NEW DELHI/PUNE: The Pune police’s bid for immediate custody of the five noted rights activists arrested on Tuesday for suspected Maoist links was on Wednesday halted by the Supreme Court which ordered they be kept under house arrest till September 6.
The interim relief for the five people that spared them the prospect of being sent to jail or police custody for now came on a day of multiple court battles after the pan-India crackdown on Left-wing activists even as the apex court observed that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy”.
The Pune police on Tuesday raided the homes of prominent Left-wing activists in several states and arrested five of them — poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad and Chhattisgarh and civil liberties activist Gautam Navalakha in Delhi.
The raids were carried out as part of a probe into a conclave – Elgar Parishad – held in Koregaon-Bhima near Pune on December 31 last year, which had allegedly triggered violence the next day.
Shortly after the apex court order by a bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, a Pune court directed the city police to send the arrested human rights activists back to their homes.
Rao, Ferreira and Gonsalves were taken to Pune late Tuesday night while Bharadwaj is confined to her home in Faridabad and Navalakha to his Delhi residence,
The National Human Rights Commission also waded into the controversy over the arrests, saying “it appears” standard operating procedure was not properly followed and this may amount to a violation of the human rights of those arrested.
It issued notices to the Maharashtra government and the state’s police chief and asked for a ‘factual report’ within four weeks.
A rally was organised by civil rights defenders from College Street to Esplanade area in Kolkata, where people from diverse backgrounds participated to condemn the arrest and demanded the immediate release of the activists.
All eyes were on the Supreme Court after it gave urgent hearing to a plea a by historian Romila Thapar and four other human right activists against the arrests that sparked more outrage from human rights defenders and Opposition leaders.
“It (apex court order) is good news. The arrests are a clear case of political witch hunt,” said Hasina Khan, a lawyer-activist.
The Pune police on its part claimed it had “evidence” which suggested there was a plan to target the “highest political functionaries”.
At a news conference in Pune, joint commissioner of Pune police Shivajirao Bodkhe also claimed to have evidence to suggest the arrested people had links with Kashmiri separatists.
While granting relief to the activists by ordering that they will be under house arrest at their homes till the next day of hearing on September 6, the top court did not consider for now the vehement opposition of the Maharashtra government challenging the locus of them seeking relief on their behalf, and calling them “strangers”.
The apex court questioned the state police’s move to arrest these activists nine months after the incident and said that all of them were reputed citizens and “stifling the dissent” was not good.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy and if you don’t allow these safety valves, it will burst,” the bench, also comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, said in a packed courtroom.
Taking a strong note of the submissions of the state government, it said, “This (arrest) is a wider issue. Their (petitioners’) problem is quelling dissent.”
“Nine months after Bhima-Koregaon, you go and arrest these people,” the bench asked, while taking serious note of Maharashtra’s plea that they were arrested in pursuance of an FIR.
Issuing notice to the Maharashtra government and its police, the bench considered the submissions of senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the petitioners, that the arrested activists be kept in house arrest.
He said two of the five arrested persons — Sudha Bhardwaj and Gautam Navalakha — were currently under house arrest following the orders passed by two High Courts while the three others were on transit remand.
Singhvi said as an interim measure, all the five be kept under “house arrest in their own homes”.
The plea was accepted by the bench which, however, said that all the contentions of the parties would be kept open.
Singhvi said the nationwide raids and the arrests made by the Maharashtra police after nine months of registration of the FIR have had a “chilling effect” on the personal life and liberty of citizens having dissenting voice.
“Can they do massive sweeping raids and arrest these respectable citizens,” he asked, adding “there is a panic situation”.
He said none of these five arrested persons were named as accused in the FIR lodged in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.