Anand Teltumbde: On India’s rising authoritarian tide

Published on: September 4, 2018
On 28 August 2018, homes of several civil-rights activists, lawyers and writers across India were raided by the Maharashtra police for having ‘links’ with Maoists. Of these, five were arrested, in what is seen as a highly controversial, and authoritarian, attempt to silence dissenters. The Supreme Court has halted the five activists’ immediate arrest and put them under house arrest, saying that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy” and “if you don’t allow the safety valve pressure cooker will burst.”

Anand Teltumbde
Photo: dgSolidarity / Youtube

Anand Teltumbde, a public intellectual and a civil-rights activist based in Goa, was among the nine whose home was raided. He has authored many books and written numerous articles. Some of his books are: Dalits: Past, Present and FutureMahad: The Making of the First Dalit RevoltThe Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid and most recently, Republic of Caste. In this interview, Teltumbde describes the impact of his harassment by the police, what lies behind Indian government’s increasingly authoritarian moves, and why the term ‘urban Naxals’ has gained political currency.

Himal Southasian: Your home was raided as part of the simultaneous raids across cities in India. What in your opinion led to this action on the part of the government?
Anand Teltumbde: Frankly speaking, I cannot even imagine that such a thing could happen to me. I did know about the earlier raids and arrests of five persons, one of them, Professor Shoma Sen, being an executive member of the organisation, the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), of which I am the general secretary. It is one of the civil-rights organisations that were born after the Emergency and, in its heyday, had illustrious people in Maharashtra, like the celebrated Vijay Tendulkar, associated with it. Other notable organisation that I am part of is the All India Forum for Rights to Education (AIFRTE), of which I am one of the presidium members. This nine-year-old federated organisation is struggling for the educational rights for all children through neighborhood schools. None of these organisations have any connection with violence; rather, any violence, both by the state or any organized group, is taken by us as violation of civil rights of people and is acted against.

Besides this activism, which has been integral part of my life since my school days, I have consistently been a brilliant student. I did my Mechanical Engineering from the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology (VNIT, one of the national institutes of technology), did my MBA from the country’s prestigious institute, IIM, Ahmadabad, and my PhD in Cybernetics Modeling from University of Mumbai. By virtue of my education, I landed up in the corporate sector where I rose up to the rank of executive director of Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL) and ended my corporate stint as managing director and CEO of Petronet India Limited, a holding company in petroleum infrastructure formed by all oil companies in the private sector. After my corporate career, I was invited by the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology as professor in its B-school, where I taught over five years. I came two years ago to Goa as senior professor in one of the premier B-schools in the country, opening for them a center of Big Data Analytics and launched this year a very novel course in the country.

Can anyone in their wildest dreams associate such a profile with Maoism? My role as a defender of peoples’ democratic rights and public intellectual has been in contrast to my formal association with capitalism, both during and after my corporate career.
The only possible reason is that I have been writing critically about the anti-people policies of the government through my column in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), pamphlets and books. I have been doing this as a public intellectual for over the last three decades. I suppose it to be my role and also my fundamental right. But the present government that has been victimising people who have spoken against it would not take it as such and try to incriminate with fabricated evidence.

But to link me with Maoist activities is bizarre by any standard. I personally keep myself very busy with my intellectual activities. Managing an academic course in the frontier technology itself is a challenge requiring full-time engagement. Besides, I have my committed writing schedule for books and columns. Moreover, everything of me, including all my writings, my cell phone number and emails are in the public domain. With such a background, to link me with Maoist-like groups could only be a product of either of poor mind or highhanded recklessness.

HSA: The raids were carried out by the Maharashtra state police. The state government in Maharashtra is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as is the national government. Do you think this action is at the behest of the ruling party?
AT: The entire construction of this weird identity of ‘urban Maoists’ is a carefully carved out strategy of the present government to curb the resistance to its anti-people policies. On the one hand, the government takes credit for decimation of the Maoist movement. Indeed, for over a decade, the governments have been fighting an open war with all its might, against this ill-clad, ill-fed army of tribal people called Maoists. They are increasingly holed up in a small forested part of central India. On the other hand, the state raises a bogey of Maoism, which comes handy for it to keep its armour of draconian legislature and suppress voices of democratic rights. With this invention, they began painting the intellectuals and activists as more dangerous than the gun-wielding Maoists in the forests. It can be applied summarily to anyone who is critical of the government. The only task is to produce some documents, as they have been doing, supposedly recovered from the hard disks of the computers confiscated in the raids of marked up activists. Therefore, raids on the houses of such people become a prerequisite and an integral part of the strategy.

