Round Table India
Recently, on 18th July, sixteen individuals who gathered in Kannur, Kerala, to discuss the ongoing situation in Kashmir and to express solidarity with the Kashmiris were arrested by the police. In this interview, Round Table India talks with two of the arrested: documentary film-maker Rupesh Kumar, and social media activist Afthab Ellath.
Q1: Can you tell us about the incidents that led to the arrest? What was the program in Kannur about?
Rupesh Kumar: The program was to render solidarity towards the people in Kashmir tortured by the Indian Army. It was organized by a Facebook group called 'standwithkashmir'. One of my friends called me over phone and asked whether I could attend the program. I agreed and asked them to write a request letter to the police to avoid complications later. And the group admin Mr. Jeevan wrote a request letter and took permission from the Kannur town police station SI. We gathered in the town square on Sunday, 17th June 2016, sang some folk songs, recited poetry and talked against the human rights violations and killings of people in Kashmir. As the program progressed, some people interfered and shouted "you cannot conduct a program against Indian army in Kannur and it is because of Indian army you people are living safely in this country". They tried to physically interrupt the program. And we told them that, this is a democratic platform and we have talked what our view on human rights violations in Kashmir is, and if they also wanted to talk about their view, to go ahead. They declined, and made a chaos. Some of them called the police and two police men came and took us to police station and registered a preventive arrest at the police station.
Afthab Ellath: The Kannur event was a legally organized cultural program to express our solidarity to the people of Kashmir who are going through the trauma of military violence, and also to oppose the use of lethal weapons like pellet guns not only against the teenagers who are demonstrating against the military occupation, but even against the little kids who are just caught up in between. There were many disturbing reports which showed that pellet guns were being used against young kids who were not in any kinds of protests. According to one report, a small girl who was watching the events from the second story of a building was shot at. These reports show that many of these youngsters were deliberately targeted to create permanent disability and to go through a devastated life, one that that is more miserable than dying in many ways. Many would lose their eyesight permanently due to the indiscriminate use of these weapons. So, resonating the worldwide condemnation of the military action in Kashmir, there was a peaceful event planned at Kannur town square with the required police permission.
As I said earlier, it was a cultural program where individuals and artists were invited to spend an evening singing songs, drawing pictures and reciting poetry. Around a hundred odd people who were there in the park were also listening to us, until a person who claimed to be an ex-military man raised some objections. He valorized himself saying it was only because of the sacrifices of people like him that our freedom is protected. One of us explained to him that we were not insensitive to the individual sufferings of the people caught up in a conflict, whether it is a civilian or a military man, but we are here to raise the larger issues and protest the expansionist and aggressive nature of the state that is insensitive to the human suffering that has been going on for decades. At this moment, two individuals who carried the visible signs of RSS affiliation came to the scene and started disrupting the program. We avoided violence by inviting those who have differences of opinion to come and express them on stage. When these guys found that they would fail to create violence, they called the police claiming that we were raising some anti-national slogans.
One person among the audience actually accepted our invitation and expressed his difference of opinion. He was the one talking at the event site when the police reached there. The policemen blindly acted on a phone call without verifying any fact or even without a formal complaint. It is clear that the actual attack on a democratically and legally organized event came from the sangh fascists and the police acted siding with the violators of law, driven by their own biases.
Q2: It appears that those arrested are democratic-minded individuals from diverse backgrounds. Why were all of you arrested? What charges were made?
Rupesh: Yes, we were from diverse backgrounds. Of the sixteen people who got arrested, there were Muslim and Dalit people. One participant was a DYFI member. The funny thing was, it was a democratic platform and we got permission from the police for such a gathering. But the police spared the people who tried to physically block the program while those who behaved in a lawful manner were captured. Is this Indian democracy? Is this the way the Indian state operates? This is really a fearful situation. And I think the police and the civil society have a pre-conceived notion that those who talk, even if it is in a democratic manner, are terrorists and anti-nationals. And many of us having Muslim/Dalit identities adds fuel to such notions. No charges were made on us. The police told us it is a preventive arrest. But the state surveillance on our life will be continued and it is a human rights violation and torture.
