On Tuesday morning, teams of the Pune police raided the homes of several activists in across the country – Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai; Gautam Navlakha in Delhi; Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad; Stan Swamy in Ranchi; Varavara Rao and his family members, Kranti Tekula and Naseem in Hyderabad; Anand Teltumbde in Goa.
By the evening, at least five of them had been arrested.
Bharadwaj, a human rights lawyer who has worked for several decades in Chhattisgarh, was detained at the Surajkund police station in Faridabad. She was subsequently arrested and is being flown to Pune. Gonsalves, Ferreira, Navlakha and Rao were arrested too.
The raids are connected to the investigation into a public meeting organised the day before caste-related violence erupted in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1. Search warrants reviewed by Scroll.in cite provisions of the anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, and sections of the Indian Penal Code relating to the offence of promoting enmity between groups as grounds for the police action.
The raids have invited condemnation from several quarters. But while many see a political design behind the crackdown, some are willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt. Here are some reponses.
Prashant Bhushan, lawyer and activist
“This is totally fascist. It is an attempt to silence dissent and intimidate activists. These activists are well-known for their work on issues of public interest. There is no question of them being involved in this case. This is happening on the instructions of this [Narendra Modi] government. It will have to be challenged in the High Court or the Supreme Court.”
Ajai Sahni, executive director of Institute for Conflict Management
“The entire police action on the Bhima Koregaon violence is misconceived, and the case itself, including the so-called seized correspondence with Maoist leaders, appears concocted. There is a strong constituency in the ruling dispensation that feels that it is necessary to intimidate Left-leaning activists who are thought to be ‘sympathetic’ to the Maoists. The fabrication of the entire idea of an escalating ‘urban Maoist’ movement is part of this campaign. None of these cases are expected or intended to stand under judicial scrutiny, but the judicial process itself is the intended end in these cases. This is a process of ‘punishment by trial’. Irrespective of the outcome, the torment of a protracted judicial process will silence these activists, and many others who will get the intended ‘message’. When the police cases eventually fail, as usual, no one will be held accountable.
This is an extension of a model long used in Chhattisgarh against a range of alleged sympathisers. The eventual consequences can only be counterproductive. It is crucial that the ideological middle ground should be preserved. A polarised society can never find its way to peace. Where clear evidence of criminal collusion or of other criminal activities is available, of course, action must be taken. But, as I said before, that does not appear to be the case or intention here.”
Julio Ribeiro, former Mumbai police commissioner
“The Pune police must have a reason to be doing this. They would be foolish to do this without one. I know who the police commissioner is and he is very straightforward and would not do anything to please the authority.”
Manoj Joshi, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation
“As a matter of principle and procedure, the police should first investigate and build up a case before arresting anyone. As usual, here, arrests have preceded investigation. If they had any issues on the law, the people could have been called in to assist the police inquiry. But following the ‘tradition’ of the Indian police, people are arrested and a huge fishing operation is launched to see if a case can be built up.
Of course, there is a political element here – the attack on Dalits by the right-wing groups at Bhima Koregaon. The Maharashtra government appears to be shielding the perpetrators. I am aware that Maoists often use human rights issues as a shield for their activities and I don’t have much sympathy for them. But the primacy of the law of the land applies to everyone – investigate, charge and then arrest.”
Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India
“Today’s raids and arrests raise disturbing questions about whether these people are being targeted for their activism. This cannot become a routine. The government should protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear. “
Ramachandra Guha, writer and historian
“This is absolutely chilling. This is being done not only to intimidate and silence those detained but also those who could potentially come to their legal rescue. The courts must intervene to stop this persecution and harassment of independent voices. Sudha Bharadwaj is as far from violence and illegality as Amit Shah is close to those things. As a biographer of Gandhi, I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too.”
Arundhati Roy, writer and activist
“The simultaneous state-wide arrests are a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into panic. That lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals are being arrested on ludicrous charges while those who make up lynch mobs and threaten and murder people in broad daylight roam free, tells us very clearly where India is headed. Murderers are being honoured and protected. Anybody who speaks up for justice or against Hindu majoritarianism is being made into a criminal. What is happening is absolutely perilous. In the run up to elections, this is an attempted coup against the Indian Constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish.”