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Indian activists decry police arrests and searches after caste riots

Indian poet and activist Varara Rao, center, is escorted by police after being arrested in Hyderabad on Aug. 28, 2018.
Indian poet and activist Varara Rao, center, is escorted by police after being arrested in Hyderabad on Aug. 28, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Police in India arrested prominent activists and writers and searched their homes Tuesday, alleging that they had incited a riot. Critics called the actions another blow to the right to dissent in the world’s most populous democracy.

The latest raids came months after clashes at Bhima-Koregaon in western India — where high-caste Hindus attacked an annual celebration by people of a lower caste.

Police told local media that those arrested had spoken at or participated in an event that fomented clashes between the two groups.

On Tuesday, police seized electronics, including phones and cameras, from activists and authors, saying in search warrants that they had “promoted enmity” and incited a mob of low-caste rioters in January.

Stan Swamy, an octogenarian Jesuit priest, said police took his phone, computer, camera and audiocassettes and CDs of classical instrumental music. They asked him for the password to his email — which he refused to provide.

Swamy laughed off the charges. He is accused of being involved in a criminal conspiracy in Pune, a city in western India nearly 1,000 miles from his hometown of Ranchi in eastern India, which he said he has not left for two years because of old age.

The Bharatiya Janata Party “government is oppressing any voice that opposes it,” he said. “The right to dissent, a constitutional right, is being denied.”

Suppression of dissent is increasingly common in India, with recent instances of censorship and intimidation of journalists. In the past year, India slipped two places in the World Press Freedom rankings.

According to news reports, the incident at Bhima-Koregaon started with high-caste men carrying saffron flags attacking a procession of low-caste people, called Dalits, during a celebration on Jan. 1, a day that marks the defeat of high-caste Maratha rulers in a historic battle in 1818, a first step in the Dalits’ struggle for freedom from the caste system.

People from the high-caste Maratha community took offense at the celebration because the victors in the battle were the British — colonizers of India. A man was killed in the January clashes between the communities, but reports of other deaths, including that of a young Dalit woman, are disputed.

In the aftermath of the violence, Dalits galvanized. Protesters threw stones and paralyzed road traffic in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, and demonstrations spread to other cities in the western state of Maharashtra.

Pune Police Commissioner K. Venkatesham declined to comment about the investigation, saying police will release a full statement Wednesday.

However, the high-caste men charged with committing acts of violence at Bhima-Koregaon have been released on bail, critics claim.

Pro-government television channels labeled those arrested or searched “Maoists” or “Naxals” — associated with India’s insurgent communist rebels. These terms have also been used by past governments to crush opposition, though rarely against academics and intellectuals.

Kavita Srivastava, an activist with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, some of whose colleagues were targeted, told the Wire, “This is a complete witch hunt. Completely false and baseless charges against top human rights activists. The Modi government is showing its fascist side. We are really going to fight back.”

The arrests and searches are stirring up India’s left-wing intellectuals. Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize-winning author of “The God of Small Things” and a vocal critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, compared the shakedown to the state of emergency in the 1970s, a three-year period of heavy censorship and rule by decree, in an interview with Scroll. “That the raids are taking place on the homes of lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals instead of on those who make up lynch mobs and murder people in broad daylight tells us very clearly where India is headed.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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