The current episode is so ill-constructed that even a child would fault it, but with the media under its control, the government is going berserk as its lies get exposed, entangling more respected activists who have sacrificed their otherwise brilliant careers and comfortable lives to serve the oppressed people. It all started with an Elgar conference which was organized by two retired judges, one from the supreme court – Justice P B Sawant – and the other from the high court –Justice B G Kolse Patil. More than 300 organisations, belonging to Dalits, OBCs, Marathas and Muslims became part of it. The potential Dalit-Maratha unity portended a threat to the BJP and therefore it commissioned its agents provocateurs –Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide – to break this budding unity by creating a controversy over the tomb of Sambhaji Maharaj, son of Shivaji, who was said to have been cut into pieces by Aurangzeb. However, the entire planning fizzled out as at the local level, and the Dalits and Marathas patched up and ended the controversy.

However, the next day, as planned by Bhide and Ekbote, their goons mounted an attack on the Dalits congregated at Bhima Koregaon. The violence was clearly unleashed on Dalits, and, to that extent, they could not be accused of committing it. But the salvage operation began with accusations that the inflammatory speeches in the conference were responsible for the violence. An FIR was lodged against Jignesh Mevani, the newly elected MLA from Gujarat and a promising young leader, and Umar Khalid, the PhD student in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University]. It irked Dalits, and as their demand for the arrests of Ekbote and Bhide picked up momentum, the police began insinuating Maoist infiltration into the conference. This was a repeat of what happened in the protest movement sparked off after Khairlanji in 2006, when, at the instance of the police, the then home minister had insinuated the infiltration of Naxalites.

Initially, they began the canard that the Elgar Parishad was funded by the Maoists. Justice Kolse Patil has since then been vehemently refuting this police charge but to no avail. It just served as an excuse to conduct raids on the houses of many activists, many of them having nothing to do with Bhima-Koregaon. These raids provided the police an opportunity to produce letters purportedly written by the Maoist leaders that established not only the conspiracy of Bhima-Koregaon but also larger plots like killing Modi. They would, however, not touch the named culprits in Ekbote and Bhide. Ekbote was arrested at the instance of the Supreme Court to be bailed out after a few days and Bhide would get a clean chit from the chief minister. The politics in it was clear, as there were insinuation to Congress and Prakash Ambedkar, who has been trying to forge unity of all opposition parties in Maharashtra. Bhide’s protection gets directly linked with Modi as he adored him publicly.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka police would unearth the network behind the murders of Gauri Lankesh, the last in series of the murders of four rationalists, including Dr Narendra Dabholkar, Com Govind Pansare and Prof M M Kalburgi. Following that, the Maharashtra ATS [Anti-Terrorism Squad] exposed the horrific murder infrastructure linked with Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti. The government, with mere suspicion of plotting the murder of Modi, would slap UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] on the tens of intellectuals and activists, but would be reluctant to arrest the culprits who killed not one but four important people, and who were caught with huge stocks of explosives and arms! As such, these plots of murdering Modi were played out at least four times in Gujarat when he was the chief minister, where many innocent people were encountered to complete the drama, as the SITs [Special Investigation Teams] under supervision of the Supreme Court exposed.

As the demand for action against the Sanatan Sanstha and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti resonated, the government vindictively escalated its actions against the activists, this time the incredible kinds, who had impeccable public reputation of being intellectuals and activists in their own right.

Another dimension to this construction is the electoral strategy of the BJP. In the year of elections, which assumes a ‘do or die’ battle in the scheme of the BJP, in so far as it expects to consummate its long-cherished goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra in India, it is vital to consolidate its constituency with nationalistic credo and weaken the potential unity of those who were not likely to vote for it. Busting the imaginary Maoist network would do this trick: it would steel its own constituency, convert some sections of the Marathas to its side, and Dalits, knowing their allergic attitude to the communist left, would be detached from its radical elements, with the possibility of being wooed to support the BJP.

It is thus clear that the entire operation is going according to the strategy of BJP governments, both at the centre as well as in Maharashtra.

HSA: Harassment of activists and writers through the police and courts appear to be on the rise in India. What other forms of attack on dissent by the government do you foresee?
AT: It is difficult to imagine to what extent the BJP governments will go in decimating dissent. Because, already ‘Maoist’ and ‘terrorist’ tags are being used with impunity to incarcerate people. Up till now, not-so-well-known people were targeted, but this time they have attacked the ones who may be called the topmost pro-people activists and intellectuals in the country. The message is loud and clear to all others: to not speak against the government. There has been an alarming rate of encounter killings in BJP-ruled states, particularly in the Yogi government in Uttar Pradesh. Then there are killer gangs and lynching squads who kill people with impunity. Nothing remains as such undone. What might happen is that the pace of these things may go up still further.

