India Is Still Cracking Down on Dissent

In India, the Modi government’s lethal mix of authoritarianism, Hindu nationalism, and neoliberal reform is culminating in a staggering criminalization of all dissent. Colliding with the crisis of the pandemic, Indian democracy is in grave trouble.

In the latest round of state-led assaults beginning in 2018, police threw into prison internationally well-known lawyers, human-rights activists, poets and scholars. (Grant Durr / Unsplash)

India is on the road to creating a giant prison. A country-wide lockdown was called in March 2020, but the forces of the Indian state have been locking away ordinary people’s lives for years. The regime in power today is accelerating along a path previous governments paved. It brings anti-democratic measures with parallels across the world, from Brazil to Turkey.

A lethal mix of authoritarianism and neo-liberal reforms is on the rise, benefitting big business but brutally curtailing many people’s freedoms, dispossessing them of their livelihoods, and sharply escalating inequalities. Here, I share with you what I have seen in India.

I saw the imprisonments first happening in the heart of the country, in the forests that are home to the Adivasis — India’s indigenous people. The state security forces surrounded their hills, occupied their schools and health centers, and ran riot in their villages.

If the locals had not already fled when their homes were burnt down, they were labelled terrorists, promised their “freedom” only if they “surrendered” it first, and otherwise locked in jails. I am told that in the state of Jharkhand alone there are more than 4,000 Adivasis who are in prison as alleged Naxalite or Maoist extremists, kept without even being produced for trial.

In the villages where I lived as an anthropologist, everyone had tales of the wounds of police torture they bore, had witnessed, or had helped heal. The ones I heard about included electric shock treatment, branding with hot iron rods, and thrashings while hanging upside down with hands and legs tied.

Others had been disappeared and presented later in some forest as killed in an encounter — India’s infamous “encounter killings” — or simply declared dead in custody. This is not an unusual story. In 2019, the National Human Rights Commission reported that 1,723 people, about five a day, died in police custody in India.

Over the years many Adivasis migrated to faraway destinations to escape these horrors at home. They joined the precarious armies of invisible workers constructing cities in Tamil Nadu, paving roads in the Himalayas, or carrying bricks on their heads and across their shoulders in West Bengal.

They poured their energy and sweat, their laughter and tears, into laying the foundations of a shining new India that they would ultimately be kept out of. Underpaid and overworked, unprotected by labor legislation, often tied to labor contractors, they lived in slum colonies in conditions almost as bad as that of their kin in prison.

Driven Back

That is, until the lockdown was announced. Indians were given just four hours by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to prepare for a regime that would keep people holed in their homes, unfolding what many commentators have said is the greatest humanitarian crisis of the last fifty years.

At that point, with no way to feed themselves, Adivasis had little option but to defy the new order and march back to their forests. When they got there, those who had not returned for several years found their villages occupied by military barracks.

For those leading the country, Adivasi lands are simply a vast treasure of mineral reserves that need to be freed from the dark jungles above — jungles inhabited by a savage people who must be tamed, civilized, and chained to work for the nation, or who must perish.

Such stigmas against the Adivasis are widely held. Even in Ranchi city, well-meaning, educated friends who had lived there for decades were adamant that it was too dangerous for me to live in the mud huts on their doorstep. “Visit the villages in the daytime in a four-wheeler with a driver, if you must, but return to the city by dusk,” they advised. The darkness brought wild elephants and Naxalites, but also the threat of the people, they said, allegedly seeking to protect me.

I was told the Adivasis were some of the poorest people on earth but, in the years I lived with their communities, the people who became my new uncles and aunts showed me a world of infinite riches. One where women roamed the forests and fields at their will, where men often cooked and cleaned, and where children spent days swinging on lianas, rolling wagon wheels of hay and feasting on wild berries. A place where individual autonomy and creativity were valued without a need to rise above the rest.

The Adivasis I lived with helped each other to make their picturesque villages from the mud, dung, and timber around them. They beautifully carved teak doors, artfully painted walls with their fingers using white mud, and moulded and baked their roof tiles which, unlike the commercial ones, kept their houses cool in the summer and warm in the winter and on which the rain made music.

