Amnesty International India and Oxfam India released a joint response the day Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao were arrested. “The nationwide crackdown on activists, advocates and human rights defenders is disturbing and threatens core human rights values.”

“Today’s arrest is the second of such crackdowns on rights activists, advocates and journalists who have been critical of the state. All these people have a history of working to protect the rights of some of India’s most poor and marginalised people. Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism,” said Aakar Patel, executive director, Amnesty International India.

Nitya Ramakrishnan, the legal counsel for Gautam Navlakha, pointed out that the only document presented to Gautam in August 2018 was a First Information Report – FIR No 4 – dated January 8, 2018, in relation to the violence that broke out at the turn of the new year at Bhima Koregaon. When the FIR was finally translated from Marathi, it was revealed that none of the five arrested in August 2018 were even named in it. Moreover, it became clear that none of them were present at those Bhima Koregaon commemoration events on January 1, 2018.

On Twitter a storm of protest brewed. Upon reading that Sudha Bharadwaj was being taken to the local police station, Professor Ramachandra Guha – one of India’s finest historians – tweeted, “This is absolutely chilling. The Supreme Court must intervene to stop this persecution and harassment of independent voices.”

“McCarthyism taken to another level,” tweeted Shekhar Gupta, the editor of The Print news outlet.

“Is this a political witch-hunt?” asked Soutik Biswas of BBC News.

Journalist Nikhil Wagle tweeted, “If @Sudhabharadwaj is a naxal, I am a naxal too. Arrest me. #MetooUrbanNaxal.”

By the next day, the hashtag #MeTooUrbanNaxal was trending on Twitter to protest the arrests. Girish Karnad, the actor, film director and playwright, a winner of India’s oldest and highest literary award – the Jnanpith Award – went to an event in Bengaluru with a sign around his neck that read, “Me Too Urban Naxal.”

Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning novelist, addressed a press conference held in Delhi two days after the arrests of Sudha and others. She began her speech, “This morning’s papers settle something that we have been debating for a while. A front-page report in the Indian Express says, ‘Police to Court: Those held part of anti-fascist plot to overthrow government.’ We should know by now that we are up against a regime that its own police call fascist.”

Arundhati Roy continued, “In the India of today, to belong to a minority is a crime. To be murdered is a crime. To be lynched is a crime. To be poor is a crime. To defend the poor is to plot to overthrow the government.”

“Absolutely perilous.” Arundhati Roy said the situation was close to a declaration of an Emergency. “We cannot allow this to happen. We have to all come together. Otherwise, we will lose every freedom that we cherish.”

Phones rang and texts went back and forth between lawyers, academics, civil liberties activists, uniting a high-profile intellectual elite, in a discussion about what could be done. Five prominent people came together to approach the Supreme Court of India with a petition to “prevent the stifling of honest dissent”, to release those arrested and demand an independent and credible investigation into the arrests. They said they were seriously concerned about the erosion of democratic values and that the fabric of the nation risked being irreparably damaged.

The first petitioner, Professor Romila Thapar, in her late eighties, was indicative of their prominence. Described by the Financial Times as the greatest living historian of India, Professor Thapar was an expert on ancient India, a powerful critic of a communal interpretation of Indian history, and was awarded, amongst other things, honorary doctorates across the world from Chicago to Oxford.

A month after the raids, Professor Thapar, dressed in a white saree with a deep red sleeveless blouse, and with the other petitioners on either side of her, addressed a press conference, to explain why they had filed their petition. “Our intention was to draw the attention of the judiciary to what we see is a case of a gross misuse of the state’s power under the draconian law of the UAPA. Our history as a republic shows that if left unchecked, such misuse causes grave injustices and endangers the civil liberties of all Indians.”

Professor Thapar continued, “Those arrested on the 28th of August have been implicated in acts of terrorism. However, we believe that there are two kinds of terrorism, both of which create fear and undermine the foundations of our democracy. One is the violent acts of those described as terrorists, who plant bombs, instigate people to be violent, engineer riots and deliberately spread fear through their acts. And the second is the illegal or unjustified acts of state functionaries who, instead of pursuing the actual perpetrators of violence, misuse their powers to harass those who do not conform to the politics of their current masters.

“When the state uses anti-terror laws without adequate proof against persons known to be working for the rights of the weaker sections of society, it is also spreading a kind of terror,” Professor Thapar highlighted.

“Arbitrary arrests on implausible charges like those of the 28th of August are a source of anxiety for us all. They mean that people can walk into our homes and arrest us – either without a warrant, or written in language we do not understand – and then accuse us of activities about which we know nothing,” Professor Thapar concluded.

In the Supreme Court, on September 28, 2018, Justice DY Chandrachud was part of a three-judge bench that considered the petition of Professor Thapar and her colleagues. After hearing the arguments from both sides, Justice Chandrachud wrote in his judgement, “Circumstances have been drawn to our notice to cast a cloud on whether the Maharashtra Police has in the present case acted as a fair and impartial investigating agency. Sufficient material has been placed before the Court bearing on the need to have an independent investigation.”

Justice Chandrachud criticised the Maharashtra Police for briefing the media on the alleged evidence they had against the activists and for selectively disclosing details, including the letter about plans for an assassination plot against the prime minister. He said this was a way of manipulating public opinion in light of rising criticisms, and created doubts about the impartiality of the police.

Justice Chandrachud also questioned the legitimacy of the alleged letter from Sudha to “Comrade Prakash”, and said it contained seventeen references to “words scribed in Devanagri, using forms peculiar to Marathi”, a language which Sudha did not speak.

“Liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures . . . this case has to be examined with a hawk’s eye,” Justice Chandrachud said at the hearing.

“[The] court has to be vigilant to ensure the liberty of those who take up unpopular cases. Voices of opposition cannot be muzzled because it is a dissent.

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst,” Justice Chandrachud declared.

But Justice Chandrachud himself was the lone dissenter on that Supreme Court bench. The other two judges, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar, who were also on the bench at the hearing, and who wrote the majority judgement, rejected Professor Thapar and her colleagues’ petition, refused to intervene in the matter, and in a 2-1 verdict, the court declined to interfere in the proceedings. They had examined the material recovered by the police during their investigation, and said they were “of the considered opinion that this is not a case of arrest because of mere dissenting views expressed or difference in the political ideology of the named accused, but concerning their link with the members of the banned organisation and its activities.” For a few days, though, the intervention of Professor Thapar and the other petitioners mattered.

Excerpted with permission from The Incarcerations: Bhima Koregaon and the Search for Democracy in India, Alpa Shah, HarperCollins India.