“The Incarcerations”

Harsh Thakor

The Incarcerations’ written by professor Alpa Shah cuts the ribbons of Indian democracy to narrate the sensational story of the Bhima Koregaon case, in which 16 human rights defenders (the BK-16)–professors, lawyers, journalists, poets–had been fabricated without any trial as Maoist terrorists. Possibly one of the most classical books of modern times in a symmetrical or methodical manner, exposing the ascendancy of neo-fascism or proto-fascist tide and how the very fabric of constitutional democracy is being ripped apart.

Alpa Shah unravels how these alleged terrorists were charged with inciting violence at a public commemoration in 2018, accused of waging a war against the Indian state, and plotting to kill the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Expertly investigating the case, Shah exposes some of the world’s most shocking revelations of cyber warfare research, which show not only hacking of emails and mobile phones of the BK-16, but also implantation of the electronic evidence that was used to incarcerate them. Through the life histories of the BK-16, Shah penetrates deep into the issues they fought for and tells the story of India’s three main minorities–Adivasi, Dalits and Muslims–and what the quest for democracy holds in store for them.

“The Incarcerations” unravels the mysterious case of 16 human rights defenders–academics, lawyers, journalists and poets–who from 2018 were framed and then imprisoned on charges of instigating a riot in the small town of Bhima Koregaon, waging war against the Indian state and plotting Modi’s assassination. All of those arrested–Sudha Bharadwaj, Hany Babu, Jyoti Jagtap, Mahesh Raut, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Varavara Rao, Stan Swamy, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira–have waged a struggle to the last breath for the rights of Muslims and the marginalised Adivasis and Dalits.

‘The Incarcerations ’ reveals how this case is a precursor for the extinguishing of democracy in India, For the first time in the nation’s history was there such a concerted, or organised attack on those who manifested the fulcrum of democracy. Shah illustrates that aspect of democracy today must be not only about protecting freedom of expression and democratic institutions, but also about backing the social movements that challenge global inequalities.

Alpa Shah narrates the spell bounding and soul searching life stories of the BK-16, lawyers, professors, journalists, artists and activists, who were raided and arrested, “without credible evidence and without trial as Maoist terrorists.” During her investigation, Shah found that emails and mobile phones of the BK-16 were hacked, and electronic evidence implanted to put them behind bars. While the octogenarian activist Stan Swamy perished in prison, some like lawyer SudhaBharadwaj was in jail from 2018 to 2023 before getting bail, and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has just told the Supreme Court that teacher and Dalit activist ShomaSen, who has been in prison since 2018, is not required in custody anymore. Shah writes in the introduction: “Delving into the lives of BK-16, and deep into the history of the causes they represent, I aim to show how in very different ways and in different places, they have persistently defended the social and economic rights of a broad spectrum of vulnerable communities across the wide geographical breadth of the subcontinent.”

In the author’s view work of these activists reflected the whole story of resistance for democracy for India’s most marginalised people–Adivasis, Dalits, and Muslims–with the BK case being the defining moment of what was a fairly well ingrained democratic culture.

What the research of the book revealed, by interviewing cyber forensic experts in the US who have mined the metadata of the BK case, was that it lit its first spark well before the Modi regime. For example, the prisoners’ rights activist Rona Wilson, who is one of the BK-16 and on whose computer various of the incriminating letters were found, including the letter which claimed that the BK-16 were trying to assassinate Modi… his computer was hacked from 2012, two years before the BJP came to power. Possessing the technological machinery to investigate activists is one thing, but utilising it in order to fabricate false evidence to prosecute them is another. Significant lesson for the activists in the book is to wage resistance for Dalit rights or Adivasi rights irrespective of who was in power. The issues remain the same. It was the Congress government that welcomed the big multinational corporations into Adivasi lands which led to the counter-insurgency operations when Adivasi villages were razed to the ground .So these activists were a thorn in the flesh for the state.

Compared to NGOs or media organisations, which have physical institutions and sources of finance and infrastructures, activists like the BK-16 are based on social movements at the grassroots. Thus they are so dangerous because as they have projected an alternative way of evaluating the country, fighting for a model of India which is in 360 degree contrast to the regime in power. They have the capacity to garner people together and they can disperse them, penetrating social movements as well as the ability to connect to powerful voices. The state can’t just kill them, like they do the indigenous peoples in the forests, so it brands them as “Urban Naxals” and incarcerates them.

Most illustratively Alpa Shah narrated how the mob in the Koreagaon riots were all part of the pro-Hindutva forces, how Stan Swamy was murdered which was camouflaged, how Dalits in January 2018 when commemorating bicentenary of heroic battle of BhimaKoreagaon,which was the last battle against the upper castes ,were brutally attacked. Alpa Shah gave illustrative life sketches of activists like Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Sudha Bhardwaj, portraying them as genuine revolutionary democrats.
The book revealed how important international economic and financial organisations patronised weaponising the crushing of democratic rights activists---protection of government supporters committing atrocities, capture of state institutions like judiciary, use of cyber warfare to wipe out democratic dissent, implantation of evidence at a higher level, complicity of media and highest levels of government sponsoring organised terrorism against activists.

The book salutes the brilliant lawyers that have been fighting the cases of human rights defenders like the ones at the centre of the book, the judges that have been sympathetic to their arguments, and the many independent journalists and researchers on the ground displayed death defying courage, in defending the social movements for justice in spite of facing grave state repression.. She also feels it is imperative to place international pressure on India with the UK and the US having profound influence on people’s thinking in India.

The book does not do proper justice to the autocratic nature of the Indian state since 1947 and how only a genuine people’s democratic revolutionary alternative or mass revolutionary resistance of the workers and peasantry can overturn the proto-fascist tide. It is an illusion that democracy flourished before and only in BK-16 time it was overturned.

An erroneous understanding in this book is that democracy collapsed in 2018 during BhimaKoregaon.It forgets the genocidal attacks on democratic rights under the Congress regime on naxalites in Bengal and later Andhra Pradesh, Sikhs in Delhi, Dalit castes in Bihar , civil rights activists in Andhra Pradesh,or on railway workers in 1974.It is untrue that India had genuine parliamentary democracy in the regime of the Congress or that genuine democracy flourished in 1947,or true secularism existed. It was the Congress government under the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that described the naxalites as the biggest threat to internal security of the country. The Modi administration is just maintaining that tradition with medieval brutality.

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Vol 56, No. 42, Apr 14 - 20, 2024