They wove their sleeping mats from reeds, their baskets from bamboo, and made cups and plates for parties from sal leaves. Their cuisine – which was the product of foraging from hundreds of different varieties of flowers, leaves, and mushrooms; hunting wild meat; and distilling wine made from the mahua flower — would amaze any Michelin-star chef. Leaving only a bare trace of their presence, their negligible ecological imprint and their democratic practices made these Adivasis visionaries for our future.

Yet Adivasis have been under constant assault from outsiders who have seen them as fossils of our past and sought to “develop” and colonize them while robbing them of their land, flora, and fauna. From freely roaming the terrain, British colonial rule forced them into permanent settlements to extract revenue, sold their trees as timber for the building of railways and military ships, and took the land from under their feet for the excavation of coal, iron ore, and bauxite.

Adivasi bows and arrows were no match for the cannons and muskets fired at them, but they secured a bare minimum protection to retain some access to their land, forests, and water to live on their own terms. Yet, despite these protections, it has been a losing battle to try to keep at bay the national and multinational corporations, aided and abetted by the state, who today steal Adivasi land and forests, perpetuating severe human rights abuses and creating what is now one of the world’s most unequal countries.


Protesting against these inequalities, the Naxalites marched into the Adivasis’ forested hills from the agricultural plains. These Marx-, Lenin-, and Mao-inspired revolutionaries came looking for better terrain for guerrilla warfare, leading their protracted war to move from the countryside to the city to take over the state.

They said they were fighting the injustices faced by the Adivasis and would bring about a more equal communist world. But, if for centuries colonial and independent India’s ideas of progress had failed to value the Adivasi world, so too did these insurgents.

The Naxalites saw the traditional lives of the Adivasis as doomed to the dustbin of history, as people who must be developed to be fit for the new communist world. Indeed, if the Hindutva forces, who are now also spreading in these areas, treat the Adivasis as “backward Hindus” to be made into “proper Hindus,” the Naxalites saw them as “primitive communists” to be turned into “real communists.”

So, though the two forces are so commonly opposed as “right-wing” and “left-wing”, and though of course there are important differences between them, the course of the “Nightmarch” also reveals the similarities in their puritanism, their renunciation, and their patriotism.

In the pages of Nightmarch there is much to criticize the Naxalites, but it is also clear that they are no “anti-nationals,” no “desh-virodhi” people, but those who love India just as much as the followers of Hindutva say they do, though they have very different ideas about its future.

As I narrate in my book, as the last night of my seven-night march with one of their guerrilla platoons unfolds, one finds that a decade ago their People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army was already reduced to a ragtag bunch. They had to perpetually move through the night to survive, rarely able to rest a day or two, even in the most remote parts of the country.

The state counterinsurgency forces — whether it was the Central Reserve Police Force or the specially trained Jharkhand Jaguar, the CoBRA, or the Greyhound — dominated the terrain with their armaments, infiltrating with their spies and their patrols, and the territories the Naxalites felt safe in dramatically shrunk.

Amongst the guerrillas were sweet-natured Adivasi youth who flitted in and out of the guerrilla armies, as though they were going to stay with an uncle or aunt, like my bodyguard Kohli, who had sought refuge with the Naxalites after a fight with his father. There were also young Adivasi men with very ordinary desires, like Vikas with his flashy phone full of soft porn, a fine house and large car, who had secretly been pocketing away money from the Naxalites and who eventually came to betray the guerrillas.

And there were the educated, high-caste leaders like Gyanji, who had been underground for twenty years or more, broken with their pasts and sacrificed their life to make a more equal world. Yet, they didn’t think the relative egalitarianism that already existed among the Adivasis — such as the relationship between men and women — could be worked with for their new world, inadvertently leading to the decline of those values among the Adivasis. The Naxalite leaders were aging, ailing, and knew that their movement needed revitalization, rejuvenation, and reform, even while holding on to party strategy and tactics as if they were a religious text.

