Reiterating the importance of diverse views in a democracy, the Supreme Court has ordered that the five rights activists arrested by the Pune police for suspected links with Maoists be not taken in police custody or to jail but be kept under house arrest till September 6. The court observed, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy… if it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst.” The bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra further said, “There are wider issues raised by them (activists). Concern raised is that you are quelling dissent. Democracy is not safe if you quell dissent and that is what they are worried about.” The activists alleged that the arrests and searches by the Maharashtra police were an exercise to silence dissent, stop people from helping the marginalised people and to instill fear in the minds of the downtrodden and those advocating their causes. The Maharashtra police, it was alleged, had arrested them on completely fabricated charges under various provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Indian Penal Code.
The Maharashtra police plea was that the case related to links of the arrested individuals with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned organisation operating with the “devious objective of overthrowing democratic order.” They were accused of aiding and abetting the violent acts committed by CPI (Maoist)’s underground cadres. The Maharashtra police took support from the Union home ministry view that the CPI (Maoist) aims to seizing political power through a drawn-out “people’s war” and the arrested “leaders” were linked to the Maoist movement and providing supplies, technologies, expertise, information and other logistic support. The top court, however, expressed anger when a lawyer appearing with additional solicitor general of India Tushar Mehta told the bench that the matters relating to arrests were pending before the lower courts and that habeas corpus petitions had been moved. The court said: “This is not that… they are professors… You arrest them after nine months.” On the issue that the petitions were moved by persons other than those against whom action has been taken by police, the CJI said the “nomenclature (of the petition) does not matter”.
The Maharashtra police have purportedly arrested these activists on the basis of the ongoing investigations in the Bhima Koregaon violence that broke out on January 1 this year during a march by Dalit activists. The march was preceded by a conclave called the Elgaar Parishad, which was organised by former Supreme Court judge Justice P B Sawant and former High Court judge Justice Kolse Patil. The police initially filed FIRs on January 4 against some Hindutva activists based on eyewitness accounts that they and their lieutenants had incited the violence against the Dalit congregation. However the probe in the matter was shelved. The police changed the course of probe after a letter suggesting a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi was claimed to have been found as a file in the computer of one of the arrested persons. The letter allegedly spoke about “senior comrades” proposing concrete steps to “end the Modi era” with a “Rajiv Gandhi assassination-type” plan. The police arrested a large number of activists, lawyers and journalists by first alleging that Maoists were involved in the Bhima Koregaon violence, and then claiming that they were their urban supporters, and further linking all these with the Modi assassination plot. The activists alleged the letter was “fabricated.”
The activists arrested are human rights activists engaged in advocacy of the rights of the poor and oppressed through their writings and legal learning. The Fadnavis government has hurt its image by taking draconian action against them. The Maharashtra government needs to differentiate human rights activists from armed Maoists who make no secret of their aim to “throw out” the government of landlords and bourgeoisie. The mass of the poor and disadvantaged people have been cheated for decades by the political parties and political leaders. They have continued to be disadvantaged. If writers, teachers, journalists, lawyers and other intellectuals speak for the mass of disadvantaged people they should not be penalized for that. They only hold the mirror to the political parties and leaders, to show them that “You have not fulfilled your tall promises.” Merely because their voices and protests overlap the Maoist anger they do not deserve to be charged with an “intent to strike terror in the people of India” or “intent to threaten the unity, integrity, security, economic security or sovereignty of India”. Rather than trying to suppress the voices of dissent, the Maharashtra and central governments should address the basic causes fuelling the indignation of the downtrodden.