By Saji Thomas
In a simultaneous action across several cities, Indian police raided the homes of nine human rights activists, including that of an 82-year-old Jesuit priest, and arrested five on charges of supporting Maoists engaged in anti-national activities.
Police in Maharashtra state on Aug. 28 arrested activists Varavara Rao from Hyderabad and Gautam Navlakha from Delhi. Others arrested were activist lawyers Vernon Gonsalves from Mumbai, Arun Ferreira from Thane and Sudha Bharadwaj from Faridabad.
In the eastern state of Jharkhand, the residence of Jesuit social activist Father Stanislaus Lourdusamy was raided in Ranchi. Popularly known as Stan Swamy, he has been working among impoverished tribal people.
Police told media that the raids were linked to a public meeting held in Pune city on Dec. 31, 2017, before violent clashes occurred between Dalits and higher-caste Maratha people in the Bhima Koregaon area and several other parts of Maharashtra in early January.
The police action was based on “some incriminating evidence collected during our investigation” and on documents recovered from another five activists arrested on June 6, said Pune’s joint commissioner of police Shivaji Bodkhe.
Police on June 7 told a court that an investigation had revealed a Maoist plot to execute a “Rajiv Gandhi-type” incident, which media interpreted as a plan to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a suicide bombing like that which killed former PM Gandhi in 1991.
Police visited the Jesuit social service center in Ranchi at 6 a.m. and raided Father Swamy’s room, Father Davis Solomon, the center’s director, told ucanews.com.
They came without any prior notice or a search warrant and searched both his office and residential quarters, he said. Father Swamy was questioned but not arrested.
Police seized his laptop computer, phone SIM cards, iPod, compact discs, pen drive, literature, research papers, books and press releases, among other things, Father Solomon said.
Although police had no search warrant from a court, the raid was carried out with a “search order” issued by Pune assistant commissioner of police on Aug. 24.
Offenses registered against the priest include involvement in terrorism, conspiracy, supporting terrorist organizations and raising funds for them. If proved, the aged priest could be jailed for decades.
“Father Swamy researches the problems of marginalized people aiming to find practical solutions,” Father Solomon said, adding that his confrere has been working with Santhal tribal people for decades.
He said Father Swamy had not even visited Bhima Koregaon. “How can he be part of any conspiracy?” he asked.
Church leaders and rights activists suspect a plot to intimidate rights activists with political ambitions in the general election due early next year.
“These raids appear to have been conducted to terrorize activists. But this will shake the faith of communities such as Dalits, indigenous people and others for whom these activists are speaking,” said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian bishops’ conference.
Dalit violence in Maharashtra and tribal assertions in other parts of India, supported by rights activities and lawyers, have been interpreted as challenge to the supremacist ideology of hard-line Hindu groups.
“It has become a fashion on some television channels to call all those who do not agree with them anti-nationals. Fighting for the constitutional rights of Dalit and other backwards people does not constitute anti-national activity,” Bishop Mascarenhas said.
The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, which control the federal government and 22 of 29 states, draw their support from Hindu groups that want to make India a nation of Hindu upper-caste hegemony.
Dalits and tribal people constitute 25 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people but they are politically decisive in certain pockets of most northern states.
Hindu groups are accused of orchestrating violence against Dalit and tribal people and supporting polices that would keep them under social and political subjugation. Observers say the awareness of these oppressed groups threatens the political future of BJP and its supporters.
“The events that are unfolding are being fueled by an intent to do away with democracy and turn this country into a Hindu state,” novelist and activist Arundhati Roy told The Hindu newspaper. “It’s a sign of a government in panic.”
She said the state “is unleashing a law and order problem on minorities, on Dalits, Christians, Muslims and leftists and anyone else who disagrees through its proxies in the media, its murderous vigilantes and hate speech vendors. Everyone who disagrees with a particular ideology is being criminalized, incarcerated or assassinated by shadowy right-wing killers.”
Roy added: “What is happening is absolutely perilous. In the run-up to elections, this is an attempted coup against the Indian constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish.”
Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan views the raids as a “totally fascist” move. “It is an attempt to silence dissent and intimidate activists … This is happening on the instructions of this government,” he told online media scroll.in.