Historian Romila Thapar, who was among those who had filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the arrest of five human rights activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case, on Friday said she believes the case reflects “a case of gross misuse of the state’s power under the draconian law of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act”.
“Our history as a republic shows that, if left unchecked, such misuse causes grave injustices and endangers the civil liberties of all Indians,” Thapar said at a press conference in New Delhi. “Those arrested on August 28 have been accused of being implicated in acts of terrorism.” About 50 students and activists gathered at Jantar Mantar on Friday evening to condemn the arrest of the human rights activists.
The press conference was held hours after the Supreme Court rejected the petitioners’ plea for a Special Investigation Team inquiry into the arrests. The court also extended the activists’ house arrest by four weeks. After four weeks, they can approach the trial court.
Activists Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao were arrested on August 28 as part of the Pune Police’s investigation into violence during an event in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1.
We believe there are two kinds of terrorism both of which create fear and undermine the foundations of our democracy, she said, reading out a statement signed by all the petitioners. The two kinds are “violent acts of those described as terrorists, who plant bombs, instigate people to be violent, engineer riots and deliberately spread fear through their acts; and the illegal or unjustified acts of state functionaries who, instead of pursuing the actual perpetrators of violence, misuse their powers to harass those who do not conform to the politics of their current masters”.
“When the state uses anti-terror laws without adequate proof against persons known to be working for the rights of the weaker sections of society, it is also spreading a kind of terror,” Thapar said. “Arbitrary arrests on implausible charges…are a source of anxiety for us all. They mean that people can walk into our homes and arrest us – either without a warrant or written in language we do not understand – and then accuse us of activities about which we know nothing.”
Thapar said the petitioners got together because of “a mood in the country” where freedoms in democracy were being reduced. “A democracy cannot function on repression,” she added.
The August 28 arrests, which followed a similar set of arrests from June, point to a continuing attempt to erode the right to hold opinions, the petitioners said. “Our petition was an appeal to the Supreme Court to check the erosion of rights and protect the liberty and dignity of the human rights activists...For the time being, these rights have not been jeopardised and the SC has protected the same.”
Human rights activist Maja Daruwala, who is also one of the petitioners, said Justice DY Chandrachud’s statements are some of the most important parts of Friday’s order. The petitioners added that Chandrachud’s dissenting opinion had vindicated their stand. Chandrachud, who did not agree with the majority opinion of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar, said the majority technicality should not be allowed to override substantive justice, and added that a Special Investigation Team should probe the case.
“The arrest has infringed the dignity of individuals and it is a fit case for SIT probe,” said Chandrachud. “The voice of opposition can’t be muzzled. Conduct of Pune Police fortifies an impression that investigation is not fair. The police briefing to media has become a source of manipulating public opinion.”
Daruwala reiterated that the petitioners approached the court to highlight the police’s abuse of power. “Chandrachud has recognised this and sensed urgency in stopping this,” she said. “And the court in majority judgement seems to have been concerned to protect arrestees by giving them four weeks and saying they must be left alone.”
The police have not received the go-ahead to arrest or harass the activists but only to investigate, Daruwala said. “Arrest comes after investigation, it is not meant to be first action,” she added. “This is a very wrong misconception.”
Lawyer Vrinda Grover pointed out that Chandrachud’s judgement has “castigating remarks” on the conduct of the Pune Police. “What we see here is a fractured verdict,” she said. “The dissenting judge holds that there is need for a Special Investigation Team, but the majority doesn’t hold so.”
Grover said there were multiple legal remedies available to them now, which the Supreme Court has also recognised. “We don’t want a politicised investigation. We want a free and fair investigation,” she added.
Earlier in the day, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis claimed that Friday’s order had vindicated the actions of the state government and the Pune Police. “A lot of things were said against the police after the arrest and an atmosphere was created by pseudo, so-called neo-liberals in the media that the arrests have been made without evidence,” he said. “The police had to say that the arrests were not motivated but backed by real and powerful evidence.”
When asked about this, Grover said the chief minister should not be making such statements.
Economist Prabhat Patnaik, another petitioner, said: “This case with preposterous accusations on human rights activists was a part of something preposterous going on in the country for some time.”
“There is no penalty as far as state is concerned for the terrorism it inflicts on individuals,” he said. “The very fact that the Supreme Court took congnizance of our petitions said there’s a question of constitutional rights involved. If the SC was of view that these people are maoists, why did it give them four weeks? This means that even in the majority verdict, there is certain reservation and ambiguity about the case.”
Thapar, Daruwala, Patnaik, development economist Devaki Jain and sociologist Satish Deshpande filed the petition a day after the activists were arrested. They called the arrests arbitrary and said they were made without evidence. The plea sought an independent inquiry into the arrests and demanded that all those arrested be released.
The police have said the activists’ speeches at the event were meant to incite hatred and claimed to have seized thousands of letters exchanged among “underground” and “overground” Maoists. Two retired judges who organised the event have said that the arrested activists had nothing to do with the event.