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The Incarcerations: BK-16 and the Search for Democracy in India by Alpa Shah – review
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The Incarcerations: BK-16 and the Search for Democracy in India by Alpa Shah – review

It began with a riot. On New Year’s Day 2018, thousands of historically oppressed Dalits arriving for an annual commemoration at Bhima Koregaon, a village in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, were pelted with stones by a mob of Hindu supremacists. One person was killed in the resulting violence and multiple others injured. The cops initially accused two local leaders connected to the Hindu right of inciting the upper-caste residents of the area against Dalits (who occupy the lowest rung of the caste order), but a few months later the investigation changed tack. By May, the police were linking the incident to an anti-caste interfaith public meeting that took place 20 miles away a day before and claiming that the organisers were part of a “chilling Maoist conspiracy” to assassinate the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi.

To those of us living in India since Modi was first elected in 2014, the lack of police impartiality wasn’t exactly a surprise; and yet you couldn’t help but despair at the pace with which the investigation transformed into a witch-hunt. In August that year, the police raided the homes of, among others, a leftwing political columnist, a cartoonist, a poet, a human rights lawyer, a Dalit scholar and a Jesuit priest. Many of them had never heard of Bhima Koregaon nor were they present at the anti-caste public meeting. Yet they were all imprisoned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act (UAPA), a repressive 2008 anti-terror law that has been repurposed as a tool to punish dissenters.

In The Incarcerations, the British anthropologist Alpa Shah dives into the backstories of the “BK 16”, the 16 individuals locked up without a trial in the Bhima Koregaon case. They include an English professor, Shoma Sen, who had also campaigned against the sexual abuse of women from central India’s Indigenous tribes. Sudha Bharadwaj, a Massachusetts-born labour organiser and human rights attorney, was among the first to condemn Sen’s arrest and found herself in jail a couple of months later. Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap are all street theatre practitioners in their 30s who just happened to perform at the public meeting the day before the violence. But the most distressing tale is that of Stan Swamy, a priest and indigenous rights activist, who once canvassed for unconvicted prisoners in his adopted state of Jharkhand. By the time he was arrested in 2020, he was 83 and suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. His health worsened in prison but he was refused bail multiple times. He was even denied a sip cup at one point, though he couldn’t hold a glass of water with his hands because of his ailments. He died after contracting Covid-19 in July 2021, an unconvicted prisoner to the last.

Shah draws on reporting that has been done over the years by the few independent news outlets that still survive in India, as well as conversations with some of the prisoners and their families (seven of the BK 16 are now out on bail).

In her previous book, Nightmarch, she travelled through the forests of central and eastern India to track what was, in the years before Modi, described as the country’s biggest “internal security threat”: a civil war between India’s security forces and Maoist guerrillas. Shah instead found a well-oiled machinery of state terror and repression in place to clear the forests for mining and other industrial projects. Thousands of Indian villagers were being dispossessed of their land, either through incarceration as alleged Maoists, or through arson and murder by state-sponsored vigilante militias. In The Incarcerations, she argues that Modi in many ways merely formalised the furtive brutality of his predecessors, the centrist Congress party-led coalition government. Now the “repression, or the threat of it, is not just hidden in the remote… forests, but can descend on anyone, anywhere”.

Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest, who died an unconvicted prisoner.View image in fullscreen

Last year, the BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai were raided by Indian tax officials, after the release of a documentary that examined Modi’s role in escalating violence during the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat. In 2020, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International ceased its operations in India after the government decided to freeze its bank accounts. Two prominent opposition MPs, Rahul Gandhi and Mahua Moitra, have found themselves expelled from the Indian parliament. Meanwhile state-backed Hindu vigilantes terrorise Muslims in the heartland on suspicion of eating beef (many Hindus consider the cow sacred), and the north-eastern state of Manipur has been paralysed by ethnic minority violence, much of it fuelled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). In the border state of Assam, nearly 2 million people have been stripped of their citizenship and detention centres, complete with brick fences and watchtowers, have been built to house many of them as inmates.

Shah suggests that the saga of this multiform crisis unfolding in India is encapsulated in the lives of the BK 16. Where Bharadwaj and Swamy have championed the rights of central and eastern India’s Indigenous communities, the journalist Gautam Navlakha may have been targeted for his role in documenting human rights violations in Kashmir since the late 80s. The Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde has written about the ways in which the BJP appropriates popular Dalit symbols and icons for electoral gain while also enabling atrocities against the community.

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Rona Wilson, human rights activist and one of the BK 16View image in fullscreen

The bulk of the prosecution’s case against the BK 16 rests on a ludicrous letter recovered from the computer of one prisoner, Rona Wilson, in which he apparently lays out a plot to assassinate Modi. Since 2021, Arsenal Consulting, an American digital forensic firm, has examined cloned copies of computers belonging to Wilson, Swamy and another prisoner, Surendra Gadling, and outlined the ways in which their computers were targeted with malware and incriminating documents planted on them in an operation that began years before the riots. The high point of Shah’s book comes halfway through when she talks to a couple of internet security researchers who say that the email accounts of Wilson and Swamy were also hacked into and, what’s more, that the recovery address and phone number added to these hacked accounts belonged to a police officer investigating the Bhima Koregaon case. She suggests that the hackers – and, arguably, the Indian police – didn’t even bother to cover their tracks.

These days, India’s jails are teeming with prisoners incarcerated without trial. According to one estimate, more than 10,000 people were arrested between 2014 and 2020 under the UAPA: this includes intrepid journalists, student activists, opposition leaders, poets and scores of Muslim civilians. The Bhima Koregaon case has established a troubling blueprint. In the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots, for instance, multiple victims and student activists were again targeted as perpetrators and locked up for years on spurious charges. You can disagree with Shah’s contention that the story of the BK 16 is “a bellwether” for the crumbling of Indian democracy – that happened years ago, I would argue, when we launched the biggest military occupation in the world in Kashmir – but that doesn’t take away from the Kafkaesque plight of the country’s minorities and dissenters in the past decade. Even in the recent general elections – voting ended yesterday, and the results are due on 4 June – Modi and multiple other BJP leaders repeatedly referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” in campaign speeches. At one point in The Incarcerations, a digital security researcher exclaims: “It’s so lowbrow. But it’s still life-altering.” He is referring to the unsophisticated methods of the hackers who logged into Swamy’s and Wilson’s email accounts, but he might as well be describing the authoritarian apparatus set up under Modi.

Source: theguardian.com