Gautam Navlakha is a Delhi-based veteran journalist, author, civil liberties, human rights and peace activist best known for his fierce and sustained critique of the Indian state’s militarism against its own citizenry in three broad zones – the northeastern states, Kashmir valley, and the central Indian forested zone in Chhattisgarh.
He has been actively involved with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) – one of India’s leading civil liberties and democratic rights defence organizations- working to protect, extend and help implement fundamental rights as guaranteed in the Indian constitution. He is a very well-known public intellectual, writing extensively since the 1970s in popular media and as a member of the staff & editorial team of of India’s leading and internationally acclaimed academic publication, the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). In the 1980s, he published several issues of EPW in Hindi (titled Saancha) which he edited and produced with his own resources. Extremely well-researched and historically situated, each of Gautam Navlakha’s articles demonstrate a deep and committed understanding of Indian state and politics, and challenge Indians to be reflective and vigilant about democracy.
On August 28, 2018, Gautam was arrested at his residence in New Delhi during a raid. He faces charges under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, along with Sections 153A, 505, 117 and 120 of the Indian Penal Code. He, along with other human rights defenders, was arrested based on purported evidence of their “involvement in inciting violence” on 31 December 2017 at Bhima-Koregaon near Pune, Maharashtra. The defenders were kept under house arrest as directed by the Supreme Court of India. The Court questioned the police’s decision to arrest the human rights defenders nine months after the incident, pointing out that they are all reputable citizens, and that “stifling the dissent” was harmful for a democratic society. Gautam accused the government of “shielding the real culprits” (two prominent Hindutva or Hindu supremacist activists known to be very close to the ruling regime) of the violence in Bhima Koregaon. In a statement, he called his arrest a “ploy against political dissent” by a “vindictive and cowardly government”.
On October 1, 2018, the Delhi High Court set Gautam free from house arrest, quashing a local court order granting transit remand to the Maharashtra police to transfer him to Pune. In his on his release from house arrest, Gautam indicated his commitment to human rights:
“I cannot forget my co-accused and tens of thousands of other political prisoners in India who remain incarcerated for their ideological convictions, or on account of false charges filed against them, and/or wrongful conviction under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – UAPA.”
Although the judiciary granted interim protection to Gautam, the Supreme Court on 16th March, 2020 rejected pre-arrest bail and asked him, together with co-accused Anand Teltmbde to surrender by three weeks.
Gautam Navlakha is best known for his relentless work on the human rights conditions in Kahsmir and for being a staunch and consistent critic of the Indian state’s militarized control over its own citizens. Writing in the EPW in 2011 against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 imposed on at least 131 of India’s 700+ districts and covering at least 150 million of its citizens, Gautam commented on on the iconic fast unto death by Irom Sharmila in Manipur (northeastern region of India where the AFSPA was introduced in 1958 to quell dissidence):
“In order to understand the significance of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and our response to it, we must comprehend the role of the armed forces of the Indian union in wars of suppression. It is my contention that our opposition to AFSPA is not only because it protects the Armed Forces of the Union (the AFU, which is how the Indian Constitution deﬁnes army, navy, air force and the central paramilitary forces) but also because we, in the civil liberties and democratic rights groups, oppose the policy of military suppression of our own people in the ﬁrst place. Indeed, it is the Indian state’s policy of military suppression of its own people that necessitates protection from prosecution of the military forces deployed to carry out the dirty task of brutally restoring the State’s authority, which, in turn, legitimises counter-violence.”
Never shying away from analyzing any conflict openly, deeply, and without any concern apparently for his own safety, Gautam embodies what any citizen of a truly democratic society would take for granted – to be able to walk and talk without fear of repression or censure by the government.
