On 28 August, police teams in six different states in India – Maharashtra, Haryana, Delhi, Goa, Jharkhand, and Telangana – launched coordinated raids on the private residences of ten high-profile human rights activists and lawyers, arresting five of them. The unusual nationwide police action was spearheaded by the Pune Police, which has charged the accused of fomenting violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon back in January.
While the panchnamas (witness records) and search/arrest warrants clearly mention January’s Bhima Koregaon clashes as the standpoint of the investigations, a broader narrative of ‘Urban Naxals’ is being employed by the state prosecutors to justify the arrests under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA.
Who are these ‘urban naxals’ and where did the term originate?
The catchphrase is a creation of a spirited coterie of right-wing, pro-BJP ideologues led by political activist, social media influencer, filmmaker (and now, writer), Vinod Agnihotri. In a two-part article on Swarajya in May, Agnihotri explains what he means by the term:
“Urban naxals are the ‘invisible enemies’ of India, some of them have either been caught or are under the police radar for working for the movement and spreading insurgency against the Indian state. One common thread amongst all of them is that they are all urban intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance.”
Agnihotri has even made a film about “Urban Naxals” and then written a book about making of the film.
On the day of the raids, he posted an open call to “some bright young people” to create a list of all those who were apparently defending the “Urban Naxals” (read: the accused). But, sadly for him, the cheeky yet ominous tweet blew up when a barrage of sarcastic tweets/posts with the hashtag “#MeTooUrbanNaxal” hit the internet. Many were willingly and voluntarily signing up for the list, exposing the inanity of the slanderous label.
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?
— Vivek Agnihotri (@vivekagnihotri) August 28, 2018
Hey @vivekagnihotri, I volunteer to be on your list. Let's tag @vivekagnihotri with the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal and help him build his list. We should all help this man in his noble endeavour. https://t.co/zY1Azarv8l
— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) August 29, 2018
#UrbanNaxal is the new Anti-National
The word "Anti-national" became a big joke and lost its actual meaning after ministers & trolls started using it for anyone and everyone mindlessly.
Same thing is happening with Urban Naxal. That's why #MeTooUrbanNaxal
— Dhruv Rathee (@dhruv_rathee) August 29, 2018
Dissent is important for our democracy to function and to hold our Government accountable. I intend to do exactly that.
Put me on your list.#metoourbannaxal
— Meghnad (@Memeghnad) August 29, 2018
Prima facie, the term “Urban Naxal” is nothing more than a tactical narrative adopted by right-wing factions to discredit dissenting voices (both left-wing and others) who are critical of the Narendra Modi government and speak in favour of the rights of the marginalised (like the indigenous tribals and Dalits).
The malafide catchphrase, which is based on shoddy research and a heavy dosage of post-truths, assumes that advocating for the rights of the same set of peoples that the Naxalites claim to represent implies direct support to the Naxalite militancy. Sounds like a stupidly abstract speech act, doesn’t it?
But, how abstract is it really?
A look at the provisions of the UAPA, which is the core legislative instrument being currently used to investigate and prosecute the activists and lawyers, will tell us that “Urban Naxals” is in fact the crudest pop culture version of a deeply problematic law and the draconian application of it.
In other words, the UAPA actually legitimises the core spirit of the term – that is the abstract link between ideological sympathy for resistance movements with actual terrorism.
The UAPA, introduced in 1967, imposes ‘reasonable restrictions’ on fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution with the intent of preserving India’s integrity and sovereignty. However, this problematic Act eventually turned out to be a draconian legal instrument for the state to use at whim to shut down dissenting voices in the name of countering terrorism and organised crime.
“Urban Naxals” is in fact the crudest pop culture version of a deeply problematic law and the draconian application of it
As pointed out by Delhi-based lawyer and constitutional expert, Gautam Bhatia, and legal correspondent at The Quint, Vakasha Sachdev, the UAPA relies on definitionally vague provisions to initiate action. For example, it classifies “disclaiming” or “questioning” the territorial integrity of India, and fomenting “disaffection” against the country as “unlawful activities.”
More importantly, it contains subjective and deliberately undefined concepts like “membership” (of an “unlawful organisation”), which allows the police to search and arrest individuals for even “sympathising” with “militant” ideologies. This could include publicly expressing support for such ideologies, possessing “militant literature”, and simply meeting “unlawful” affiliates.
A 2011 Supreme Court judgment did narrow the provisions of “membership” down to only “active incitement to violence”. But, the practice thereafter, as pointed out by Bhatia, has been “patchy.” The police have routinely used a broad set of parameters to throw people behind bars under the UAPA, many of which straddle the dicey territory of thought-crimes.
For instance, if cops find literature on the Naxal movement inside a suspect’s house, an arrest becomes near certain. It doesn’t matter if he or she has actually done something violent or actively abetted Naxal militancy by supplying funds or arms. This loose premise allows the state to use the legislation at whim to target political or civil detractors.
The police have routinely used a broad set of parameters to throw people behind bars under the UAPA, many of which straddle the dicey territory of thought-crimes.
Thus, funnily enough, the UAPA itself attests to the “Urban Naxal” narrative – it can land you in jail for simply talking or reading about a militant movement and perhaps, voicing sympathy for the same group of peoples (like tribals in Chhattisgarh) that the Naxalites claim to represent. Both the Act and the pop term rely on this thoroughly dubious and presumed link between thought and action.
The flaw, hence, is in our legal doctrine. In itself, Agnihotri’s diatribe can only do so much – temporary discrediting at best, and long-term social stigmatisation at worst. But, the UAPA can do much more – yank you into the courtroom for lengthy trials and keeping you in dingy cells for long periods of time.
This is, hence, a good time to rejuvenate the ongoing advocacy campaign to amend India’s key anti-terror law in order to render it more sensitive to the civil liberties that every Indian citizen is entitled to by virtue of the Constitution.
Angshuman Choudhury is a New Delhi-based policy analyst, current coordinating the Southeast Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.