On June 6, five months after the caste-based violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon town on January 1, the Pune police arrested advocate Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen and activist Mahesh Raut from their homes in Nagpur. In a coordinated operation, the police also arrested activists Sudhir Dhawale in Mumbai and Rona Wilson in Delhi, and brought all five of them to Pune, calling them “top urban Maoists”.
Gadling was at that stage defending his clients charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. On August 28, lawyer Susan Abraham, who was defending Gadling in Pune, saw her house in Mumbai raided and her husband, Vernon Gonsalves, arrested. Gonsalves earlier faced prosecution under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in 2007 and was acquitted after spending over five years in prison. Now he has been arrested again. Sudha Bharadwaj, a prominent trade unionist and academic, has been arrested and was being taken to Pune, as per latest reports. Her 20-year-old daughter has had her Facebook accounts locked and her electronic devices confiscated.
Other activists whose homes were raided include Stan Swamy in Ranchi, Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, Anand Teltumbade in Goa, and Vara Vara Rao, his daughter Ananla and son-in-law Kamalnath in Hyderabad. Some of them have also been arrested as I write these painful words.
Abraham, Sen and Bharadwaj are all mothers bringing up their children peacefully. They are all professional working women, law-abiding citizens who uphold our constitutional morality to the last letter. Today, they are either behind bars, or are witnessing their homes being invaded by the State.
Why? What is their crime? That they represent the country’s Dalits? Muslims? Adivasis? Women? The disenfranchised and dispossessed? Is that why they were being branded as “Urban Naxals”, “Half Maoists” – by not only members of the ruling party, including eminent ministers, but also by sections of the television, digital and social media? Are these arrests the draconian fallout of those words, those narratives playing over and over again during prime time on our national television?
‘Half Maoists’ and ‘Urban Naxals’
On August 14, I was invited to the launch of a book published by Oxford University Press. Edited by Abhishekh Manu Singhivi, it was a compilation of the writings of his late father Dr LM Singhvi. Among the invited guests were former President Pranab Mukherjee and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari. The eminent panel was being moderated by senior journalist Karan Thapar. When Thapar asked about the issue of Union Cabinet minister Jayant Sinha’s public garlanding of those accused in lynching cases and questioned what Gadkari’s party, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, had to say abut that, Gadkari’s answer was that the party was not aware of who was garlanding whom and who was getting photographed with whom. As Thapar pressed on – “but he is our minister” – Gadkari replied: “In this country, there is no guilt by association”, thereby indirectly justifying Sinha’s garlanding men accused of the targeted hate crime.
Everyone kept quiet. There was no challenge to him. On the contrary, people clapped and exclaimed how charming he was.
I put my hand up and when my turn came, I asked: “You say there is no guilt by association. Yet your ministers call us ‘Half Maoists’ – a new cuss word for us, and we are held guilty by association. Can you explain that to me?” Gadkari then said: “Yes I am aware that something has happened in Nagpur, there have been arrests. If it’s only by association, it should not happen.”
Now I feel his words were ominous. Is the government trying hard to prove that there is an actual “role” to justify the initial arrests? What have we come to? Are we a country which arrests its lawyers first to prevent them from defending their already vulnerable and marginalised client-citizens?
Every human being has a right to a legal defence.
We are going through times when lawyers who are on the front lines taking up unpopular causes are being maligned, attacked, arrested and held in prolonged detention, and/or even killed. If this does not stop, one day there will be no one to defend the rule of law, since there will be no rule of law to defend.
A version of this article was first published on the Leaflet.