Afthab: One of the policemen arrested was actually threatening us continuously to book us under the draconian charges of UAPA. This was based on his assumption that we were all Muslims. When he identified that we were a mix of people from Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim background, his Islamophobic rant ended. This is the clear evidence of the dangerous bias of the police that our public sphere should seriously discuss, as many young boys are getting trapped because of these biases.
They also didn't do any verification of the facts and directly took us to the police station. No enquiries about what happened were made to the eye witnesses at the site. There was no sloganeering at the venue. It was a cultural program meant to create a democratic dialogue regarding the human sufferings going on in Kashmir. Don't we, as the citizens responsible for the Indian liberal democracy, have also the moral obligation to discuss and know about what is happening to the people whom we consider as part of the Indian population?
This arrest and the subsequent harassment of these 16 individuals by the police and other infamous investigative agencies show how diminished our democratic spaces are, especially when the political actors are from the Dalit, Bahujan and minority background. The continuing cyber-attack against Rupesh Kumar, a well-known Dalit documentary maker and social activist, is also an indication. We have not received any words of support from the political parties or a meaningful solidarity from the powerful secular liberal intelligentsia until now. The mainstream media is also spreading lies and rumours to keep us under suspicion. We understand this as a clear evidence of the fact that the entire Indian establishment and its liberal public sphere are all complicit in the ongoing violence in Kashmir and it is impossible to have a meaningful democratic dialogue around the Kashmir issue in India under these frightening circumstances. The so-called secular progressive Kerala is worse than many other Indian states when the Kashmir issue is discussed. Many are scared to talk about this "sensitive" issue.
The second grave aspect is the increased image of sacred-ness of the military that helps to evade questions of brutal violence committed by the men in uniform. Nationalist discourse strengthened through the media and the cultural productions around narratives of "sacrifices" of the military sanctions the massive extrajudicial punitive justice going on in Kashmir and the North-Eastern states under draconian laws like AFSPA.
The increased influence of fervent hindutva and cultural nationalist ideology on the law enforcement machinery is also evident in this affair. The so-called secular political parties distance themselves as this is either a 'sensitive' issue or a question of national security itself for them.
Q3: We heard about biased reports appearing in the media about the issue. What were these?
Rupesh: The mainstream media played its worst game. The Malayalam daily with the second largest circulation, 'Mathrubhumi', cooked up a story that we are under the surveillance of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) who are watching our activities. Mathrubhumi has really got a saffron character these days. The newspaper wrote that we do not have criminal records but the IB is enquiring how we suddenly came to such a solidarity program, that our Facebook activities are under surveillance, etc., Malayala Manorama, the newspaper with the largest circulation wrote that the program was disrupted by local citizens. Then who we are? People from Mars? We are also locals from Kannur and citizens of this country who follow the rules and the Indian constitution. The mainstream media played a psychological game, portraying us as terrorists or anti-nationals. These newspapers could have talked to us to get our version of this incident. But they didn't do that.
Afthab: Kerala mainstream media is a savarna-secular sphere. Some of the oldest media houses like Mathrubhumi and Manorama are already marked for their anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit-Bahujan biases. In recent times, these newspapers were in the forefront of the anti-Muslim hysteria created through fantasies like 'Love Jihad', Muslim radicalization, and ISIS connections. Using the recent controversies around Muslim preacher Zakir Naik and the stories of some "missing" families, they revived the fiction of Love Jihad once again. In this context, the unethical media found it convenient to create some fear, uncertainty, and suspicion around this event. As many of us arrested in these events are people without any past criminal records and are known for our online activism, they were creating fear around the possible "invisible" forces behind the event and we might be knowingly or unknowingly becoming the pawns for their wicked intentions. That was how the narratives were constructed. In their reporting, the fascist forces who disrupted a peaceful event became the unmarked "public" or just "people" and we became the elements who raised anti-nationalist slogans.
Q4: It seems that attacks were made against you online on Facebook as well? How do you respond to these?
