A collective of Indian lawyers has condemned the arrest of five prominent human rights activists by Maharashtra state police, calling it an attempt by the government to persecute and silence dissent.
The Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL), a collective of human rights lawyers, have rubbished claims by the Maharashtra Police that the five allegedly conspired to carry out an assassination attempt and have links with Maoist insurgents.
Dalit-rights activist Sudhir Dhawale, senior lawyer Surendra Gadling, Dalit and tribal rights activists Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson and Nagpur University professor Shoma Sen were arrested on June 6 from Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Nagpur.
They have been accused of inciting riots and communal disharmony and have also been booked under various provisions of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), according to media reports.
At a press conference in Delhi on June 7, activist lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, the Vice-President of the IAPL, along with a host of other lawyers and activists, accused the government and police of arresting the five to shield Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the leaders of a Hindutva outfit.
Bhide and Ekbote stand accused of instigating large-scale attacks on Dalits in Pune’s Bhima-Koregaon and adjoining areas on January 1 and 2 this year.
The IAPL’s press conference was followed by a rally at Jantar Mantar, where people gathered in large numbers to protest against the government and police actions. The five arrested activists were produced before a session court yesterday, which remanded them to police custody till June 14.
Bharadwaj termed their arrests, and especially the invocation of the UAPA, as measures meant to stifle dissent and send out a message that nobody should defend political prisoners or crusade for the rights of the marginalized. She added that Gadling’s arrest was only the latest in a string of incidents, which seems to be becoming a trend – the government persecuting human rights lawyers so there remains no one to defend people.
She gave the examples of Tamil Nadu activist lawyer A Murugan, Orissa’s Upendra Nayak and Chhattisgarh’s Satyendra Chaubey, all of whom have been falsely implicated on charges of aiding and abetting Maoist insurgents. This goes against the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, she said.
Illegal searches and arrests
Bharadwaj said that Bhide and Ekbote’s supporters filed a First Information Report (FIR) at Pune’s Vishrambaug Police Station on Jan. 8 and tried to blame others for the riots they incited. Gadling, Wilson, Sen and Raut’s names were not in the FIR and were added only in April. This was designed to bring in more activists into the police dragnet, she alleged.
According to the police, the five activists were part of a meeting held at Shaniwarwada in Pune on December 31, 2017. Police are yet to find if speeches given at the meeting led to the violence in Koregaon Bhima on Jan. 1 during the 200th year celebration of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon by Dalits – lower caste and untouchables in Hinduism.
Wilson, Raut and Gadling were not even in Pune on the day the Bhima Koregaon program was held, and Sen, although present there, had not delivered a speech, Bharadwaj said.
On April 17, 200 policemen raided and searched Gadling’s house in Nagpur, seizing documents, computers and personal electronic devices from his family. Bharadwaj said this was a clear case of persecution and intimidation, because, he added, for more than 25 years, Gadling defended political prisoners and Dalit and tribal rights activists accused of committing offenses against the state.
She added that a more sinister ploy was to slap charges under the UAPA only on the day of the arrest on June 6 and then not producing Gadling in open court during the day, where he could argue against his arrest. She claimed this was to ensure his prolonged detention in police custody – the UAPA allows an accused to be kept in jail for three months without bail.
Susan Abraham, who represented Gadling and others before the court of Judge Bhaisare in Pune, told Asia Times that Gadling was not produced in court because police claimed it was too dangerous for a high-profile accused. On June 7, the Magistrate was hurriedly called to the court and he sent Gadling to eight days’ police custody. She said Gadling had never met the lawyer who appeared on his behalf and never gave the lawyer permission to represent him.
According to Abraham, the police embarked on this course of action because they knew that if Gadling argued his case himself, being the seasoned litigator that he was, they would be left red-faced and their case would collapse.
Abraham told Asia Times that Senior Advocate Mihir Desai would argue Gadling’s habeas corpus petition against illegal arrest and detention before the Bombay High Court’s Nagpur Bench on Friday.
Alleging guilt by association
Noted criminal lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan said Gadling and others were being hounded and implicated because they stand up against the state.
She said there was a provision in the now-repealed Terrorism And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act under which lawyers who defended political prisoners used to be arrested and jailed. The same is being done now, she claimed – alleging guilt by association.
Speakers at the press conference criticized the media for running a parallel trial of the arrestees and distorting public opinion, as well as trying to influence judicial outcomes in the case.