The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He is a prominent anti-Modi intellectual. The Indian government wants him behind bars.

Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde, who has been swept up in a crackdown on lawyers and activists, appears at the Swargate police station Tuesday in Pune, India. (Ravindra Joshi/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

MUMBAI — In his old life, Anand Teltumbde — one of India’s preeminent scholars on caste — would spend his days teaching students and conducting research.

Now he is just trying to stay out of jail.

In recent months, Teltumbde has been swept up in a government crackdown on lawyers and activists. The authorities allege the activists are supporting a banned group of Maoist militants, known as Naxalites, who seek to overthrow the government — accusations they deny.

The activists targeted in the investigation are advocates for India’s most disadvantaged communities, including indigenous tribal people and Dalits, once called “untouchables.” They also are vocal critics of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Opponents say the Modi government is taking increasingly harsh measures to suppress dissenting voices ahead of national elections expected in the spring. The authorities have charged students with sedition for shouting slogans and raided the offices of international groups such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace. The crackdown feeds into fears that freedom of expression is under fire in Modi’s India, where Hindu nationalist groups emboldened by his party’s leadership have harassed and attacked government critics. 

The bid to arrest Teltumbde, a respected academic, has shocked many in India and abroad. The accusations against him are “beyond preposterous,” author Arundhati Roy wrote in January on an English-language news site. Teltumbde’s detention would silence a “powerful” voice with “an unimpeachable intellectual track record,” she said.

Meanwhile, more than 600 international scholars, including professors from universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Oxford, have called on the Indian government to “withdraw all charges and to uphold democracy.”

In August, police officers raided Teltumbde’s house in the state of Goa. This month, he was taken into custody then released after stepping off a plane in Mumbai. With courts rejecting his plea to quash the case, his arrest under a sweeping anti-terrorism statute is a matter of time. Much of the evidence against him remains secret.

For a man who had never faced legal jeopardy or seen the inside of a courtroom, the past several months have been disturbing. “I’ve been treated like a bloody fugitive,” said Teltumbde, 67, as he prepared for a legal hearing in Mumbai this month. The government wants “to crush dissent and make an example.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political commentator and vice chancellor of Ashoka University, near New Delhi, said the use of the anti-terrorism law meant the legal process itself is a kind of punishment.

“It doesn’t have the kind of protections a democracy should have,” said Mehta. The law allows authorities to arrest people and hold them without filing charges for three months, and that period is often extended. The law has been criticized for its “draconian” provisions, and its constitutionality has been challenged in court.  

Shivaji Bodkhe, the joint commissioner of police in the city of Pune who is overseeing the investigation, rejected claims of harassment. 

“Those who are sitting in air-conditioned rooms can say anything,” he said. “Left-wing extremism will be dealt with the law of the land.”

Teltumbde said such accusations were “farcical.” His other worries are two half-written manuscripts on his laptop, due for publication this year. One is a book on Mahatma Gandhi and the other is on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an iconic Dalit leader who is credited with drafting India’s constitution. (Teltumbde is married to Ambedkar’s granddaughter.) 

Born to a family of landless Dalit farmers in a village in western India, Teltumbde excelled in school and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He was forced to drop out of a master’s program at India’s top engineering college because he was unable to afford the fee. He later graduated from a premier management institute and earned a doctoral degree. 

He spent much of his career as an executive at state-owned Bharat Petroleum before switching to academia. But it is his work on caste — a system of hierarchical discrimination that endures in India to this day — that brought him into the spotlight. 

His latest book, released in 2018, is an authoritative exploration of how the marginalization of Dalits became an essential part of Indian nationhood. One of the chapters describes how Indian authorities have routinely labeled Dalits and tribal people as Maoists to silence criticism. 

Those who know Teltumbde professionally were astonished by the allegations against him. H.S. Komalesha, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, where Teltumbde once taught, said it was “unbelievable to think that he can do anything to incite violence.”

 The case against Teltumbde is linked to violence that broke out during an event on Jan. 1, 2018, in Maharashtra state. Tens of thousands of Dalits assembled at a monument marking the defeat of upper-caste Hindus during a colonial-era battle 200 years ago. The commemorations turned hostile as Hindu nationalist groups and Dalits clashed. One person died.

The official investigation into the violence later expanded to what the authorities say is a wide-ranging conspiracy, including a plot to assassinate Modi. Those arrested — nine so far — are alleged to have supported Maoist rebels. 

Although the police have not revealed details of their investigation, some of the case against Teltumbde relies on four letters and a ledger entry allegedly recovered by the police from the computer of another person accused in the probe.

Mihir Desai, Teltumbde’s lawyer, said the case seeks to criminalize innocuous academic proceedings and advocacy events. One letter allegedly written to Teltumbde refers to Maoist funding for his visit last year to a human rights conference in Paris. Teltumbde called such allegations “fabricated.” Experts have also questioned the authenticity of the letters.

Teltumbde’s younger brother, Milind, joined the militant Maoist group in the 1980s. The police declined to comment on this aspect of the investigation, but Teltumbde called it “puerile” to suggest guilt by association. He said he had not been in touch with his brother for more than 35 years.

As the investigation has upended his life, Teltumbde’s wife, Rama, has been by his side. 

“Throughout his life, he has worked so hard,” she said. “This should have been his age to rest, not be in jail.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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