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Exclusive: Umar Khalid Says #BhimaKoregaon Arrests A Crackdown On Dissent

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JNU scholar and a youth icon Umar Khalid, who has been the voice of dissent since the 2016 JNU row and recently survived a gunshot outside the Constitution Club of India (CCI), spoke to me on the recent developments and the repeated attempts by the Centre to subvert the constitutional commitment towards Right to express.

On Tuesday, homes of nine renowned activists were searched, and five of them were arrested by police officials in a multi-city raid. There were allegations that these activists were associated with banned Maoist organisations and were allegedly conspiring to topple the government. The raids and arrests have once again sparked a national debate on the status of dissent in India.

Lately, in India, those who have been critical of the government have been attacked either physically or online- through threats and constant trolling. Public intellectuals and journalists like Shujaat Bukhari, Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh have been assassinated for speaking truth to power.

Q1: Being associated with academics yourself, what do you feel when you see professors, journalists and activists getting arrested? 

Umar: See, this is not the first time that something like this has happened. It reminds me of what happened in JNU two years ago. What we have seen in the past few days, which will increase in the coming days, is that there’s a plot to create a fabricated narrative, to create fictitious enemies of the state and to hide the real problems of the people and divert attention away from them. So, yesterday it was portrayed that JNU is the biggest threat to the unity and the integrity of the nation. What do we see? That two and a half years after the arrests, after all the sensationalism of the media which has continued till today. In two and a half years, the police are not able to file something as basic as a chargesheet so that the trial can begin. And once again we see there is an attempt to sort of twist the narrative of what happened in Bhima Koregaon.
There was an attempt to twist the narrative since day one. So first it was said that Umar and Jignesh are responsible for it because of their inciting speeches. But, that could not sustain. Then they brought this entire story, a concoction, of a Maoist involvement and then subsequently a plot to assassinate the prime minister. We had arrests in June, and now we have more arrests today. So, on the one hand, there is an attempt to divert attention from the real issue of Bhima Koregaon, on the other hand there is also an attempt to divert the attention from the failures of the Modi government.

Q2. When these crackdowns happen, they happen on the basis of intimidation. Is there a pattern that you see in here?

Umar: That’s what in this case at least, the people who were arrested, or who the police tried to arrest, two of them were lawyers. Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj, so they would have been trained in the intricacies of laws and the constitution. Even the others were activists, so they would also know. But if this happens to a common person, you can imagine the plight of that person.

Corrupt, anti-people, and anti-poor government is now trying to divert the attention away, and it is targeting those people who are standing up for the poor, who are standing up against corruption, and who are questioning the government. I believe these kind of crackdowns are going to intensify every day.

In fact, the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court noted that Police did not even have the proper papers and did not follow the proper procedures while arresting these activists. But, I think intimidation today, starts much before these arrests. It begins with the media trials and online trolling that are targeted against the people who are criticising Modi. For example, in my case, I have two FIRs with me. In both the cases, the allegation against me was based on from TV debates. It was as if the script had been written in studios. And I see the same thing being vindicated again. Republic TV has been demonising Gautam Navlakha as well as Sudha Bharadwaj for about 2-3 months, calling them all kinds of things like ‘tukde tukde’ gang, Maoist conspirators, etc. Sudha Bharadwaj even sent a legal notice to Republic TV, when the channel defamed her. It seems that they have picked up the news channels, so it’s like a collusion that is happening. Our institutions, be it Police or media, are being overtaken by the RSS. Media channels might be private channels, but because a BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar directly funds republic TV this collusion is very brazen now.

Q3. Since you have brought out the problem of the media- we live in a democratic space, what do you feel is the role of the media to ensure that India thrives as a functional democracy?

Umar: I think the biggest challenge in India today is the danger to democracy, and that’s not just me saying. Even four SC judges in an unprecedented press conference noted that there is a threat to the Democracy in India. They were saying this with reference to the government’s interference in the functioning of the Apex Court. Even by watching what has been unfolding in the country and the media houses, one is to locate that it is the most massive attack on democracy because media is the fourth pillar of democracy. Every attack on the press is an attack on democracy.So two things are happening- one is that section of the media abandoning their ethics with a lot of shameless pride. Their journalistic duties are to question people in power. But, instead, they are becoming spokespersons of those in power. That is not something that media channels are supposed to do.

Secondly, while on the one hand you have journalists completely sold off, few refuse to sell out and succumb. Such journalists are being threatened in many ways.However, I think one of the most positive things that have emerged over the last four years despite its negative effect as well, is social media and I think portals like yours [Youth Ki Awaaz] and many others which are not controlled by the kind of big money that floats and makes easier for the government to control. I hope that all of those who are concerned about the democracy, media houses that are concerned about democracy play a journalistic role in true spirit.

