On Tuesday, teams of the Pune police fanned out across the country, raiding the houses of human rights activists in Mumbai, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Delhi, Faridabad and Goa. They arrested five of them: Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi, Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, and Varavara Rao in Hyderabad. The police justifications for the arrest were shaky. In court, one reason cited for arresting Ferreira was that he had organised photo exhibitions about mob lynchings.
The arrests, expectedly, created a furore. The activists are well known across the country for their work with the marginalised. Some of the country’s most accomplished advocates and intellectuals stood up in their defence. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court took an uncommonly strong view of the arbitrary nature of the police action. “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” one judge said. “If you don’t allow safety valve, pressure cooker will burst.” The court did not allow the Pune police to take custody of the five activists and instead ordered them to be placed under house arrest.
While the activists will remain in their homes until the next Supreme Court hearing on September 6, the incident puts the spotlight on India’s questionable record on civil liberties and upholding the right to protest.
Arbitrary police action against people protesting state heavy-handedness is common, especially if they belong to vulnerable groups such as Dalits, minorities and Adivasis. The list seems to be endless. In Jharkhand, for instance, the leaders of the Pathalgadi movement pressing for constitutional rights for Adivasis were booked by the police in a rape case last month. However, multiple red flags have now emerged around the police claim, leading many to conclude that the case was lodged to harass the leaders of the movement.
In Chhattisgarh, as many as 14 journalists were arrested in 2017. In Uttar Pradesh, the head of the Dalit rights organisation the Bhim Army has been detained without any legal charges since June last year. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, A Murugan, an advocate who fought cases for people accused of being Maoists, was detained under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in January 2017 even though the police was unable to provide any evidence against him.
In 2016, the Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez was detained in prison for 76 days in a move that that the Jammu and Kashmir High Court would call illegal. In Maharashtra, members of the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural organisation involved in spreading messages of caste equality, have been jailed for years since being arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2010.
India is regularly – and rightfully – commended for its electoral democracy. Yet, while the country has set a good track record on elections, the country falls short on civil liberties. It is clear than Indians enjoy a graded set of freedoms. If an Indian is a minority, Dalit, Adivasi or hails from a conflict zone like Manipur or Kashmir, her right to protest or fight for civil liberties barely exists. If dissent is indeed the safety valve of a democracy, the guardians of Indian democracy need to work much harder to uphold it.