HSA: How will this impact other dissenting voices? How do you cope with the challenge yourself?
AT: Personally, my world is suddenly shattered. The manner in which three police vans entered the campus of my institutes with some two dozen policemen, terrorised people around, and opened my house in our absence despite the advice of senior professors that they should wait for the director to come before opening the house. My students would look at me with bewilderment. Fortunately, the action is so bizarre that none of them believe the government story that I had links with the Maoists. My wide network of friends and professionals may not understand it. All my investment in building a network of Industry Associates for my ambitious Programme on Big Data would go down the drain, endangering the careers of my students who are admitted in the course. There are several repercussions in the professional sphere. But the suffering and mental agony my family is made to undergo is more painful. My wife, the granddaughter of Babasaheb Ambedkar, whom Modi never tires in feigning devotion to, would not have bargained for this fate, without the slightest wrong doing on our parts. I can bet the entire police plot will be exposed as a big fabrication, but it will take years. When the process itself is a punishment, there does not remain a hope of justice. If one goes by record, over 99 percent Maoist-accused are acquitted for the lack of any evidence against them but there is no scope to ask the counter question as to why they were arrested in the first place, who was responsible for their arrest, and holding them accountable, at least compensating the loss the innocent person suffered. It is a bizarre state that the Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to individuals, which are brutally trampled upon by the simple policemen with draconian laws to protect them. Effectively, there is no defence for an individual against the mighty state. Basically, there is no accountability for the powers that be in India. It tears apart all pretensions of this country to be a democracy!
It is a scary prospect that I shudder to imagine.

HSA: You have compared what is happening today in India with what happened during the Emergency. What are the similarities and are there significant differences?
AT: The Emergency was certainly a nightmare for the Indian people and needs to be condemned. But all said and done, it was according to the Constitution. It was a declared emergency, which would come to an end. But the current repression is worse because it ordinarily crushes people without any need to declare extraordinary circumstances. It only reminds one of the fascist formations in Italy in the 1930s and Nazi ones in Germany in the 1940s. It creates new normals that are antitheses of democracy.

HSA: You have described Indian democracy as a ‘fascistic democracy’. Can you explain your use of the term?
AT: India flaunts itself as the biggest democracy in the world, but if you take a close look, you will find that it has been the rule of moneybags and traditional high-caste elites from the beginning. The label of democracy is only justified by the periodic elections that happen in the country. But the entire design of these elections (first past the post) has been such that they could be won only with money and muscle power. The poor people and minority communities remain effectively disenfranchised. The entire colonial infrastructure that the post-colonial state adopted for governance became, in the hands of the native ruling classes, a monopoly of power of the upper castes backed by the money power of the businesses. Implanted on the feudal culture, it takes the fascist form right from the village level to the level of capital.

HSA: While the term ‘anti-national’ has been applied to a wide range of dissenting people and opinions, why do you think labels like ‘Naxals’ or ‘urban Naxals’ have been applied in particular to the individuals arrested or raided this week?
AT: The anti-national is a propaganda label; it does not have punitive provision in law. But Maoist becomes a dreaded label particularly because the Maoist Party is a banned party. Antinational could be used in a jingoistic manner to denigrate targetted people in the society, and, of course, to instigate the so called ‘nationalist’ gangs to teach them a lesson. But ‘Naxals’ and ‘urban Naxals’ are used to punish people who are anti-government. Both are dissents, but it differs in kind as well as in degree. Both can be arbitrarily pasted on people; the former just to denigrate a person in public but the latter to materially devastate him.

HSA: What kind of response do you think is necessary to resist the tide of authoritarianism in the country?
AT: Authoritarianism is ingrained in the Indian system, but it has intensified since the 1990s with the Social Darwinist ethos of neoliberalism. The previous authoritarianism was accommodative in the sense that it operated on a cultural substratum of caste. It did not have to be ruthless. But post-1990, the ruling classes are extra vigilant to suppress any resistance in the bud. This is manifested everywhere in the galloping increase in budget allocations on the police and military during the first decade of globalisation.

It requires a broad mass movement to demand repeal of all draconian laws. Basically they serve as the instruments to terrorise people into silence. I expect, with the extreme point having been reached, the people would wake up to the reality and come together to dismantle the infrastructure of state terrorism. An independent commission should be set up to examine constitutionality of this infrastructure from the standpoint of fundamental rights of an individual. If an individual does not have a defence against the mighty state, the entire constitutional superstructure is useless.

HSA: Do you see the emergence of a political force that would provide that resistance?
AT: Unfortunately, I do not think it is happening at the moment. But there is a huge accumulated unease in people which is bound to create the requisite political force not in the very distant future. The BJP under the tutelage of the Modi-Shah duo has played a risky game to fortify its electoral position, but, in the process, has alienated even its supporters. The demonetisation bereft of any economic rationale, the implementation of the GST without proper planning, the Hindutva hoodlums enjoying the confidence of the state machinery, and the galloping of atrocities on Dalits, Adivasis, women, Muslims and those who speak against the government has sufficiently annoyed people who supported it until recent elections. What is needed is the leadership to translate this massive disgruntlement of the masses into a coherent resistance force. I am hopeful this will be done soonest.

First published on https://himalmag.com