The Maharashtra police on Tuesday raided the homes of prominent Left-wing activists in several states and arrested at least five of them for suspected Maoist links, sparking a chorus of outraged protests from human rights defenders.
The raids were carried out as part of a probe into the violence between Dalits and the upper-caste Peshwas at Koregaon-Bhima village near Pune after an event called Elgar Parishad, or conclave, on December 31 last year.
Security officials said two letters recovered over the past few months, indicating Maoist plans to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Home Minister Rajnath Singh, were also a reason for the raids.
The arrests are “a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into panic. That lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals are being arrested on ludicrous charges… Tells us very clearly where India is headed,” award-winning author Arundhati Roy told PTI.
Near simultaneous searches were carried out at the residences of prominent Telugu poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, trade union activist Sudha Bhardwaj in Faridabad, and civil liberties activist Gautam Navalakha in New
Delhi, a senior police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Subsequently, Rao, Bhardwaj, Ferreira, Gonsalves and Navalakha were arrested under IPC Section 153 (A), which relates to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place or birth, residence, language and committing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony, said the official.
Some other sections of the IPC were also pressed against those arrested, along with Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for their “alleged naxal activities,” said the police official, without elaborating. The premises of Father Stan Swamy, a tribal leader in Jharkhand, too were searched but he was not detained, the official said.
In New Delhi, soon after Navalakha’s arrest, the Delhi High Court ordered the police not to take him out of the national capital at least until Wednesday. The High Court was hearing a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of Navalakha by his advocate Warisha Farasat after he was picked up from his Delhi home on Wednesday afternoon by the Maharashtra police.
According to unconfirmed reports, others whose residences were raided are Susan Abraham, Kranthi Tekula and Anand Teltumbde in Goa.
Koregaon-Bhima occupies a central place in Dalit history – it witnessed a major battle in which the Peshwa rulers were defeated on January 1, 1818 by the British Army, comprising a large number of Dalit soldiers. Every year, the anniversary of the battle is marked by thousands of Dalits assembling in Pune and marching to Koregaon-Bhima to a war memorial.
The police say the speeches made at the conclave on December 31, a day before the 200th anniversary of the battle, were one of the triggers for the violence.
Tuesday’s events mirrored simultaneous raids conducted in June when five activists were arrested in connection with the Koregaon-Bhima violence.
“While arresting them, we had seized some documents, and while scrutinising these documents the connection of these five people surfaced,” the police official said adding “their exact role in the case is part of the investigation”.
Rao’s name had figured in a letter which the Pune police claimed to have seized during searches at the premises of one of the five people arrested in June in connection with the Elgar Parishad. The five were accused of having close Maoist links, according to an FIR registered at the Vishrambaug police station after the event.
Rao was arrested from his residence at Gandhi Nagar in Hyderabad by a Pune police team, which earlier searched the residences of his two daughters.
“The Pune police sought our assistance. We have provided them with local force to assist in conducting searches and making the arrest. He (Rao) … will be produced in a court and taken to Pune on transit warrant,” deputy commissioner of police (central zone) Viswa Prasad told PTI.
In June, Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale was arrested from his home in Mumbai, while lawyer Surendra Gadling, activist Mahesh Raut and Shoma Sen were picked up from Nagpur and Rona Wilson was arrested from his flat in Munirka in Delhi in simultaneous raids.
“During our investigation in connection with the Elgar Parishad event, some evidence came to light about members of a proscribed organisation, following which the police carried out raids in Chhattisgarh, Mumbai and Hyderabad” on Tuesday, the police official said.
The searches were conducted at homes of people having Maoist links and those directly or indirectly connected with the five arrested people, the official said.
The police claimed to have recovered “some incriminating documents” during the searches.
“We are also checking the financial transactions of these people, their modes of communication and also trying to gather technical evidence,” the police official said.
However, outgoing joint commissioner of Pune police Ravindra Kadam had said on August 2 that no Maoist links were found in the Koregaon-Bhima violence.
The arrests have been condemned widely.
Taking a dig, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said there was place for only one NGO in “the new India” and it was the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).
“Shut down all other NGOs. Jail all activists and shoot those that complain,” he tweeted.
Amnesty International and several other groups, including People’s Union for Civil Liberties, called the action a concerted attempt to crush human rights interventions and to silence voices of dissent.
“Fascist fangs are now openly bared,” tweeted lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
“It is a clear declaration of emergency. They are going after anyone who has spoken against the government on rights issues. They are against any dissent,” Bhushan said.
Noted historian Ramachandra Guha called the action “absolutely chilling” and demanded the intervention of the Supreme Court to stop this “persecution and harassment” of independent voices.
“As a biographer of Gandhi, I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Sudha Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too,” he tweeted.