Targeting numerous well known human rights activists, the police from the Indian state of Maharashtra have conducted a crackdown on residences of these activists in connection with a political event organised last year in December in Pune. The pan India raids began at 0600 hrs (Indian time) on Tuesday with police arresting five activists, claiming that the activists have links with the armed communist movement, known as the Maoists. According to information from Indian media outlet, Newsclick.in lawyer-activist Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalvez, Gautam Navlakha and Varavara Rao have been taken into police custody. It is reported that writer-activist Anand Teltumbde and Father Stan Swamy are also in police custody.
Other activists whose residences were raided include Susan Abraham, Varavara Rao’s daughter Anala and her husband KV Kurmanath in the southern state of Hyderabad.
The raids appear to be the result of their involvement in the Elgaar Parishad conference on December 31, 2017, to commemorate 200 years of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon in 1818. The battle is considered to be a victory of oppressed over the oppressors, in which the Brahminist rule (upper caste) of Peshwa was challenged by Mahars, who were serving in the British Indian army. Post the conference, on January 1, 2018, Maharashtra witnessed a massive violence instigated by right-wing elements after Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, both prominent Hindutva (far right wing) leaders known to have made inflammatory speeches. Both Bhide and Ekbote, close to the ruling establishment continue to roam free.
The arrested activists are likely to be taken to Pune, where the cases related to the Bhima Koregaon are registered. In Gautam Navlakha’s case, the Delhi High Court, in response to a habeas corpus petition, stayed his transit remand to Pune and ordered that he be kept under house detention until further orders. The High Court will hear the matter tomorrow. A similar order was passed by Punjab and Haryana High Court in case of Sudha Bharadwaj.
Various people’s organizations, activists and left-wing political parties condemning the arrests have called the state crackdown as “attack on democracy” and “undeclared emergency”.
The CPI(M), in a statement, called the raids a “brazen attack on democratic rights and civil liberties” and demanded the withdrawal of cases against the activists and their immediate release.
The CPI(ML) called the move reminiscent of the Emergency and termed it “an attempt to brand all dissenting voices as ‘anti-national’ and intimidate them as the Parliamentary polls draw nearer.” India will witness crucial national elections in April next year.
Civil rights organisation, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemning the police action and expressing solidarity with the arrested activists said that such move is “unprecedented and unheard of in a democracy.” Demanding their release, PUCL said that the activists have been arrested under false and fabricated charges.
Activists alleged that the raids are an attempt by the Hindu conservative government in India to divert the attention from issue of a far-right terrorist module which was busted by police recently in Maharashtra. A few days back, members of Sanatan Sanstha, a radical Hindu group, were recently arrested with huge cache of arms and ammunition allegedly to carry out serial bomb attacks on Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi to instigate Hindu-Muslim violence. Members of the same group are alleged to be involved in the assassination of rationalists-activists like Gauri Lankesh and Narendra Dabholkar.
According to reports, activists have been charged under the stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The Indian government had been long accused by activists for using the “draconian” UAPA to suppress the voices of dissent.
Other provisions of Indian Penal Code (IPC) invoked against the activities are: promoting enmity and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between people of different groups, statements amounting to public mischief, abetting the commission of an offence by ten or more persons as well as criminal conspiracy.
All the activists were involved in various people’s movements and struggle against state repression and corporate exploitation. Father Stan Swamy had been spearheading a campaign against religious sectarianism in Jharkhand. Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves are communist activists and authors who have together co-authored several articles on a range of social issues such as casteism, religious sectarianism and the glaring economic inequality in India. Varavara Rao is a Marxist writer and taught Telugu literature at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
Gautam Navlakha is a well-known civil rights activist, journalist and writer.
Sudha Bhardwaj is an advocate and the national secretary for People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Susan Abraham is a lawyer-activist and defence counsel for Surendra Gadling, who was earlier arrested under UAPA in the same case. In an interview with Newsclick in July, Sudha Bharadwaj had earlier rubbished allegations of links to Maoists and said she would continue her work irrespective of what the media said.
In June this year, a similar crackdown was conducted by police on the issue in which five activists- Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut- were arrested under various UAPA provisions.