Social activist Varavara Rao Credit: File image

Activists have been arrested in the past, for their alleged links with Maoists and for being ‘Urban Naxals’. The ordeal of doctor and social activist Binayak Sen is bound to pop up in our minds whenever there’s any talk of urban Naxals.

Following the arrest of the five persons who are alleged to have links with Maoists, going by what the Maharashtra police have claimed based on letters they have managed to confiscate, there’s been a hue and cry over the definition of what an urban Naxal is. This has even led to some people joining a chorus, “I am urban Naxal”, which also reverberated during a recent press conference called by a group of activists, lawyers, writers and politicians at the Delhi Press Club. Unfortunately, in the din of all this, the willingness to challenge the very construct of the term, ‘urban Naxal’, is missing.

The entire drama that is unfolding in front of us in like a leaf taken out of filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri’s book, Urban Naxals: The making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam. It is almost like the filmmaker has carefully conceptualised and designed this Frankenstein (nomenclature) and let it loose to unleash disorder, and everything seems to be working to plan. The arrests, the romanticism surrounding the concept, the “MeTooUrbanNaxal” chorus, the enthusiasm to suddenly stand up say, “I have the symptoms of a Naxal”, are all so much a reflection of what Agnihotri’s movie depicts.

But lets’ move on from reel to real and probe into the filmmaker’s latest antics. He posted a tweet urging “some young people” to make a list of “Urban Naxals”. His tweet read: “I want some bright young people to make a list of all those who are defending #UrbanNaxals Let’s see where it leads. If you want to volunteer with commitment, pl DM me. @squintneon would you like to take the lead?” The response it has evoked certainly speaks volumes of where we are headed and how blindly at that.

The filmmaker perhaps stands out as a perfect example of how it is so easy to romanticise or let our imaginations do the talking and very soon it becomes so acceptable to all and sundry. In saying this, I am not suggesting that there are no Maoist sympathisers in the media, in the academia and among activists, but to call them “urban Naxals,” and getting it endorsed by the government of the day does certainly make for more than just brow raising. The filmmaker has been challenged in the past by those that are opposed to his idea, but he has not given up and his latest tweet only adds to his effort to legitimise the term and he has been successful to a large extent given the kind “positive” response it has evoked.

Let’s look at it all very dispassionately. Firstly, let us ask ourselves on whether the term “Urban Naxal” makes sense at all. For if it were the ISIS, would we have different categories to describe their positions or penetration among the masses? Or would everyone be just ISIS? Similarly, also for the any other outfit that operates here in Northeast India, would we have categories like “urban” and “rural”, and is there any need for such tags?

Every Kashmiri who identifies with the cause of “freedom” inadvertently or otherwise sympathises with many armed groups, be it the Laskar-e-Toiba, or Jaish-e-Muhamad or with individuals like Burhan Wani, and we have all seen the fallout of the killing of the latter. So, shall we call all Kashmiris “terrorists”? Is this how we plan to solve the problem of Kashmir and social conflicts in the country? Will we call Nagas as members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), either the Isak-Muivah or the Khaplang faction? That would be bizarre and dangerous, to say the least, as there are so many others that belong and identify their struggle through a different lens and formation.

Many of us do not agree with the recent crackdown on the prominent activists and lawyers and also contest the police narrative which identifies them as active members and operatives for Maoists in the cities and urban centres. We don’t’ have to be human rights activists or supporters of a particular political affiliation or ideology to raise our voice against the arrests, we must do it as ordinary citizens if we feel that the nature of arrests is questionable and it is tantamount to violation of a person’s human rights and fundamental freedoms. But this also does not necessarily mean that we have to join the chorus and sing, “I am an urban Naxal”.

To be able to protest against any inaction by the government against dissenting voices need not be drawn on an analogy and, even if the furor is an act of solidarity for the arrested five, there is absolutely no justification to calling yourself a Naxal.

To a person who has graduated with communism theories and has experienced Naxalism from close quarters as a child, it takes more than just a bold step and calling yourself a Naxal, and that too, when it’s all about joining a bandwagon which is politically coloured and agenda driven.

