Nationwide arrests of Activists, India becoming a Police State: AHRC
Hong Kong: On the 28th of August 2018, several raids and arrests were made by the Pune Police across India. These raids were on the homes of well-known Human Rights Defenders, Advocates and Activists. The rationale behind the raids and arrests kept changing although two charges remained constant. First accused were those arrested as having instigated a caste clash between Dalits and upper castes in the Bhima-Koregaon (near Pune) in January 2018. The second charge was about their involvement in planning an armed rebellion. This included a plot to assassinate Mr. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. Those finally arrested after the day-long raids include Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, Lawyer and Author Arun Ferreira, Poet Varavara Rao, Activists Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.
Ironically, the Pune Police made these accusations in the Media and not in the Courts. Two of the arrested activists, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha challenged their arrests respectively in Punjab and Haryana High Court and Delhi High Court. The Courts stayed their transit remands after Police failed to elaborate as to what specific charges were laid against them.
According to the Police, the arrested persons are being investigated for offences under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA), an anti-terror legislation. Earlier in June 2018, five activists and lawyers from Maharashtra and Delhi were arrested under the same Act for allegedly instigating violence at Bhima-Koregaon and for having Maoist links.
Every year, on January 1st in Bhima-Koregaon, the victory of a Dalit regiment fighting under the British against the Peshwas in 1818 is celebrated with great vigour. This year, the celebrations were hampered by violent caste clashes. The Pune Police claim that the violence was the result of a plot by Maoist leaders. They had organised a public meeting before the event where they incited hatred between the two groups. The agenda of this conference known as ‘Elgaar Parishad’ was said to be against Hindutva politics.
Previously on June 6th 2018, there were simultaneous raids in Mumbai, Nagpur and New Delhi. From Mumbai, they arrested Sudhir Dhawale, the Editor of the Marathi Magazine ‘Vidrohi’. Advocate Surendra Gadling, Professor Shoma Sen and Anti-Displacement Activists Bharat Jan Andolan, Mahesh Raut, were arrested from Nagpur. In New Delhi, the Police arrested Rona Wilson, a public relations secretary for the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.
Ironically, the very first First Information Report (F.I.R) on the incident was filed against Hindutva group leaders, namely 56-year-old Milind Ekbote and 85-year-old Sambhaji Bhide. However, the Police are sitting on that F.I.R. But, they are making arrests in another, counter- F.I.R, filed 4 days after the violence by a Pune-based businessman named Tushar Damgude. They did not even arrest Bhide, who is revered by PM Modi and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis among others. It hints at the political pressure in this case. It also let Ekbote get out of jail on bail within a month of his arrest. The police, on the other hand, added a terror-angle to the arrests of all the other Left-Wing Activists, Lawyers, Professors and so on.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 allows huge restrictions to be placed on the rights guaranteed under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India. These are for example, freedom of speech, right to peaceful assemble and freedom to form associations. As stated in its objectives, the UAPA punishes the membership, commission, funding and support of unlawful or terrorist organisations. The definitions in the Act are extremely vague and broad, coming close to establishing a regime of THOUGHT CRIMES. The Act is extremely draconian in nature as it extends the ordinary period of police custody, does not allow for anticipatory bail and does not allow for granting bail if the case seems to be prima facie true. This could mean, in some instances, indefinite detention until a Court hearing. [Section 43D (5)]
At the core of the Act are the ‘membership’ clauses which make membership in unlawful or terrorist organisations a criminal offense, and membership in terrorist organisations punishable with life imprisonment. The vagueness of the definitions under it can be misused to arrest any person with an opinion contrary to that of the Government.
On the 29th of August 2018, a Writ Petition was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the arrest of the five persons on the previous day. The Court heard the same and ordered that they should be detained in their respective homes and not elsewhere until the next hearing date. During the hearing, Justice Chandrachud observed, “Dissent is a safety valve of Democracy. If you don’t allow dissent, the pressure valve of Democracy will burst.”
Chillingly, more worrying than the arrests is the repeated targeting of the human rights defenders, especially the Lawyers who have been fighting for those arrested on terror and Maoism charges. Sudha Bhardwaj, for example, has been one of the Lawyers fighting for the release of innocents dubbed as Maoists in Chhattisgarh and arrested. Further, though she is one of the most known Lawyers to be targeted, is not the only one. Arrested in the same case in June this year has been a noted human rights defender Surendra Gadling, who won many acquittals including Arun Ferreira-rearrested in the latest swap. Many more such lawyers have been targeted across India. Notable examples are Upendra Nayak in Odisha, Murugan in Tamil Nadu and Satyendra Chaubey in Chhattisgarh.
There can be just one reason behind such a crackdown on human rights defenders: to frighten others into silence and not defend those accused by the State.
Evidence-wise, the arrests do not only reek of a political vendetta and a ploy to silence the dissenting voices ahead of imminent parliamentary elections. They come across as a threat to DEMOCRACY itself. The Supreme Court of India would better look at these issues in totality and ensure that people’s rights, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, are not trampled on by the State. It must also look at the legality of draconian acts like UAPA still in the Statute Books of a country that calls itself democratic. (The Asian Human Rights Commission)