State-Led Assaults

The Naxalite revolutionary struggle was already falling apart from within, but, in the years after I left the forests, the military fight against them was not only escalated but the idea was spread that the extremists were everywhere, not just in remote parts of the country but right in the heart of Indian cities.

Reports of “urban Naxals” increasingly appeared. Those attacked were human rights activists, reporters, and intellectuals. They were people who had variously called into question the atrocities against minorities carried out by police forces, worked to protect the rights of the vulnerable from the assault of corporate capital, and kept open spaces of intellectual freedom and democratic critique.

Labelling someone as an “urban Naxal” allowed them to be charged with sedition and with offenses under the dreaded Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which makes bail nearly impossible. Thousands of people were affected, such that by 2018 social media was trending with people claiming to be #MeTooUrbanNaxal as a way of protesting against the ever-expanding number of scholars and activists attacked as Naxalites in an attempt to silence them.

It seems ironic that through such upsurges, in a country so often called the world’s largest democracy, state repression inadvertently led to the idea of Naxalism keeping alive the idea of democracy itself.

In the latest round of state-led assaults beginning in 2018, now infamously called the Bhima-Koregaon case, the police threw into prison internationally well-known lawyers, human-rights activists, poets and scholars, saying that they were involved in a Naxalite plot to kill Prime Minister Modi.

Those incarcerated include the Cambridge-educated trade union activist and advocate Sudha Bharadwaj; the journalist, democratic rights activist and writer Gautam Navlakha; and the Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde. All had been invited as our academic guests at the London School of Economics and Political Science to help set new agendas from below for research on inequality; they are internationally known for their work.

The evidence supplied against these Bhima-Koregaon twelve — BK12, as they are now popularly called — is flimsy. Their trials will last years, even if, finally, they will be acquitted. It is said that in India the legal process itself is the punishment; it works to break the human spirit.

Moreover, these people have been incarcerated at a time when COVID-19 is running through overcrowded jails. States across the world are following advice from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has demanded the release of prisoners, prioritizing political prisoners, to prevent catastrophic rates of infection.

Yet, amongst those imprisoned is also the eighty-year-old poet Varavara Rao, of flailing health, who is now delirious in prison, having contracted COVID-19. Pleas for his release, from family members and internationally respected scholars, have been ignored. This is a time when such incarcerations will amount to capital punishment without trial.

Such callous targeting of an internationally well-regarded middle-class intelligentsia seems nothing but a means of sending a warning to everyone that the state’s forces are not only hidden in the forests, where their rampage can be ignored by most, but that they can reach anyone’s home at any time, unless they fall in line. This seems above all a method of instilling fear that any form of public dissent, protest, or expression of difference with the current regime’s policies will be silenced. “Be quiet, or you’re next!”

In the pages of Nightmarch unfold a measured, nuanced, even unexpected account of the spread of the Naxalites. Unveiled are the complicated and contradictory — all too human — motivations of those who join, the beauties and the fragilities of their existence, the love and betrayals at the heart of those who come together in this movement to change the world.

But writing this Preface amidst an escalation of state repression and authoritarianism, knowing that a movement that had already been ravaged ten years ago is being used as part of the wider repression to silence the country at large, I take here a different tone to the book itself.

For it seems critical, as part of a wider attempt to keep alive the spaces of democracy, for me as a scholar, an overseas Indian, and a citizen of the world, to internationally draw attention to how the issues at the heart of Nightmarch have become some of the most significant in closing democratic spaces in India today.

Alongside the targeted repression of internationally well-known scholars comes a range of other anti-democratic measures. Whatever little freedom the press had, for instance, is being strangled. For the last twelve years, India has appeared as one of the thirteen countries on the Global Impunity Index, which documents places where journalists are murdered and their killers go free.

There is too the everyday harassment of reporters, with the lodging of first information reports (FIRs) against those who highlight a story that the powers that be would rather hide, and a vanishing of news reports that show them in poor light.

In the two months between the announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown and the end of May 2020, fifty-five journalists faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats. Self-censorship of everyone, including the press, appears to be the goal.