Rupesh: Yes, there was a Facebook attack against me and it was brutal. Somebody commented on a Facebook status that I'm an agent of a Muslim militant group who is ready to sacrifice his life for them. And that I do militant trainings in my place in Pazhayangadi in Kannur for Muslim groups. This message was spread in WhatsApp groups in our area and made a complete chaos and tarnished my image. My family and friends got scared and asked me what was happening with me. I was mentally down and I still don't know how I overcame such a brutal attack against me on social media. But I was firm, and wrote in media and interacted with MediaOne news channel, and put up Facebook statuses clarifying my position. Friends around the world supported me with solidarity and I feel that is my greatest treasure in my life. Though I was shaken, I acted quickly and filed a complaint to state DGP in Kerala and SC/ST commission for such a brutal attack on social media against me.
Afthab: There were many rabid attacks to malign our reputation as individuals. All the updates that came in our support were responded with threatening comments aimed to incite violence. I was forced to change the privacy settings of my Facebook page to restrict access to it. Many were updates that celebrated the success of patriots over anti-national elements through this vigilante nationalism.
Rupesh Kumar was badly targeted and had to undergo persistent hate campaign accusing him as a terror-sympathizer for some time. A Dalit sympathizing with Kashmiri cause is unthinkable for the cyber-sanghi and other nationalists, as the Kashmir issue is projected and perceived as one of Muslim separatism, communalism and simply terrorism for them. So the attack against Rupesh is a revenge for the Dalit-Bahujan solidarity to a "Muslim" cause.
Q5: Did Facebook, which is quick at censoring out material related to Kashmir protests, respond to the slander against you on Facebook?
Rupesh: No, Facebook didn't act at all and didn't censor the attacks against me. The attack was brutal. Some online newspapers like 'East Coast Daily' cooked up false stories saying that we were manhandled by locals for our activities. There was much name-calling, and orders like 'Go to Pakistan'. There were calls to manhandle us to teach us a lesson. Surely, people like us who are interacting with the mainstream society and media will be treated with mistrust by society and state in the future. That is the most fearful situation. And in my case, it is a clear strategic step to silence me for I am talking Ambedkarite politics against the brahmanical Indian caste system. Nowadays, I write and interact in visual media as an Ambedkarite. If they can portray me as a terrorist and anti-national, others will be scared to talk Ambedkarite democratic politics. But I am firm and will be talking politics which strengthens the Indian constitution and Ambedkarism.
Afthab: This is the biggest joke. The openness of Facebook. Facebook removed many news reports and status updates on Kashmir during the protests classifying them as violation of their policies. They also blocked many Facebook accounts which were restored only after many days. A well-known Kashmiri woman activist and intellectual Huma Dar's Facebook account remains blocked and an online campaign is going on against this.
But the same Facebook policy doesn't see the cyber-attacks and malignant campaigns going on against reputed individuals like Rupesh as offensive. This is how the greedy corporate power is colluding with the repressive state for their mutual benefit.
Q6: Are there any restrictions that the arrests place on you and others? What are the future steps?
Rupesh: They succeeded in creating mistrust on Indian citizens. And most of us except me and Afthab are youths, below 30s, and they have a future ahead of them. They are students, professionals etc. and their lives will be affected because of such campaigns against them as terrorists. And this is a clear violation of democratic rights. I have decided to move forward stating that I am a part of this country as a citizen and I will use the Indian constitution and law for any such movements against me. And being a Dalit, more than physical attacks, in my case, the media, social media and a group of society tried to 'kill' me with some psychological campaigns. But I will survive.
Afthab: Until now we don't know the nature of these cases. Police claimed that it was a preventive arrest initially and assured us that there is nothing serious in the charges though we were not shown the copy of the FIR. One of the arrested came to know that IPC 153 has been booked against us, which charges us of speech to incite violence. Since our release, many of us are getting calls to go to police station and provide them details of our passport copies and other documents. Despite giving all these details, the policemen are visiting our homes claiming it as a part of enquiry. They came to my home twice to ask the same questions that I answered truthfully at the office of Kannur CI. This has become a harassment for our families. They also gave indications about more visits by other investigating agencies. As they haven't given us any indications about the nature of the case they registered and the investigations that is going on, we are not able to seek a legal remedy for this harassment.
The questions were prepared by Sruthi HM.
Pictures courtesy: the internet.