Hey you, Urban Naxal

Updated: Sep 08, 2018, 09:25 IST | Debjani Paul

What does 'Urban Naxal' even mean? According to the right wing, it's anybody who thinks for themselves

Hey you, Urban Naxal
Illustration/ Ravi Jadhav

Are you a lawyer, or an academician, journalist or activist? If your answer is yes, then the right wing has just put you on a list of possible Urban Naxals. Last week, the RSS held a seminar on how to identify Urban Naxals and cited a fact-finding report from Bastar: "Intellectuals working as academicians, lawyers, media persons act as sympathisers of Maoist activities and spearhead the movement by making it appear like an ideological war against caste and class."

The term 'Urban Naxal' has been at the centre of a burning national debate ever since the state police slapped five well-known human rights activists with the same label and incarcerated them on August 29 in connection with the Elgaar Parishad and the following Bhima-Koregaon violence. They had spoken out in support of five other activists who had been arrested in June in the same case.

Varavara Rao is all grins after the Supreme Court's order for the activists' release, sending them home for house arrest instead
Varavara Rao is all grins after the Supreme Court's order for the activists' release, sending them home for house arrest instead

If you're asking why being an activist or an "intellectual" would automatically mark one out as a potential enemy of the state, several eminent thinkers and scholars such as Arundhati Roy (see quote) have alleged that this is merely a sinister ploy by the state to gag anyone with the capacity to speak out against the status quo.

A policeman stops lawyers in Bengaluru protesting against the ongoing confinement of activists by Pune police on Friday. File Pics
A policeman stops lawyers in Bengaluru protesting against the ongoing confinement of activists by Pune police on Friday. File Pics

'Govt is scared of anybody who speaks against them'
Nandini Sundar, Sociology professor at Delhi University, explains the power of catchphrases like 'Urban Naxal'

What do you think of the phrase Urban Naxal?
It is stupid. If Maoists were to spread to urban areas, they wouldn't do so through people like Gautam [Navlakha], Sudha [Bharadwaj], who have been engaged in open democratic politics all their lives. All of them have called for peace talks at some point. The term is similar to 'anti-national' or 'Tukde Tukde gang'. It has no relationship to the Naxalite movement.

Why is the right-wing branding academicians, journalists, lawyers and activists Urban Naxals? Did such branding lead up to the recent arrests?
This government is scared of anybody w ho speaks out against them. It's obvious the Maharashtra police feel emboldened to arrest whoever they want whenever they want. Nobody involved in lynching is arrested. Nobody involved in right-wing terrorism is banned. Instead of catching the people who were actually involved in violence against Dalits at Bhima Koregaon, the police are arresting all sorts of people without evidence.

The government says it supports Dalit rights, but brands those who speak out as anti-national...
So, there are sarkari Dalits and there are other Dalits they want to repress. If you're not among the 'good Dalits' who support the Hindutva agenda, you are labelled anti-national.

How can we battle this propaganda war?
That's the worrying part. These are easy catchphrases - Urban Naxal, libtard, sickularist - that the masses can be mobilised upon. We have to focus on real issues - repression, poverty and agrarian crises. We cannot continue with this war on people, we need a solution that goes beyond the government's binaries, involving conversation and imagination. This government is taking away any space for a creative solution. Maoists have to realise that the movement is not going anywhere, and get ready to negotiate. It's the government's responsibility to initiate peace talks.

Dr P V Ramana and Dr Ajai Sahni
Dr P V Ramana and Dr Ajai Sahni

Security experts are sceptical
The concept of Left revolutionaries building a network in urban areas isn't new. Ask Dr P V Ramana, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), who wrote research papers in the urban arm of Maoists in 2005. But as Ramana says, it's hardly accurate to call this a spreading threat. "Maoists have admitted in their documents that they have not been able to make as much of an impact in urban areas as they had wanted. Although their presence cannot be denied, at this moment, the urban network is not so huge that we need to worry," he said.

Explained the urban Maoist set-up, Ramana said, "In certain cities, they have urban cells, and these have been detected from time to time. These urban cells extend logistical support to the Maoists, supplying clothing, medicines, food. These centres have also been detected while procuring arms, or getting them manufactured. The cells further serve as a place of rest and recuperation of for Maoist cadres, and have also been used in attempts to mobilise youth and industrial workers in the movement. In such urban centres, you also have intellectuals who may extend ideological and moral support to Maoists."

But, he said, it would be erroneous to put a blanket label of Urban Naxal on intellectuals or anyone who speaks about the causes they are fighting for. "An Urban Naxal, according to me, is someone in urban centres working actively to help the Naxal movement. To call everyone an urban naxalite would be erroneous," he added.

