India ‘assassination’ plot reaches Paris, but credibility is lost in translation

Chandan Khanna, AFP | Demonstrators protest the detention of human rights activists in New Delhi on August 30, 2018.

The arrests of prominent Indian activists last week sparked condemnations across the world. But as details of police attempts to link them to an international assassination plot are starting to emerge, they’re triggering howls of laughter.


Over the past few days, Indian news channels have been in a near-constant state of primetime, breaking news alert. As TV anchors share split-screens with graphics screaming, “Bid to Assassinate Prime Minister” and “Maoist Crackdown”, the coverage often jumps to live police press conferences and “midnight dramas” outside magistrate residences.

For the pro-government media, the plot has been nothing short of spectacular, a ratings-friendly boost to the spin ahead of next year’s critical general elections. The elements include an alleged plot to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a cabal of “urban Maoists”, and a gullible mass of low-caste Dalits ready to destabilise the country.

But for critics of the right-wing government, the latest developments have been a stark warning that the crackdown on dissent in the world’s largest democracy is reaching unlikely quarters – from a small, riverside town in western India to academic seminars in Paris.

The expansion of the plot from a nondescript small town to “human rights conventions” and “universities in Paris” underscores the widening assault on free speech since Modi’s Hindu right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) came to power in 2014. A wave of nationalism driven by hardline Hindu groups has seen government critics, including journalists and “rationalists” who question religious superstitions, killed.

History lives – in festering discrimination

The latest “urban Naxalites” plot – as it’s called by the Indian media after a Maoist rural movement that began in the 1960s – has seen the morphing of two issues, both critical to Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

It grabbed the international headlines last week, when five prominent activists – including one of India’s leading human rights lawyers – were arrested Tuesday, August 28, in simultaneous, multi-city police raids.

The activists included Telugu-language poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, Vernon Gonzalves and Arun Farreira in Mumbai, Gautam Navalakha and Sudha Bhardwaj in New Delhi and a neighbouring town

The high-profile arrests sent shock waves across the country, sparked international condemnations, and has seen a daily drip of investigative news reports examining the police’s procedural failures, including flouting India’s criminal law.

The roots of the case however go back to December 2017 and are centred around India’s caste politics, a powder-keg issue in a country where, it’s often said, citizens don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste.

On December 31, 2017, tens of thousands of people – primarily members of India’s downtrodden Dalit community – started gathering in the small town of Bhima Koregaon near the western Indian city of Pune for the annual commemoration of the January 1, 1818 Battle of Koregaon.

The battle is of legendary importance for the Dalits since it marks the victory of a small group of British East India Company troops consisting of untouchable castes against the numerically superior forces of the local, upper caste Maratha empire ruler.

Hindu nationalists have embraced the founder of the Maratha empire, Shivaji, as a national figure since he battled the Muslim Mughal empire. Indian authorities are currently financing a multi-million dollar statue of Shivaji in the commercial capital, Mumbai, which they say will be the “world’s biggest statue”, dwarfing China’s Spring Temple Buddha, the current title-holder.

Dalits meanwhile are so low on the Hindu social scale, they are not technically part of the Indian caste system and are sometimes called the “untouchable caste”.

While Dalit support helped sweep Modi’s BJP into power four years ago, in 2014, anger has been rising within the community against the party that has traditionally drawn its support from the upper castes. India officially outlawed untouchability at independence nearly 70 years ago. But the practice continues and under the BJP, violence between the Dalits and caste Hindu groups that form the party’s base has been rising.

The annual Koregaon commemorations have passed largely without incident for decades, but the 2018 ceremonies got heavily politicised particularly since it marked the bicentennial anniversary of the battle.

Dalit activists say Hindu nationalist – or Hindutva – groups interrupted the events resulting in riots that led to one death. Hindutva groups on the other hand claim they were attacked by the Dalits.

The Pune police investigation into the Koregaon caste violence was proceeding for months, largely out of the national media spotlight, until early June, when the investigation suddenly morphed into a terrorist case involving a Maoist conspiracy to assassinate Modi.

Suspicious letters name the next round of arrests

On June 6, the Pune police arrested five Dalit rights activists – including a lawyer, a university professor and a poet – for alleged links to the Koregaon caste violence case. Two days later, Indian TV stations ran breaking-news exclusives on “letters” that the Pune police allegedly seized from the laptop of one of the activists. The letters – which the police provided to the press – allegedly revealed a “sinister” Maoist plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi.

The “letters” made references to several Dalit and lower caste rights activists and academics including a letter allegedly written by Sudha Bharadwaj, a prominent, US-born labour activist and human rights lawyer.

