A group of activists, journalists and writers on Tuesday issued a statement condemning the police raids at homes of activists and public intellectuals critical of the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The statement said the arrests made following the raids were an attempt to “strike terror among those who are fighting for the marginalised”.

On Tuesday morning, teams of the Pune Police raided the houses of activists in Mumbai, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Delhi, Faridabad and Goa. By evening, Joint Commissioner of Police (Pune) Shivaji Bodakhe confirmed the arrests of Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi, Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, and Varavara Rao in Hyderabad.

The statement demanded their immediate release and asked the police to drop “all false and malicious charges”. It was signed by activists Swami Agnivesh, Harish Iyer, Teesta Setalvad and Sanam Sutirath Wazir, journalists Neha Dixit and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and student leaders Shehla Rashid Shora and Mohit Pandey.

The signatories claimed that the raids and arrests were an attempt by the ruling party to polarise the electorate ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“Already, the government and the media houses close to the BJP have been trying to spin a false narrative of a Maoist conspiracy since June 2018,” they said. “Terms like ‘urban naxals’ are invented in order to stifle any criticism of the government. We have learnt that the Delhi Police, after having arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, waited for Republic TV to arrive before taking her to the court. This simply shows that the arrests are incomplete without the accompanying sensationalist media propaganda to demonise activists, human rights defenders and intellectuals.”

The signatories claimed that government was trying to divert attention from an alleged Sanathan Sanstha conspiracy to carry out attacks during Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi festivities. “Today’s arrests have been carried out in order to give cover to the murderers of Gauri Lankesh,” they added. “By arresting them, the BJP is only exposing its insecurities and its intolerance to any dissent or criticism of its policies.”

The group drew parallels between the police action and the attacks on Swami Agnivesh and student activist Umar Khalid.

Several groups condemn raids, arrests

The Human Rights Forum issued a statement expressing its opposition to the arrests and raids. The organisation accused the Centre of cracking down on dissenters by labelling them Maoists. “The real intent is to criminalise the democratic activity of these activists, harass them and ensure their extended incarceration,” it stated.

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties also condemned the arrests and raids, and called them “a targeted crackdown and attack by the police and state on civil liberties and democratic rights activists across the country in a concerted attempt to crush human rights interventions and silence voices of dissent”. The group also called for intervention by the National Human Rights Commission. Sudha Bharadwaj, who was among those arrested on Tuesday, is the national secretary of the group.

Amnesty International India and Oxfam India joined others in denouncing the raids and arrests. “Today’s arrests is the second of such crackdowns on rights activists, advocates and journalists who have been critical of the state. All these people have 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.

“These arrests cannot become the order of the day. The government should protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear,” said Amitabh Behar, CEO, Oxfam India.