The problem is that the term Urban Naxal is vague. If a prominent urban intellectual were to write an article about the Naxal causes, it would grant them legitimacy, said Ramana. "But unless they are taking up arms or are provoking violence, writing an article is not a crime," he added.

Rubbishing police theory
Dr Ajai Sahni, author and expert on counter-terrorism, was even more critical of the police's theory that the arrested human rights activists are Urban Naxals. "All 10 [five were arrested in June, and the rest last month] have been sympathetic with the Left. They may be a nuisance for the government but, it is stupid to say that they were plotting the murder of the prime minister. Even if that is the case, you would need hard evidence. Even the so-called letter they are talking about, [which allegedly mentions the activists' names] does not reconcile with how the Maoists communicate."

"Maoists constantly emphasise on secrecy; the word is mentioned 35 times in their manual. None of their past correspondence refers to operatives or targets by name, or mentions things like 'we want 400 rounds of ammunition'. They use code words, such as pencils and markers," added Sahni, who serves as the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, and the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

'It's a slur'
He further said, "The purpose of such branding is to create panic, to create an atmosphere of fear that terrorists are going to overrun the nation, so the state can justify taking more power. Urban Naxal is not a description; its a term of abuse. They know the branding will cause offence, that it will polarise people against them."

He said of the police's theory, "Very frankly, these kind of fabrications simply expose the utter and complete ignorance of those building the case. Even if you and I try to plan our first crime, we will not write our names and the names of the targets in a letter and leave it in plain view."

But catching real criminals doesn't seem to be the purpose of this exercise. "They [state] know they will never get a conviction, but for the next few years, they can make their [activists'] lives difficult, with the constant threat of arrest and appearances in court. The judicial process in this country is so difficult, and it can be used to punish people. Those people are not necessarily Left or Right, just inconvenient to a section of authority."

Vivek Agnihotri
Vivek Agnihotri

Whose line is it anyway?
Although the concept is not new, the term 'Urban Naxal' is said to have been coined by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri and Twitter aficionado in a few essays and his book released in May, Urban Naxals: The Making Of Buddha In A Traffic Jam. In fact, hours after the detention of the five activists last month, Agnihotri took to Twitter, asking 'young minds' to draw up a list of "people defending Urban Naxals", never mind what the list was for.

The move backfired though, as scores of people responded to his tweet with the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal, asking to be put on the list in a show of solidarity with the activists.

Excerpts of mid-day's interview with Agnihotri:

Who would you say qualifies as an Urban Naxal?
All those who directly or indirectly work for the network of Naxals, which is funded by terror organisations and has an objective of taking over the state of India (not governments of BJP or Congress, but the state which belongs to all of us) with armed revolution. This objective shall be met by capturing cities. Cities will be captured by creating a state of civil war, by creating chaos, conflict and stopping the growth story.

What do you think about claims from many that this is just a bogey, just a way for the right wing to label and dismiss the Left and dissidents?
What has Left or Right got to do with this? We are talking terrorism. We are talking India's internal security. We are talking about a sinister plan to destroy the state of India based on Mao's ideology. The same Mao who killed over 60 million innocent people.

And who are these many? Some gossip mongers in social media? Have you spoken to any security expert? Have you spoken to any intelligence agency? Only what they say matters.

What do you think about #MeTooUrbanNaxal?
They are stupid people [using the hashtag]. Most of them don't even know ABCD of naxalism. They just want to look smart in the eyes of their followers. Ask tribals - the real victims of naxalism - what they think. Ask a mother whose 4-month-old baby was hammered to death by these barbarians.

Arundhati Roy

'It's a tired old trick. An ideological war against class and caste sounds like a very good idea to me. To call everybody who thinks along these lines a Naxal is an excuse to militarise the State. An excuse to pass un-democratic laws like the UAPA. To criminalise uncomfortable conversations. To deal with everything as a law and order problem. And also to divert attention away from other disasters that are unfolding - the fallout of demonetisation, GST, the Rafale scandal.
The list is long and sad'
Arundhati Roy, author-activist, speaking to mid-day

Firoze Mithiborwala

'The Congress started the 'Urban Naxal' terminology. This is not a new term and it was even in the Congress regime used to create a threat perception. Now, this term has been appropriated by the BJP, which has perfected this to an art form. The only way to stop being misled by dangerous catchphrases is to be informed and educated about history. Then, the public will see that the biggest victories have come through non-violent satyagrahis'
Firoze Mithiborwala, activist

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