Lawyer and human rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj, before she was arrested by the Pune police, leading to outrage across India. Photo: Courtesy Varsha Torgalkar
Lawyer and human rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj, before she was arrested by the Pune police, leading to outrage across India. Photo: Courtesy Varsha Torgalkar

In a major crackdown across India, police on Tuesday raided the homes of several human-rights activists, lawyers and journalists, accusing them of instigating violence at a rally in Bhima Koregaon, a small hamlet in the state of Maharashtra, on January 1.

A case was registered by the police in Pune, a city in Maharashtra 180 kilometers east of Mumbai and just 40km from Bhima Koregaon, and investigators started to apprehend those who had allegedly instigated the violence.

A key cause behind the violence was the degrading historical caste divisions that continue to exist in India. A number of human-rights and civil-liberties activists and lawyers attended the rally and questioned the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Maharashtra is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also leads the federal government.

Police raids at dawn

Amid high drama that saw intervention by the Delhi, Punjab and Haryana high courts through the course of the night, Pune police began raids on activists’ homes. They arrested Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bhardwaj, who are well-known intellectuals and human-rights activists in five states. The police alleged that they were core committee members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), an armed militant group that has been operating in central and east India for several decades.

However, rights organizations and social activists condemned the arrests, saying the BJP, a right-wing Hindutva party, wanted to suppress voices of those who are critical of the government and are working for the marginalized. They claim that the BJP wants to polarize the nation before next year’s general elections.

While the arrested activists were produced in local courts in several cities to be given transit remand and so they could be taken to Pune, urgent interventions led to temporary relief for two of the activists – Bharadwaj and Navlakha – as the high courts directed the police to keep them detained at home until their cases were heard fully.

However, in the case of Bharadwaj, who was arrested at her home in Faridabad, a district of Haryana state bordering Delhi, it took several hours past midnight to ensure that the police did not whisk her away to Pune. Vrinda Grover, an advocate, rushed to Faridabad with a copy of the high-court order, but had to chase the police for hours before she could prevent Bharadwaj from being secretly transported to Pune.

Police also raided the homes of other activists and academics, Stan Samy in Ranchi, Jharkhand, and Professor Satyanarayana in Hyderabad, Telangana.

The Pune police carried out searches at the homes of Vernon Gonsalves of Mumbai, Arun Ferreira of Thane, Maharashtra, Varavara Rao of Hyderabad, and Anand Teltumbde, the former chief executive of an oil company who turned to academia a few years ago.

After the searches, police arrested five of them under Indian Penal Code Section 153A (for promoting enmity between two groups), 120B (for criminal conspiracy), 505 (1)(B) (causing fear among the public, thus inducing them to commit an offense against state), 117 (offense committed by more than 10 persons) and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act Sections 13, 15, 18, 0, 38, 39 and 40.

Back on June 6, Pune police arrested five activists – Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawale – in connection with a First Information Report lodged on January 8. According to the FIR, the accused allegedly made provocative speeches at a rally held on December 31, 2017, that resulted in the riots in Bhima Koregaon, 40km from Pune, on January 1.

As thousands of people gathered there to commemorate the 200th anniversary of a battle in 1818 in which Dalits, the most oppressed in the caste hierarchy of India, defeated a Brahmin ruler, the most privileged caste in India.

The earlier arrests and information received through electronic devices procured from their homes led to this week’s arrests, a senior Pune police official told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

“We believe they are members of the core committee of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). They have been running frontal organizations for the party. The party works against the integrity of the nation [and] garners support from people [who] later work against the nation to establish a state based on a Maoist ideology.”

Advocates for the marginalized

Navlakha is a known civil-liberties and human-rights advocate and is engaged in the long-standing activism by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights in Delhi. He is also an editorial consultant of the Economic and Political Weekly, a well-known academic journal.

Sudha Bhardwaj, a mathematician turned lawyer, was born an American, but renounced her citizenship to become an Indian at the age of 18. After graduating from one of India’s most prestigious technology schools, she went into a career championing the rights of India’s marginalized communities.

She finally acquired a law degree to continue her activism in the courts, regularly taking up cases for free, defending citizens from the poorest sections of society. Before moving to Delhi to teach at the prestigious National Law University, she fought for the rights of laborers in Chhattisgarh, one of the most backward states in India. After her arrest, many laborers and tribals carried out a protest demanding her release.

Meanwhile, human-rights organizations, activists and journalists have issued a joint statement condemning the arrests. They stated that the arrests were an attempt to silence those opposed to the policies of the Modi government.

The news of the arrests also saw trolls on social media, supportive of the ruling government, targeting journalists and human-rights and civil-liberties activists and labeling them “urban Naxals,” a pejorative term originally used for a militant outfit that was active in India in the late 1960s. In a move reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the United States, some even advocated creating a list of those opposed to the latest police crackdown so they could be targeted later.

The role of some television news channels close to the ruling federal government has also come in for severe criticism from some quarters. Some also claim that the arrests are an attempt to divert attention from the gravity of another investigation involving a Hindutva group known as Sanatan Sanstha. Some of their members were arrested recently in connection with the murders of journalist Gauri Lankesh and Dr Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist and human-rights crusader.