Dissenting Against Hindutva Visions

The deeper target is the ability to think and what one can think about, with the purpose of establishing a Hindutva vision of society which explicitly demonizes Muslims — about 200 million people — who are rightful citizens of the Indian nation. Just as Hindutva forces have asserted their influence across the country’s institutions, so too have they sought to dominate the organizations of education.

Take, for example, public universities, once imagined as “sanctuaries of the inner life of the nation,” where “everything would be brought to the test of reason.” The place where I had the privilege of holding two visiting fellowships and two research partnerships, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) — renowned as one of the country’s premier higher learning institutions with a rich environment of debate, discussion and deliberation — was by 2016 painted as the hotbed of Maoism, where students were being indoctrinated into “anti-national” activities.

Under the new Vice Chancellor, hand-picked by the government, new regimes of control were introduced for faculty — daily attendance registers, promotion of only those who would not challenge the administration’s diktats, control of selection committees for appointing new staff. Meanwhile, protesting students were charged with sedition.

Staff and students fought back against the changes meant to imprison the minds of new generations, and curtail the production of thinkers, writers and dreamers. But the attacks on the university escalated such that by the end of 2019 the police either led or were complicit in violence unleashed against dissenters. In the aftermath of the 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which sanctioned in law religious discrimination to specifically target Muslims, peaceful protestors were brutalized on campus.

At Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, there was video footage of the police attacking with batons students sitting quietly in the library, blinding others with tear gas. Students were detained, others later jailed. Ironically, this included women who had formed a movement called Pinjra Tod, literally meaning “Break the Cage,” though they had very ordinary demands, such as removing onerous restrictions on the mobility of women residents of hostels.

Particularly chilling is how some youth are being raised to hate their neighbors and incite hate. At JNU, earlier in 2020, a masked mob, chanting “anti-national” and “Naxalites”, armed with iron rods, sledgehammers, sticks and bricks, beat up students and staff who had been protesting against the raising of student fees. Eyewitnesses said that the vigilantes leading these attacks were from the Hindutva student wing.

It is not just their humiliating treatment of fellow students or their low-caste, tribal and Muslim brothers and sisters which is frightening, but that they are encouraged to take pride in their brutality. They have no shame in circulating the videos of their lynchings, of parading around those they have beaten with garlands of shoes around their necks, of saying to their friends, “Next time kill them.”

This cruelty shown to fellow human beings, as though they were a different inferior species, belongs to the era of apartheid South Africa or racial segregation in the United States, not to twenty-first century India. Crimes are being committed which neither time nor history will forgive, crimes that have destroyed and are destroying millions of lives.

All evidence points to the fact that the global crises caused by the unprecedented worldwide COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating injustices and inequalities. Yet, it is also a moment to dissent against the multiple incarcerations, to create a more equal, more just, more humane planet. India is a crucible for a wider set of battles taking place in many parts of the world, whether it is the United States, Russia, or Hungary.

Everywhere we see the violent dispossession of indigenous people from their homes for the extraction of natural resources by state-backed corporations. We see crushing police brutality, the repression of democratic rights and the spread of authoritarianism. But we also see the persistence of insurgent action with multiple motivations, modes, and contradictions. We see people fighting back, whether it is the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States or the student protests across India.

This is a moment to set a new global standard to truly make India the world’s deepest democracy, not just its largest. It’s a time to unlock the country, the people, their livelihoods, and their imaginations in a deeper, larger, and more meaningful way than simply easing the lockdown.

I offer Nightmarch to understand some of the issues at stake, to know the people whose lives cannot be erased and whose dignity stands tall, despite all efforts to the contrary. We must join hands with the dissenters and start by freeing those caged in overcrowded prisons. We must unlock the forests from the security forces and the corporations and return them to the people who have lived there for centuries as part of a broader move to enable a decent livelihood for all.

We must encourage critical thought, debate, and discussion to flourish in the country’s educational institutions as a step to nurturing free minds everywhere. Dissent is not only central to democracy, it is what makes us human.

Let’s free India. It’s not yet too late.