On Nathuram Godse, the Bharatiya Janata Party has usually maintained a happy ambiguity. Terror-accused BJP member of Parliament Pragya Thakur famously called Gandhi’s killer a patriot”. Other assorted BJP leaders, including Lok Sabha legislator Sakshi Maharaj, have also shared glowing praise of Godse.

If the party high command did not quite approve, there were no political or legal costs to leaders who made such remarks, either. The adulation of Godse has become mainstream over the last few years. Organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha, with which BJP star campaigner and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath has deep ties, have actually worshipped Godse on his death anniversary.

But when Gujarat MLA and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani apparently called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a Godse worshipper on Twitter, at least one member of the BJP took great umbrage. Arup Kumar Dey, a BJP leader in Assam’s Kokrajhar district, filed a complaint objecting to two tweets by Mevani. Apart from his Godse comment, Mevani had also asked Modi to appeal for peace in areas of Gujarat that had been hit by communal violence recently.

Based on Dey’s cryptic complaint, the Assam police jetted across the country earlier this week, arrested Mevani in Gujarat and brought him to Kokrajhar. Mevani, an independent legislator who extends outside support to the Congress in Gujarat, now faces charges such as criminal conspiracy, causing fear to the public, outraging religious feelings and intent to cause breach of peace. He has also been booked under the Information Technology Act.

The details of the first information report that formed the basis for Mevani’s arrest are still not clear. But he has been denied bail and cannot be transferred out of Kokrajhar for the time being.

While his party colleague and the state police took such prompt action against Mevani, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a rising star of the BJP, maintained a superb indifference. He did not even know who Mevani was, Sarma told the press hours after the arrest. “I am not aware of the specifics of the case. Who will do vendetta politics when I don’t know him?” asked Sarma, who also heads the state’s home and political department.

Ambiguity to the rescue once again.

A fig leaf?

If Mevani’s alleged offences were too trivial to pay attention to, surely they did not merit cross-country police action? The Assam Police have not yet explained why mere tweets drew such serious charges, especially when they do not seem to have led to actual unrest. But by now it is established that Modi’s detractors do not share the same freedom of speech as his supporters.

Many have faced serious charges for criticising the prime minister. In 2018, a Manipuri journalist was booked and arrested under the National Security Act – a stringent preventive detention law – for comments about Modi in an online video. The next year, 49 public figures were booked with sedition for writing an open letter to Modi asking him to speak out against hate crimes targeting minorities.

This time, the police have been deployed against an opposition leader in a state going to polls in a few months. The BJP may not want to throw its weight behind the complaint against Mevani, but the circumstances of the arrest suggest the Godse remark was merely a fig leaf. Locked up in a prison at the other end of the country, Mevani has been kept out of circulation at a crucial time for Gujarat.

A challenge in Gujarat

For over two decades, the BJP has held unquestioned sway over Gujarat. It is the state where Modi burnished his credentials as the majoritarian strongman who was to lead India to greater prosperity. Older caste politics have largely been dissolved in the saffron mobilisations that spread across the state. But the Dalit assertions spearheaded by Mevani briefly threatened to destabilise the status quo.

Mevani rose to prominence as the face of Dalit agitations in Gujarat in 2016. Seven Dalit tanners were assaulted by an upper-caste mob for skinning a dead cow in Una. It triggered protests that lasted months. Mevani, who was an organising force of the protests and won the Gujarat assembly elections in 2017, seemed to offer an alternative politics that challenged the BJP in its bastion.

This is not the first time Mevani has received police attention. In 2018, soon after he was elected to the state assembly, Mevani was booked in the Bhima Koregaon case. After violence broke out at an event to commemorate the victory of Dalit troops over the peshwas, the Maharashtra police – then controlled by a BJP state government – launched a nationwide crackdown. It claimed to have unearthed a sinister conspiracy against Modi. Mevani’s offence was allegedly making a provocative speech at the event. He had maintained it was not provocative, merely critical of Modi, the BJP and the Sangh.

Four years later, the same script seems to be playing out again. A BJP-ruled state has taken police action against Mevani for remarks against the prime minister, framing them as a conspiracy and a threat to peace. The message sent out by Mevani’s sudden arrest is this: opposition politics that do not suit the BJP will be outlawed.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said four Dalit tanners were killed by an upper-caste mob in Una in 2016. In fact, seven Dalit tanners were assaulted by an upper-caste mob. The error is regretted.