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On false charges: What the world needs to know about India’s political prisoners

Rohit Revi

July 6, 2021
Fr. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old political and social activist, died while in captivity of Narendra Modi’s Indian state. For decades, Fr. Stan has been a tireless organizer for the rights of the Indigenous/Adivasi peoples of Central India, whose mineral-rich lands continue to be stolen by extractive industries and their political lobbyists. He was also a Jesuit priest who fused together the values of radical empathy, kindness and equality with anti-capitalism and manifested them through daily practice in his social life. For the last year however, an ailing Fr. Stan, pressed with charges of ‘terrorism’, found a new descriptor: the oldest political prisoner in Modi’s India. He was living with a deteriorating Parkinson’s disease, and had contracted COVID-19 while in prison. When he requested a straw to help him drink water because of his tremors, he was denied this for weeks. Yesterday, he passed away. Such is the price of disagreement with India’s ruling class. 
This is India’s story of political persecution: a machine that took a life of breath-taking kindness and depth, and tried to flatten it out with state violence. But if there is one thing that history has taught us, Fr. Stan Swamy will outlive his jailers.

Political Incarceration in Modi’s India.
In recent years, India has seen mass incarceration of political activists, from anti-CAA dissidents to the protesting farmers, pulled from picket lines or their homes, and thrust into prison-cells. Under the Modi regime, any form of political dissent is marked as a criminal activity, to be charged with ‘terrorism’ charges under the draconian UAPA act (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), with life-threatening consequences for the lives of the activists. 

Fr. Stan Swamy was one of the several activists arrested on charges of conspiracy against the state for their alleged participation in the 200th year commemoration of the Battle of Koregaon at the Elgar Parishad Conclave in Pune. 
The State and its friends in the corporate media allege that these activists are part of a secret network which plots to undermine national security, and have Naxalite or Maoist connections. In Modi’s India, to allege connections to the banned Maoist organizations is a strategy to criminalize any and all criticism of the fascistic regime.
Needless to say, the only thing that was decidedly common to all sixteen arrested activists – labour lawyers, a poet, a priest, journalists, musicians and academics, is a vision and a desire for social and economic justice in a country that has increasingly descended into fascism. 
Among those arrested is Dr. Anand Teltumbde, a socialist thinker and teacher, whose writings on the relations between caste and class in modern India are milestones for both socialist movements and anti-caste movements alike. In a moment of dark prescience, Dr Teltumbde wrote in his 2018 essay titled ‘Manufacturing Maoists: Dissent in the age of Neoliberalism’ that “It is unfortunate that the modern constitutional state we created, instead of doing away with this incivility [of caste-class divisions], has imbibed it in full measure, promoting and accentuating the divide. The state apparatus favours those who are against Dalits and tribals, and opposes those who stand up for them. If you sympathise with Dalits and tribals, you become an outcaste, but if you despise them, you are welcomed into the fold. Maoism and nationalism are simply modern-day euphemisms for outcaste and caste, respectively.”

False charges and fake evidence

Perhaps as shocking as the arrests themselves was the way in which the State orchestrated them. The key evidence paraded around on corporate media against these activists was some digital correspondence allegedly found on their devices that indicate a supposed Maoist plot to overthrow the Indian state. One of the letters seemed to imply a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. The correspondence, written in English and in incredibly naïve and obvious ways, had immediately raised suspicion about its legitimacy. No other material evidence was ever recovered from any of them. 

Earlier this year, Arsenal Consulting, a Massachusetts based Digital Forensics firm, examined the laptop of one of the arrested activists at the request of the defense lawyers, and found clear evidence that the incriminatory documents, including the one that mentions the assassination plot, were planted by an unknown hacker prior to the arrest. Since then, more digital forensic investigations have been carried out, all indicating that the documents claimed as evidence in this case were planted in their devices in the months leading up to the arrests. 

It seems to be increasingly clear now that there has been a coordinated effort by the deep state and corporate media to incriminate and crush any formations of a political alternative to fascism in modern India. Yet, even as the Elgar Parishad case continues to shake our public conscience, the Modi regime has extended this strategy and has continued to incriminate, persecute and charge political dissidents, many young, Muslim student-activists, in similar ways.

Since Elgar Parishad: Their names must be known
Young student activists like Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha were in prison for 13 months until recently, accused of inciting a riot in Delhi that is widely known to have been orchestrated by the ruling party unnerved by the growing support to the anti-CAA protests and sit-ins. Umar Khalid, another brilliant young revolutionary with a vision for freedom in India, has been in prison for close to a year now on the same case. Umar has the corporate media houses thirsty for his blood and had narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2018. Similarly, for more than a year now and on the same charges, Sharjeel Imam, another brilliant young mind who spoke against the Citizenship Amendment Act, has been in prison.

During the farmers’ protest in Delhi, Nodeep Kaur, a young Dalit labour activist and union organizer, was arrested for her organizing work in support of the farmers resisting corporatization of agriculture. She was tortured and sexually abused in police custody.

Lastly, one cannot write a note on political incarceration in modern India without mentioning GN Saibaba, a scholar and writer with disability, who has been in incarcerated since 2014 and has spent large amount of that time in solitary confinement. He too contracted COVID-19 in prison and as a man with disability, he has had his physical condition deteriorate heavily behind bars. Despite this, he continues to face national indifference and apathy, due to a conceited demonization of his Naxalite sympathies. 

Free all Political Prisoners, Repeal UAPA!

What is common to all these exceptional activists, other than their principled dissent at the face of injustice and their commitments to a vision of anti-capitalist equality and religious inclusivity, is that almost all of them were charged under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act).

The UAPA was first enacted in 1967 to ‘protect the sovereignty and integrity of India’ and has been weaponized against political dissent by different ruling governments. It was amended to expand scope in 2004, after the Mumbai terror attacks, by including ‘terrorism’ as a key descriptor. It grants powers to the state to imprison civilians and activists for up to 180 days without the need to file a charge sheet, presumes guilt on the accused, and makes it near impossible to receive bail. Since 2014, the Modi government has habitually used this brutal framework to suppress dissent. Yet, the conviction rate under UAPA between 2016-2019 is merely 2.2 percent, proving beyond doubt that this Act is a deliberate tool to persecute political alternatives, to protect capital, and silence difficult questions, under the guise of terrorism prevention. 
The level of human right violations and political persecution that is happening currently in India is brutal and needs to be recognized as such. As students, workers and political activists call for an immediate repeal of UAPA and freedom to political prisoners, socialists across the world must necessarily stand with them and amplify this demand. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Free all political prisoners! 
Repeal UAPA!


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