Bharadwaj immediately dismissed the letter as a fabrication and served a news channel, Republic TV – which has been on the forefront of police leaks on the case – a legal notice for their “false, malicious and defamatory allegations” against her.

Security experts have questioned the authenticity of the letters, with Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management telling the news site, Scroll India, that “anyone familiar with the patterns of communication adopted by the Maoists would immediately reject this letter as an obvious fabrication”.

Fabricated or not, the letters that were leaked to the press in June bore the names of five other activists – including Bharadwaj – who would be arrested two months later.

Unlike the earlier raids though, the August 28 arrests of respected Indian activists from their homes in major cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai sparked a massive outcry. As protesters took to the streets, prominent Indian artists and authors, such as Booker Prize-winning writer Arundhati Roy, blasted the arrests as, “as close to a declaration of an emergency as we are going to get”.

A ‘full Erdogan’ leading to Paris

For many international observers, the police investigation into the alleged plot bears striking similarities to the discredited Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials in Turkey that saw hundreds of secularists accused of plotting to overthrow Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. All the suspects in the Turkish cases were later acquitted as judges ruled that the prosecution’s evidence was fabricated.

“The Modi government is veering towards full Erdogan, arresting people in the middle of the night, detaining social activists and journalists across the country under very vague provisions of the Unlawful Activities Act merely for the possession of books written by authors deemed leftist and activist pamphlets from as far back as the 1970s. These are taken to constitute active membership in a plot,” said Mira Kamdar, a Paris-based author of the book, “India in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press).

The attempt to include academics in the sweeping “urban Naxal” dragnet is particularly marked in one of the letters which, the police say, indicates an international Maoist conspiracy to sow “domestic chaos” leading to a “break down of law and order”.

That foreign conspiracy, the letter charges, lead to Paris.

The ‘Paris plot’ thickens – unconvincingly

The incriminating letter, a copy of which has been seen by FRANCE 24, was allegedly found on activist Rona Wilson’s computer in June, is addressed to a mysterious “Comrade Anand”. The writer – a “Comrade Prakash” – informs Comrade Anand that funds have been sent for an April 9-10 “Human Rights convention at Paris” [sic].

Police have not revealed details about the likely identities of comrades Anand or Prakash.

However when a public prosecutor revealed the “terrorist” assassination plotters were part of an “anti-fascist front”, it drew howls of laughter across the country. Wags noted that they had no idea that fighting fascism was a terror offence. The government’s critics meanwhile relished the fact that the public prosecutor had inadvertently admitted that the BJP was fascist.

The Paris letter also features obvious inaccuracies, including crudely translated phrases that academics are unlikely to employ.

“Red Salutes!” begin the letter in what appears to be a literal translation of the Hindi “laal salaam”. The incriminating “Paris meeting” appears to be a conference at the American University of Paris that brought together scholars from across the world working on discrimination against minority and indigenous communities across the world – from Canada’s frontiers to India, Iran and Syria.

The conference website cites the distinguished French Marxist philosopher, Étienne Balibar, whose name crops up in the letter as a “foreign activist”. The names of US academics working on Dalit issues, which appear on the conference programme, also appear as fellow “comrades”, but they are linked to the wrong universities.

For Kamdar, the attempt to intimidate academics, activists and lawyers is evident: “There are two goals: on the one hand, to send a chilling message, a warning to anyone who dares to dissent; and on the other, even if the cases won’t stand up in court, the message is that we will tie you in legal proceedings that will take years to clear and will cost you a lot of money.”

The Indian ‘pressure cooker’

Since the high-profile August 28 arrests, the Indian courts have frequently ruled in favour of the activists, noting the police and prosecution’s frequent procedural breaches of the law.

A day after the arrests, the country’s Supreme Court ordered that the five activists be kept under house arrest instead of police custody and ordered the federal and state governments to provide detailed reasons for their arrests by September 15. One of the justices noted that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy, the pressure cooker will burst if you don’t allow the safety valves”.

The Indian cooker has been boiling for a while now and as elections near, it’s reaching tipping point. All of the activists detained in the “urban Naxal” plot have been detained in the past and are no strangers to the Indian legal nightmare of warrants, arrests, stay orders and delayed court hearings.

“It’s clear the [ruling] BJP has a real problem with Dalit activists and what they are demanding, which is the abolition of the caste system because it goes against their Hindutva vision, which sees any attack on the caste system as an attack on India as a Hindu nation, which therefore represents anti-national activity and these activists for justice are therefore terrorists,” explained Kamdar.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning