It has been almost a month since human rights activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Varavara Rao were arrested, and Romila Thapar and four other prominent citizens petitioned the Supreme Court for an inquiry by a Special Investigation Team. Yet, unruffled by the arrests, we have simply left the matter behind. The lives of these voices of dissent, fighting for a vigilant society, a society that understands the struggles of the marginalised and the anger simmering in the hearts of those ignored, have been stalled.

This is not about due process. It is about the sheer undemocratic way in which accusations have been made and unsubstantiated letters released as proof of their complicity. What is effectively being orchestrated is the criminalisation of the activists through the ugly process of public shaming. In this endeavour, multiple agencies seem to be involved and not all of them are governmental.

What is becoming clearer by the day is the role that mainstream media plays in these trickeries. As early as July, Republic TV made wild accusations against Bharadwaj on the basis of a letter purportedly written by her. It was viciously paraded as proof of her involvement with violent groups that plan to destroy the Indian republic. As has always been the case with this TV channel, they say absolutely anything about anyone without any verified or verifiable evidence. Such channels have turned our democracy into a khap panchayat. Whether they are acting on their own or on the advice of others is anybody’s guess, but there is absolutely nothing accidental about these evil, negative campaigns carried out almost every day.

Bharadwaj has been untiring in her efforts to help the marginalised demand their fundamental rights, economic security and social safety, making sure the might of governments and corporations does not squeeze everything out of them. As a member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, she fought for the labour movement in the iron mines of Dalli Rajhara and made sure that 400 workers of LafargeHolcim’s ACC cement company were compensated fairly. As a lawyer who refused judgeship in Chhattisgarh, she founded a lawyers’ collective called Janhit that takes on cases for the voiceless workers free of cost. She is also the national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. She has been an important voice for Adivasis, labourers and women.

We, the mainstream, care little about the work of activists such as Bharadwaj simply because it is for and with people who do not matter. In casteist feudal India, when the oppressed begin demanding what is rightfully theirs, they automatically become Maoists. If their hands are strengthened by those who use democratic tools to pressure the high and mighty, we brand such individuals Urban Naxals, anti-national forces out to break India. Consequently, fear is planted in the minds of people and organisational frameworks, collectives and networks are directly targeted.

People protest against the arrest of the five activists in Delhi. Photo credit: HT
People protest against the arrest of the five activists in Delhi. Photo credit: HT

Activism as crime’

It seems any meeting, seminar or conference such activists attend is a conspiracy. It is not just these individuals, but the entire ecosystem of activism that is being thrown under the bus, so that others will think twice before they speak to and for the underprivileged. Activism is being portrayed as a crime and activists collectively demonised.

Most people who have bought into the negative campaign did not know of Bharadwaj or Navlakha before the TV channels flashed their names. We share quotes on empathy and love for the downtrodden but we turn into mindless herds if our avariciousness is spotlighted. Heartless governments and corporate bullies tap into that ugliness within us. Every time we witness protests, questions and demands from farmers, labourers, Adivasis or Dalits, we feel threatened. Their freedom means our unlimited control over society is under threat. So, we close ranks either overtly or in passive affirmation.

People like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumble intimidate us because they stand with those we trample upon. They make us rethink and reassess our political, social, environmental and philosophical beliefs. Instead of trying to erase their presence we must protect them and ensure that equity is the soul of our democracy.

The recent actions against activists are strategic attacks on the very essence of our democracy and highlight the deterioration in public discourse. In my home state of Tamil Nadu, activists who speak for the people of Thoothukudi, against the Chennai Salem expressway, Neduvasal Hydrocarbon project, Kudankulam nuclear power plant or any other project that comes with unlimited money are detained, arrested. India needs a protesting society, a society that is fearless, one that does not bow to authority, that fights for every last citizen, and rejoices in the victory of the disadvantaged. Social justice, environmental activists and lawyers ensure that the wheel on our national flag turns for everyone, not just you and me. Our fight against Maoist violence is strengthened by holding hands with those who speak for the less fortunate, not by jailing them.