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'India's Watergate': A tale of political manipulation, disinformation and nationalism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

India is wrapping up elections this week. We're going to take you back to the last Indian elections five years ago, to a scandal that some call India's Watergate. It has not brought down Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. In fact, he is expected to win a third term. The scandal started with a civil rights campaign that led to hundreds of arrests, allegations of computer hacking and the death of an elderly priest behind bars. NPR's Lauren Frayer has our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's a giant granite monument to a 19th century battle - rises from sort of grassy farm fields next to a highway in western India. Even now, it's sensitive. Police are guarding the area. There's a fence around it. They won't let me close or let me film.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: She's showing us the monument from here. And there is the river there.

FRAYER: Behind this monument is a village that's segregated by caste. Sangeeta Kamble is a Dalit. That's an oppressed caste that's historically been treated as untouchable, relegated to living on the outskirts. Kamble lives near an open sewer and mounds of trash. But she actually did a stint as the village chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLINKING)

SANGEETA KAMBLE: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: And the reason that's possible, she says, for a Dalit vegetable peddler like her who doesn't read or write to become head of the village is because of the 19th century battle that monument behind us commemorates - the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, named for the Bhima River nearby. Its history looms large, from textbooks to Bollywood movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking in non-English language).

FRAYER: In 1818, this riverbank is where an army of oppressed castes fought the elites and won. It helped inspire the author of India's constitution, the late B. R. Ambedkar, more than a century later, to enshrine affirmative action into Indian law.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: But when tens of thousands of people came together to celebrate the battle's 200th anniversary in 2018, violence broke out.

KAMBLE: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Kamble says she saw cars torched, neighbors turning on neighbors. The riots eventually led to one of the biggest scandals for Indian democracy. It began, though, with a peaceful rally. There were hip-hop performers and civil rights songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

ANURADHA SONULE: We are singing now, singing and acting.

FRAYER: Anuradha Sonule is a member of a Dalit theater troupe that set up a stage on the ruins of what was once the upper caste ruler's fortress. The location was symbolic.

SONULE: It was very peaceful and very cultural.

FRAYER: Her colleague Rupali Jadhav recited a poem...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUPALI JADHAV: (Reading) I can't breathe.

FRAYER: ...About how Black lives matter in America inspires oppressed people here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JADHAV: (Reading) I can't breathe because of discrimination, because of racism.

FRAYER: Now, this theater troupe, called Kabir Kala Manch, is famous for left-wing causes, and its members are vocal about their opposition to Modi. They ended the rally that day with a pledge recited by tens of thousands of attendees from oppressed castes and indigenous tribes...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...All vowing not to vote for the BJP, Prime Minister Modi's party, calling it a Hindu supremacist group. Now, Indians used to vote largely by caste and clan, but Modi has changed that. He belongs to an oppressed caste himself, and even though his party has upper caste roots, Modi has sought to unite Hindu voters from all different castes. So when Dalits took that pledge on live TV denouncing Modi by the tens of thousands, Sonule, the performer, says it must have rattled Modi's party.

SONULE: That pledge was important, actually. And they were scared. Government were scared. You know, we gathered peoples in too much quantity.

FRAYER: And it must have set in motion what happened in the coming days, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Now it’s a sleepy village with historical importance. Bhima Koregaon was witness to violence on New Year's Day. Dalit groups from across India...

FRAYER: Deadly riots broke out around that victory monument, which Dalits are so proud of. Sonule watched the violence on TV with horror, she recalls.

SONULE: I feel very bad, you know? I shocked actual - how it will be happening in that place.

FRAYER: One of the people who led that anti-Modi pledge on stage was Prakash Ambedkar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRAKASH AMBEDKAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He's the grandson of B. R. Ambedkar, the author of India's constitution. Prakash, the grandson, has served three terms in India's parliament crusading against caste discrimination and against Modi. He says those riots were not spontaneous.

AMBEDKAR: It didn't happen suddenly. This was pre-planned, and the government was involved in it.

FRAYER: The state government, he says, which at the time was run by Modi's party. Ambedkar accuses the government of instigating the violence in order to blame its left-wing opponents, round them up and jail them. This was ahead of the 2019 election.

AMBEDKAR: Yeah, yeah. The arrest is to silence, to send a very strong message that no tolerance will be allowed.

FRAYER: Two Modi loyalists were arrested for the riots, but they were released, the cases against them dropped, and a new theory emerged.

SHALINI GERA: A week later, there was a complaint that it was actually a left-wing conspiracy.

FRAYER: Shalini Gera is a defense lawyer for some of those charged in this case. Police arrested three members of that Dalit theater group who all deny being present at the riots. And as the investigation passed from local to federal authorities, they cast a wider net. They started arresting professors, trade unionists, poets and some of India's most famous human rights activists, even an elderly Catholic priest on the other side of the country. The only thing they had in common was opposition to Modi.

GERA: Somewhere along the way, the police stopped looking into all the other complaints and concentrated on this one complaint that said the violence is the result of a giant conspiracy by these underground left-wing elements. And that's when the police started adding the terror charges.

FRAYER: Terror charges, because Modi's government says it uncovered evidence linking them all to a brazen plot to assassinate the prime minister. There was wall-to-wall news coverage of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Big news coming in...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Police confirm that there was a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

FRAYER: The evidence really does sound damning - letters and minutes of terror cell meetings found on the suspects' computers. But the suspects and outside experts who have reviewed evidence in this case say they were framed, that someone hacked into their phones and laptops and planted fake evidence on them. Tom Hegel is a U.S.-based cybersecurity expert who's never been to India and has no skin in the game. He reviewed the digital forensics in this case and told me...

TOM HEGEL: There was cases of files being planted. And then, like the next day, the arrests went down. You could go your whole career in this industry and never find something that's as obvious. It's like a slam dunk. This is fabricated. This should be thrown out. These individuals have not done this. So it's extremely disturbing.

FRAYER: Disturbing because he traces the hack straight back to Modi's government. Police and government officials deny that. Now we're familiar with state-sponsored cyberattacks in places like Russia or China. But this is in the world's biggest democracy, and there has not been much uproar. Six years after their arrests, 16 of India's most prominent intellectuals are still waiting for their trial, and one of them has since died behind bars. It's a case that feels forgotten as Indians look likely to reelect Modi again. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, on the banks of the Bhima River in western India.

SHAPIRO: And tomorrow, we hear how government agents are alleged to have hacked those computers and the implications for India's democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDDIE HENDERSON'S "INSIDE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.