A group of activists and artistes on Wednesday condemned the recent arrests of five activists by the Pune Police in connection with an event to commemorate the Battle of Bhima Koregaon on December 31. They called the arrests a “heinous attack on our democracy”.

The group accused the government of targeting critics and said the police and the media were conducting a “witch-hunt” against rights activists. Fifteen writers, poets, filmmakers and cultural activists – including Smriti Nevatia, Jacinta Kerketta, Anand Patwardhan, Rollie Mukherjee, Arun Ferreira and Salil Biswas – signed the statement.

The statement said the arrested activists were “civil rights defenders who have been working towards protecting the rights of the Dalit, Muslim, Adivasi [communities] and people from the most marginalised sections of the society”. They noted that “saffron activists” Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, accused of inciting violence against Dalits after the Elgar Parishad event, were yet to be arrested.

On June 6, the Pune Police arrested activists Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale and Mahesh Raut, Professor Shoma Sen and lawyer Surendra Gadling because of their alleged links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). The police claimed that their speeches at the Elgar Parishad had led to violent clashes between Dalits and Marathas in the village of Bhima Koregaon a day later, and that the event was funded by Maoists.

They also claimed to have found a letter on one of the activists’ laptop that described a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The letter’s authenticity is “still under question and the matter is sub judice”, but media outlets still sensationalised the news by “interpreting and reinterpreting those letters”, the statement said.

“In the last few years under the rule of present BJP-led government, we have witnessed how the democratic space is being squeezed, basic human rights of the people are being violated and dissent is being criminalised,” the activists and writers said. “Anyone criticising the policy of the government are tagged as anti-national or Maoist and are thrown into jail or killed. The frenzy created and encouraged by the Hindutva brigade is claiming the lives of the Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and women.”

It added: “We appeal to all the democratic individuals to stand up against this injustice and stand in solidarity with the people and their democratic rights.”