“You don’t become a Naxal just like that and you also don’t call yourself one just to prove that this tag was wrongfully applied on the five arrested persons. You have to be a true Naxal and committed to the ideology and then only you can feel it, nay by indulging is some rhetoric,” said a Thailand-based senior Leftist activist who did not want to be named.

What the activist was saying in essence is that if you want to show solidarity with the persons that have been arrested and you feel their human dignity has been violated by the police or the government then you simply say so.

Besides what perhaps assumes great significance is that we are not even sure if the arrested persons actually believe in the ideology of Maoism and have links with the Maoists. There is nothing wrong if they do, as long as they are not indulging in subversive activities against the nation. There are many well-known individuals in Nagaland, in Assam and in Kashmir who have been known to have met leaders of armed insurgent groups and have had a number of interactions with the latter. Do they then become insurgents? Not to forget that governments in the past and the present one in New Delhi have been using their services to reach out to the armed groups and calling them for peace dialogues.

The current trend emerging out of the arrests is not inexplicable as it has various shades of grey sprinkled with political colourings all over. Some would say that this is how young minds are manipulated and made to believe one ideology or the other. If we do some hindsight thinking then probably we find some truth in this argument. Reponses such as, “I have all symptoms of being an #UrbanNaxal. Who should I report this to? #MeTooUrbanNaxal”, are perhaps an indication of such trends.

I dread to think what a cousin of mine, who was a hardcore Naxal when the movement broke out from Naxalbari and who I met when I was a child, would have made out of all this. He was always in the city — Kolkata — and and took part in the Naxalite movement until he had to escape from the police. He died a sad man perhaps owing to how things evolved after the suppression of the movement by the government. Maybe he would not have related to something like what is happening now as things are getting messy and murky, not that he would have any problem with the term “urban Naxal,” for he was one.

The point is even if people were arrested recently by the Maharashtra police are Maoist sympathisers then there is wrong with that. The Constitution guarantees us the freedom of expression and the right to thought and belief, which is also given to us by the universal declaration of human rights and the covenant on civil and political right, to which we as a country are a party and a signatory (ratified). As long as the arrested persons have not done anything that is a threat to national security and public order then they are well within their rights to read and believe in whatever ideology they like.

The police have to prove before the court of law that the “thousands of letters,” that they claim provides evidences to the “Maoist links” of the arrested persons and those that were arrested in June this year are actually sufficient to hold them guilty. Until that is done we must as a society stop politicising the issue in the guise of “free speech,” and “dissent.” We have those rights but we should exercise all of it not to create confusion but to stop the state from abusing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the arrested persons. However, to give it political colour sitting in high pedestals is completely another thing.

There have been frontal organisations and individuals working as sympathisers for various armed groups and this is no new phenomenon. If the government had arrested all these groups all over the country then perhaps the question of an “emergency like situation” arises. Many groups here in the Northeast are still openly taking about the cause of their armed struggle and also in Kashmir and the media, both mainstream and otherwise has been allowed to criticize polices, question processes, accuse governments of being dictatorial and continue to operate. There is vigil and there is constant monitoring, but that is what a government is meant to do as does any democratic government be it in the US or even in the very advanced Scandanivian world.

To jump into a well without really knowing the consequences is but extremely foolish and dangerous. That’s not how you express solidarity. To a student of human rights and security studies the present case stands out as one that needs to be compartmentalised to two parts. First it must be treated purely as a human rights issue where the nature of arrest may be challenged to ensure that the persons are not tortured and inhumanely treated while in custody. The other is about a national security issue which needs a thorough investigation and which can be done without making arbitrary arrests and detention. That is perfectly justified in any democracy and a non-anarchic state.

Let’s wait for court to give its verdict on whether the arrests are justified and whether a police custody is recommended. I am certain none of us however rhetorical we maybe with our media, activism and legal backgrounds, would not like to jump the gun and let the court decide what lies ahead and what it would be like to tread the road in front.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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