India’s democracy suffered a body blow this week when police raids across six cities resulted in five prominent left-wing human rights defenders being arrested, the homes and offices of many more searched, and their documents, books, mobile phones and laptops seized.

These included lawyers, a poet, an 81-year-old Jesuit priest and a management teacher. They were all charged under an extraordinary anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows investigating agencies to withhold many aspects of due process.

There are three grounds that police officials alluded to in trying to justify the arrests, but did not join the dots. One was a letter allegedly found on the laptop of a person arrested in connection with an alleged plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The second was that these activists and intellectuals were party to a plot to foment violence that rocked parts of Mumbai at the start of the year, after so-called low-caste Dalits celebrated a 200-year-old victory of Dalit soldiers in the British army against a upper caste Maratha king. This despite the fact the violence broke out after upper-caste activists attacked the Dalit rally. The third was that the accused sympathised with insurgent Maoists, with an “intent to strike terror in the people of India” and “intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security, economic security or sovereignty of India”.

None of the arrested activists have advocated violence against the state. But what is common to each one is that they have fought bravely and resolutely for the rights of India’s most oppressed peoples, including tribal populations who are gravely threatened by large, predatory private corporations. They are also vocal and resolute critics of the ruling party and government, deploring both the persecution of religious minorities, disadvantaged castes and workers; and what they regard to be crony-capitalist largesse to big business.

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The government and its supporters have consistently attacked its critics as “anti-national”. The supreme leader, his party, the majority Hindu community and the nation are all portrayed by the government as “one”, so any criticism of Modi, his administration’s policies or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be effectively transmuted into attacks on Hindus and on the country.

As such, a new phrase of abuse has been added to the vocabulary of supporters of the government: “Urban Naxal” – Naxal being the Indian label for Maoists.

Urban Maoists are intellectuals who are allegedly overground sympathisers for Maoist insurgents, giving them legitimacy and ideological support. This invective has been increasingly applied to everybody who stands to the left of Indian politics and in support of the rights of disadvantaged people. Noisy right-wing television channels, which have emerged as propaganda arms of the ruling government, described all those arrested as Urban Naxals.

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India’s Supreme Court intervened to partially stay the action of the police and allow only the house arrest of the activists until its hearing next week. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud cautioned the government: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, the pressure cooker may burst.”

Retired judge of the Supreme Court Justice P. B. Sawant, who formerly chaired India’s Press Council, was even more scathing. “This is state terror let loose,” he declared. “It is complete lawlessness by the ruling party. All because they know that opinion has turned against them in all walks of life.”

His rage is shared by large sections of India’s intellectuals and civil society. In a joint statement, some of India’s best-known writers asked: “Their crimes? Insisting on human rights, writing, analysing, teaching, giving voice to dissent against injustice and inequality.”

Now in its fifth year of office, with elections only a few months away, there are signs of rising discontent and anger against the ruling BJP government.

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Modi promised India’s massive young population 20 million jobs every year, but the country is trapped in the quicksand of jobless growth, with the number of new employment opportunities barely a few hundred thousand each year. India’s farm sector, which employs more than half the population is in a state of near-terminal crisis. The economy is also floundering, with the rupee hitting an all-time low of more than 70 to a US dollar.

All of this continues to be aggravated by attacks against Muslims and Dalits by lynch mobs, which have been openly supported, even valourised by members of the ruling party.

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The use of the anti-terror law against rights activists and left-wing intellectuals still does not oblige the police to reveal their grounds for the arrests. But the political subtext of the charges is anything but ambiguous.

It is aimed at tarnishing the reputation of many of the country’s leading activists and intellectuals as “Maoists” to link rising Dalit anger against the ruling government to Maoist violence, and to suggest they not only seek to overthrow the lawfully elected government of the day with violence, but also assassinate the country’s prime minister. It is a naked bid to enfeeble democracy and warn other dissenters. India’s democratic forces are fighting back, and the battle is turning increasingly ugly.

Harsh Mander is a social activist and author of ‘Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre’ and ‘Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger’