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

India’s Supreme Court ordered the Maharashtra state government today to keep state police “in line” after a senior police official in Pune city held a press conference and released alleged evidence against activists arrested allegedly connected to the Bhima Koregaon caste violence incident.

“I watched the press briefing by the Assistant Commissioner in Pune, which insinuated that the Supreme Court should not have intervened at this stage. He has no business saying that and casting aspersions on the Supreme Court judges,” Justice DY Chandrachud told Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta in court, who apologized in response.

“You must ask your police officials to be more responsible. The matter is before us and we don’t want to hear from police officials that the Supreme Court is wrong,” Supreme Court Justice Chandrachud said.

A Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice DY Chandrachud made these observations while hearing a petition challenging the arrests, filed by historian Romila Thapar and others.

Human rights activists and lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves and writer P Varavara Rao were arrested by Pune Police on August 28 in simultaneous raids on their offices and residences. The arrests drew widespread criticism, with India’s civil society terming it a crackdown against dissent by the Bharatiya Janata Party government.

On August 30, the Supreme Court ordered the police to take the accused back to their homes and put them under house arrest until the police present evidence against them in court on Thursday. “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy and if you don’t allow these safety valves, it will burst,” Justice Chandrachud had said during the hearing.

Last Friday, the Additional Director General of Maharashtra Police Param Bir Singh held a press conference on the raids, in which he read out letters that the activists allegedly exchanged. He claimed the police had “conclusive proof” linking the arrested activists to Maoists.

On Monday, the Bombay High Court pulled up Maharashtra police for holding the press conference and making public “evidence” that had yet to be presented in court and was potentially prejudicial.

On Wednesday, the Maharashtra government told the Supreme Court that the five activists were arrested due to evidence pointing to their links with Maoist groups and “not because of their dissenting views.”

Arguing on behalf of the State of Maharashtra, ASG Mehta told the top court today that petitioners Thapar and others had no right to bring the case and that rushing to the Supreme Court for such matters would create a bad precedent. In response, the court asked the petitioners to satisfy it whether a third-party can intervene in a criminal case.

Mehta told the court that keeping the activists under house arrest was detrimental to the case, and that the court would “realize the harm the arrested could have caused if it goes through the material seized by police [in raids].”

“Saying these people are gentlemen and giving them benefit [of doubt] on the basis of their profession causes great prejudice,” he added.

Senior Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising, meanwhile, requested an injunction from the court to prevent the police from holding further press briefings. “Everyday they are releasing a letter. Yesterday they released a letter which was shown by Republic TV,” Jaising said. While the court agreed with Jaising’s submissions, it did not order such an injunction.

The court extended the activists’ time under house arrest until Sept. 12 and adjourned the case until then.

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