dalit Studies and to send a message to the community as a whole.

But Satyanarayana will not budge: “I will continue to teach as I used to. They cannot stop me from teaching Marx, Ambedkar, Phule. If they think by threatening me and intimidating me, they can stop me, they are mistaken.”


SOME ARGUE that this sort of draconian raid, condemned even by many liberals, shows a government that is in crisis and desperately needs to create scapegoats. Others believe the raids and arrests are, in fact, the sign of intensifying repression under the Modi regime, and a taste of what’s to come.

Either way, these are symptoms of a deeper crisis that oppressed groups feel every day. While the Indian ruling class has deepened the country’s integration into the global capitalist market and built its military through a closer relationship with the U.S., ordinary people have increasingly felt the inequalities of everyday life — as the recent mass protests and strikes against oil price hikes show.

In the face of the 30-year rise of Hindu fundamentalist ideology and BJP electoral victories, and the decline of the Communist left, the obstacles to building a unified alternative can seem overwhelming.

But each struggle matters — building solidarity at every step matters.

For Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde, one of those whose house was raided, it is high time that Dalits and the left build the links that the government accuses them of having. As Teltumbde said in a long interview after the raids, the only way forward was “to build a broad class unity of masses against the Hindutva fascist forces.”

This doesn’t mean ignoring oppressions like caste, but revealing the importance of all workers and anti-fascists opposing caste discrimination. According to Teltumbde:

The masses who also constitute the working class need to be educated to see the importance of the annihilation of caste for fortifying the class unity of all people. This united front of broad progressive people could take up anti-caste struggle and class struggle simultaneously, progressively complementing the strength of each. There are issues in plenty to actualize these struggles.

This kind of solidarity and holistic thinking was on display among the LGBTQ activists celebrating their victory at the Supreme Court earlier this month.

As the Indian Express reported, one sign at the protest declared: “I’m no longer a criminal but Sudha Bharadwaj still is.” Another said: “Meri teacher maange Azadi” (“My teacher demands freedom!”); another targeted Hindu fundamentalism: “Hinduvad ho barbaad, queer abad! (“Destroy Hindutva ideology, queers forever!”).

These signs and the solidarity that they represent demonstrate the importance of that old, reliable slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

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