Q4. Considering that you have worked with tribal rights and your research is based on that, do you think that the reason for people working for tribal rights or minority rights, are being silenced because of the government- working hand in hand with major corporations like Vedanta or Reliance?

Umar: Absolutely, and the fifth schedule of the Indian Constitution says that the land that belongs to tribals cannot be given over without the consent of the tribals. What do we see instead the government doing? In fact, the previous government also did that, I am not going to give a clean chit [to Congress].” 

BJP has intensified this much more aggressively in the last few years. The government is giving forest lands to multinational corporations, outing the Indian Constitution most blatantly. This is why you have this entire crisis in tribal regions where you have protests happening.  Not just in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, we even saw this in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu how the base of Vedanta, the police shot down people, shot down poor people.

Frankly speaking,  today feels like the return of the ‘Company Raj’, earlier it was the East India Company, now it is Reliance group of companies and Adani group of companies and Vedanta.

Q5. In the recent arrests those who have been fighting for tribal rights have been targeted. Do you think these arrests took place because the corporates felt threatened? Since these corporates are big funders of the government, do you think this is why the arrests have happened?

Umar: I’ll slightly digress before answering your question. Look at someone like Sudha Bharadwaj. She gave up her American citizenship and came back to India. She doesn’t live in a place like Delhi or Mumbai, but goes to Bilaspur and lives with people. She works for the most marginalised section of the society and provides legal assistance to oppressed people. But, today she is being portrayed as someone who is against the nation. It’s so shameless, that someone like Arnab Goswami, who never comes out of his air-conditioned studio, earns in crores, moves with Z+ security, and is pliant because he doesn’t love the nation but loves only money, is calling people like Sudha Bharadwaj anti-national, working against the interest of the country. Nothing can be more farcical than that.

I only get angry when I look at this entire thing. The kind of life Sudha Bharadwaj lived, where she gave up privileges to work for the poor, is not a dream that corporates want to sell. In fact, 99.9% of the people do not realise the dreams that the corporates want to sell in the first place. It is something that you become acquisitive; you acquire your gains pushing out all of this. Just like they push out all adivasis to acquire mineral resources and lands. This is why people like Sudha Bharadwaj will always become a threat to the corporations. And yes the government is working on the base of corporations.

Adani has given [Modi] so much support in the last few years. Let’s not forget before 2002 riots Adani was a small-time businessman in Gujarat. It was at a time when the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce was going against Modi for the 2002 riots. That is when Adani supported Modi and fortunes changed after that. He was given crores, Special Economic Zones, all kinds of natural resources in India. He rose to become one of the most prominent capitalists of the country. He has now contracts across the world, and it’s not only Indians, even in Australia people are protesting against Adani for the ecological damage some of his projects are doing there.

So, it is like Modi is paying back Adani for his investment in Modi’s campaign. And, the dedicated activists who have worked for the downtrodden for decades are being put behind bars. I mean if this is not emergency and fascism, then what is?

Q6. How important is it in a democracy to be able to voice your dissent? What is the current status or how much space do people have for dissent in the country at the moment?

Umar: See, the government is trying very hard to take away our right to dissent. However, I would congratulate all of us for not letting the government do that.  First, they went after universities and then polarised Hindu-Muslim. This was followed by several episodes of mob lynching and attacks on minorities, on Dalits. Now, they are going after human rights activists and public intellectuals. Rationalists and intellectuals like Dabholkar to Gauri Lankesh have been assassinated. Every time they have tried to silence the voice, or every time they have tried to attack an institution, it’s so heartening to see that so many people have risen up and called out the injustice.

When we talk about dissent, we have to understand that we are a country of 130 crore people, it’s impossible for everyone to agree on every change or any change. I mean, such a significant population will always disagree, and that is what keeps our democracy vibrant and dull. It’s not possible for 130 crore people of India to have one culture, one religion, one language, one thought, one kind of food habit. This is the diversity of India, but RSS ideology is that one nation, one culture, one religion, one language. It’s inherently a violent project, to enforce this project you have to eliminate those who don’t fit in. For them, the vast majority of Indian population does not fit in their idea of a Hindu Rashtra. Someone does not fit because of his or her caste; someone does not fit because of his or her religion, someone for sexuality, someone for language, someone’s food habits or for someone’s political thoughts. So, this is why I call it a fascist project.

(Umar Khalid is currently pursuing a P.Hd on Adivasis in Singhbhum, Jharkhand from Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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