Striking quickly and without prior notice, police in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and Goa raided homes and confiscated laptops, cell phones and troves of personal documents. Five activists, including civil rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and the 80-year-old poet Varavara Rao, were arrested.
If the arrests didn’t seem suspicious enough, the narrative the Maharashtra state government strung together to justify the round-ups begged belief. The police accused the activists of being Maoists, members of a violent Communist group in India which for decades has been involved in deadly clashes with government forces.
These activists, the authorities alleged, were the ones behind the riots that erupted in Pune earlier this year at the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon — where on Jan. 1, 1818, Dalits joined British soldiers to defeat the upper-caste army of the ruling Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. Dalits, who have been consigned to the lowest ranks of India’s infamous caste system, celebrate the anniversary of the battle as a moment of victory and pride in their long history of oppression.
So far, authorities have failed to produce convincing evidence to substantiate these allegations. Yet because the activists were arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act — an anti-terrorism law whose elastic provisions allow the government to detain individuals who are deemed a threat to India’s national integrity — it doesn’t need to, at least not yet.
To those who have been following the rise of extremist Hindu nationalism in India, this incident is a troubling development. Already we have seen how these extremists have spread misinformation and galvanized mobs to disturbing incidents of violence.
They have propagated the false tale that Muslims and Christians are fraudulently converting Hindus to their religions. It was this fallacy that led to the brutal murder of a Bengali Muslim last year and to attacks against Christians, not to mention the anti-conversion laws enacted in six states.
They have also prodded crowds against Dalits and Muslims who eat beef or are involved in the cattle trade, which has resulted in assaults and public lynchings.
Even secular, well-known and respected Hindus are not beyond their reach. Just recently, the esteemed activist Swami Agnivesh was assaulted by an angry crowd. Last year’s cold-blooded murder of Gauri Lankesh, a fiery journalist who criticized extremists, is still fresh in our memories, too.
In India’s pluralistic society, extremism doesn’t come from only one group or in one form. For example, the murders of several activists, including Lankesh’s, were traced to an obscure extremist sect. The hits were plotted and executed with chilling precision. Investigators recently uncovered a hit list with names of activists and writers whom the group had designated as targets.
The attack on Swami Agnivesh was sparked by the rumor that he was participating in a conversion ceremony. And the Bengali Muslim was killed by a man who believed the victim was guilty of “love jihad,” a wild theory about Muslim men romancing Hindu girls to convert them to Islam.
Running through all these incidents is the common thread of the ideology spread by nationalist extremists based on their interpretation of their religion. Their views are so radical and narrow that they would be happy to revoke the citizenship of Indians who don’t subscribe to their definition of what it means to be Indian. And that’s what is frightening about the crackdown on activists in India, which so far has led to 10 arrests.
Most of them are Hindu. If secular, moderate Hindus, who really represent historical liberal Hinduism and majority India, cannot speak up without fear of incarceration, then freedom of speech is in grave danger — and with it our other rights and freedoms. In fact, those whom the extremists are attacking now are those who gave us India’s constitutional democracy in the first place.
So far, it seems only India’s vice president, Venkaiah Naidu — who just recently addressed the Hindu World Congress in Chicago — has spoken about the issue, and it was to distance himself. He said those committing the attacks should not be called nationalists, yet this begs the question: Who then is behind the unbridled violence?
The silence of some influential political leaders and inaction by local officials to impartially enforce the rule of law emboldens extremists to continue their campaign of fear and violence. With few assurances from politicians and law enforcement, civil society leaders have resorted to the judiciary for protection. It has taken repeated intervention by the Supreme Court of India to get the government to act.
In July, the court urged Parliament to enact laws to curb mob violence. The day after the activists were detained, the justices demanded authorities give an explanation for the arrests and ordered the five activists be held under house arrest instead of being transported to jail in Pune.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow the safety valve, the pressure cooker will burst,” said Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud.
Judging by the state of affairs, unless there’s a civil unity movement led by liberal Hindus that rejects all forms of violence, India’s pressure cooker will indeed burst. And this time there isn’t a Gandhi figure who can mitigate disputes, assuage angers and prevent national disaster should matters spiral out of control.
India’s future is in the hands of citizens and leaders who will not buy into the extremist, nationalist version of Hinduism that’s spreading across the country. It’s our turn now as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and of Indians from all stripes to stand for the liberal foundations that have proudly made us the world’s largest functioning constitutional democracy.
• Joseph D’Souza, founder of Dignity Freedom Network, is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and serves as the president of the All India Christian Council.
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