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Caste war: Supreme Court criticizes arrest of activists as protests engulf India

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News Analysis | 

In a huge relief, the Indian Supreme Court on Wednesday directed that the five human rights activists arrested across the country in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon incident in Maharashtra should be kept under house arrest. An apex court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra ordered house arrest on a petition by eminent historian Romila Thapar and four others challenging the Tuesday arrests.

Taking a dim view of the crackdown, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said: “Dissent is a safety valve of democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst.” He noted that the arrests had taken place nine months after the violence in Maharashtra. Talking to reporters later, lawyer Prashant Bhushan said the Supreme Court had issued notices to the central and Maharashtra governments.

The police told the court that they had already got transit remand of the accused from a magistrate. Scores of supporters of these activists staged noisy protests during the police raids at various locations, including in Mumbai and Thane.

Those arrested on Tuesday included Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, Sudha Bharadwaj in Haryana and Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonzalves in Maharashtra. The raids took place at 10 places in Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Haryana. “We have arrested Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Pereira, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha,” Joint Police Commissioner of Pune Shivajirao Bodkhe told IANS.

Besides, other activists across the country including Kranti, Stan Swami, and Anand Teltumbde were raided in the major operation that is part of the ongoing probe into the involvement of Maoist supporters into the Koregaon-Bhima riots of January 1 this year. In a related development, the Delhi High Court directed Maharashtra Police not to take Navlakha out of Delhi till Wednesday and keep him under house arrest till further orders.

Read more: False Charges? India detains Human rights activists as “Maoists”

The court directive came on a habeas corpus petition filed by Navlakha’s counsel seeking to know his whereabouts. The police told the court that they had already got transit remand of the accused from a magistrate. Scores of supporters of these activists staged noisy protests during the police raids at various locations, including in Mumbai and Thane. The arrests also evoked condemnation from other activists and former bureaucrats who expressed shock over the raids on the homes of intellectuals and activists critical of the BJP.

They called it an attempt to strike terror among those fighting for justice for the marginalized. The government crackdown was condemned by Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India, who said the arrests threatened core human rights values. “All these people have a history of working to protect the rights of some of India’s most poor and marginalized people. Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism,” Patel said.

The radical political activist, Arun Ferreira, confined in jail for well over four years, was tortured and harassed, repeatedly arrested in fresh cases after being acquitted in earlier ones, before he could finally get bail

Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said the government should protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear. Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday took a dig at the center and said that in the “new India”, there was a place for only one NGO – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the RSS, which is the ideological mentor of the BJP.

For many, the arrests evoke the June arrests of Dalit activists by terming them as Maoist sympathizers. The arrests were made as a part of a “joint operation” carried out by the Pune police along with its counterparts from Mumbai, Nagpur, and Delhi. Contrary to earlier investigations, which focused on Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, both Brahmins and prominent Hindutva leaders, the police now claim that “Naxals and their sympathizers” were behind the January 1 violence at Bhima Koregaon.

Read more: Kashmir: India’s Human Rights violations from “pellet guns” to “Killer gangs”?

According to prominent Indian intellectuals, labeling dissenters as part of armed anti-state movements as common practice in India. Dalits and Adivasis who campaign for their rights are often branded as parts of the Naxalite movement and then imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The Dalit are one of the most marginalized groups in the country, a legacy of the now-outlawed caste system which stratified Indian society for generations.

Dalits have long protested against their low-caste status in the Hindu social hierarchy. There are more than 200 million Dalits living in India, which is nearly a fifth of the population. They have every right to be angry. It seems to indicate that the Indian establishment does not pay attention to address the Dalits’ concerns seriously. In recent times they have become extremely vocal in pursuit of their rights.

Read more: Indian Republic Day met with global protests

Prominent examples are Sudhir Dhawale, a well-known social activist in Maharashtra, who was arrested by the police for his alleged links with the Maoists, was released from Nagpur’s central prison in May 2014 after being acquitted of all charges. Yet, he had had to spend forty months in jail as an undertrial. Eight of his co-accused were also acquitted with him.

In 2005, the Dalit poet Shantanu Kamble was arrested on similar charges and tortured for over a hundred days before he got bail. He now stands cleared by the court of all charges. The radical political activist, Arun Ferreira, confined in jail for well over four years, was tortured and harassed, repeatedly arrested in fresh cases after being acquitted in earlier ones, before he could finally get bail in January 2012.

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