Not surprisingly, along with the northeast part of India, much of which is reeling under the AFSPA, Gautam is also a prominent critic and observer of India’s other conflicted zone – Kashmir. He served as a convenor on a report on ‘impunity of the Indian armed forces’ on display in Kashmir. The report was titled Alleged perpetrators: Stories of impunity in Jammu and Kashmir and published by the International Peoples’ Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice. Making the critical point about the ways that militarism has risen to prominence not only in detained obvious gross violations by the Indian state, but also seeped into Indian sociopolitical and cultural life through the rise of Hindutva (Hindu supremacist ideology) over the last few decades, Gautam challenges all Indians to reflect upon how Kashmir is narrated in the media and Kashmiris is thought of by Indians: “Those who blame Kashmiris for being religious fanatics must first answer if the presence of RSS in power at the Centre makes all of us Hindutvavadis?” … After two decades of activism in Kashmir, Gautam was denied entry into Srinagar in 2011. He was under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Basing his analysis on his wide-ranging and longtime conversations with people on the ground, including most importantly the youth of Kashmir who seek some ‘normalcy’ in their lives which they have never experienced, Navlakha issues this insightful analysis in 2016:
„In a situation where trust is lacking, truth becomes a casualty of conflict, the quest for justice is jettisoned for impunity of the armed forces, and “development” results in further militarisation and financial dependence. It is then inevitable that the space for political resolution will shrink … It is here that the indigenous character of the movement and militancy has to be understood. It is delusional to think that the movement is sponsored or managed by Pakistan. Instead, it is squarely a contribution of the Indian state and of a society which rejects the question of Kashmir’s autonomy, believing that the people who have suffered egregiously at the hands of the Indian state need not be assuaged. Falsification is essential to the propaganda of counter-insurgency, and the Indian public should not get fooled by it.“
Turning more recently to India’s third broad zone of conflict, and one which is perhaps the best example of both Navlakha’s intellectual acumen and the Indian bourgeoisie’s stranglehold over the Indian state’s ‘development policy’, Gautam’s study and writings deepen our understanding of the conflict zone in southern Chhattisgarh. There, he focuses on making sense of the interplay Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion of four actors: adivasi (indigenous people) struggles against displacement from their ancestral land; corporates with large investments in mining and other extractive and ‘development’ projects due to the large mineral and forest cover in this region; the Indian state’s military presence along with a state-sponsored vigilante movement (which has been ruled to be illegal by the Indian Supreme Court); and finally, the armed revolutionary groups known as Maoists. In a series of academic essays, and a book “”, Gautam makes a dispassionate analysis of facts of left-wing extremism (LWE – as per state jargon) in the form of Maoists and adivasis on the ground in the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh. While courageous enough to express political sympathy for the Maoists, he is also unsparing in his criticism of their mistakes and crimes.
He brings all of these together in one analysis thus. Resonant with his own status as an intellectual dissident against the Indian state, he argues that the campaign by the Indian state to brand all adivasi villagers as “Maoists” is willful and strategic.
The vilification campaign against such people, alleging that they are linked to Maoists, is intrinsic to the war. The primary objective of the counterinsurgency (COIN) though is to force the ordinary people to stop supporting the rebels. This is done through the use of brute force, and by humiliation, which is intended to erode their will to resist. Rape, molestation, harassment, loot and plunder are engaged in to achieve this. Indeed in the aftermath of an encounter/ambush, it is the villagers who are the first target of the government forces who vent out their anger and frustration on unarmed civilians.
He then shows how, the fact of state-led unequal development worsened by historical exclusion, marginalization, and exploitation of indigenous peoples is the kind of violence that sets into motion other forms of violence culminating in the state’s counterinsurgent operations. His analysis is bold and nuanced – neither condoning the Maoists, nor the Indian state’s repression, while simultaneously allowing a glimpse into structural violence.
So the Maoist movement remains relevant for people’s resistance to halt corporate–military inroads into the forest domains of the Adivasis. The richest 1% of Indians who owned 36.8% of wealth in 2000, now own 58.4% of India’s wealth, whereas 70% of Indians who owned 13.9% of country’s wealth in 2010, saw their share shrunk by half to 7% in 2016, in just six years.
This then is Gautam Navlakha’s landmark contribution – to challenge all Indians to think about the complexity of reality in India, the complicity of the Indian state and big capital intent on putting profits over people, and the need to think of political and democratic not militarist resolutions of conflicts in India. That the Indian state is intent on putting him behind bars is not surprising. Dissenters of the caliber of Navlakha are hard to silence otherwise.