Civil Society Members Condemn Arrests of Activists, Demand Withdrawal of Charges

Intellectuals, activists and lawyers including Arundhati Roy, Prashant Bhushan and Aruna Roy said the arrests are linked to a systematic campaign by the current regime to attack and silence those who have been defending constitutional rights of citizens and pointing out frequent abuse of state power in recent times.

New Delhi: As protests against arbitrary arrests of political activists by the Maharashtra police continue to escalate in different parts of the country, several civil society groups threw their hats in the ring to demand immediate withdrawal of charges against the activists.

More than 25 organisations on Thursday signed a letter of protest in a packed press conference at the Press Club of India. Eminent lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, prominent author Arundhati Roy, Safai Karmachari Union’s Bezwada Wilson, former National Advisory Committee member Aruna Roy, human rights lawyer N.D. Pancholi, People’s Union for Civil Liberties’s (PUCL) Sanjay Parikh, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression’s Kalyani Menon-Sen (WSS), and People’s Union for Democratic Rights’s (PUDR) Harish Dhawan addressed the press and supporters.

While all of them spoke critically of the arrests, they linked the arrests to a systematic campaign by the current regime to attack and silence those who have been defending constitutional rights of citizens and pointing out frequent abuse of state power in recent times.

Flagging off the press briefing, Dhawan said that barring one, none of the activists who have been arrested since June was mentioned in the original FIR 4/2018 (related to the violence that broke out during the Bhima Koregaon memorial event) at the Vishrambagh police station, Pune, and that the police was acting at the behest of the current government to falsely target the activists who have been critical of the regime.

“While we demand their immediate release, our main demand is to completely scrap the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).” Pointing out its frequent misuse, he said the UAPA, which is meant to be invoked only as an exception and in cases of violent activity, has become a tool to target the civil society groups and activists.

Aruna Roy, who was visibly perturbed at the turn of events in the last few days, asked whether there was any governance in the country currently. “The arrests pose a huge question mark over the future of rule of law. There is a constitutional breakdown. The right to freedom of expression is being crushed almost on a daily basis. Imagine, if these prominent activists could be arrested without any evidence, what is happening to all those in rural India, who dissent and speak about their rights,” she said.

“Justice Sawant and justice Kolse Patil were leading the Elgaar Parishad in Bhima Koregaon. How, thus, such a legitimate event, with a huge support of Dalits, is being seen as having connections with Maoists? These arrests clearly show that the government wants to scare people so much they do not speak. They are transforming the system, they are subverting our democracy,” she said, adding that profit-oriented corporates and the government appear to be hand-in-gloves in creating such a system.

She said this as most of the people arrested have been at the forefront of resistance movements across the country against forcible displacement of the poor and illegal occupation of land by corporates.  

Parikh concurred with Roy. He said the government sees dissent as crime and anyone dissenting as a criminal. “We speak about the interests of farmers, workers, Dalits and Adivasis. The arrests reflect that government clearly does not like it. It has least respect for democracy and will not hesitate to crush our voices.”

Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mewani speaks during a press conference at the Press Club in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Similarly, Pancholi said governments should learn from our own past experiences. “Throughout the nationalist movement against the British, there was a consensus that an independent India would be built on the foundation of civil liberties and that the three principles of social justice, freedom of expression and equality would be at its core.”

Menon-Sen pointed out an irony that is stark in current times. “We have a situation where those who have always defended the constitution and have worked within the limits of the constitution are being called anti-national and anti-constitutional. The reality is being turned upside down. They are being called ‘urban naxals’. Who are these people? Do we know? These are people who have frequently defended the most vulnerable sections of society.”

Wilson termed the arrests as one of the biggest attacks on fundamental rights. “Whenever there is a Dalit movement, whenever Dalits try to assert themselves, this government cracks down on them. I want to ask, why doesn’t the government want the Dalits to celebrate Bhima Koregaon?”

He pointed out that during the raids on houses of Varavara Rao’s daughters, the police asked one of the daughters why she was not putting sindoor (vermillion) on her forehead and why has married a Dalit. “Would the police now tell everyone what to do in their personal lives?” he asked.

Mevani said the crackdown on activists is a combination of three regressive trends in India: undeclared emergency, fascism and Gujarat model. “The arrests are a result of these three. Those who have always strived to work towards a secular, socialist, democratic India, as enshrined in our constitution, are being terrorised now. So we have a situation where a Dalit movement is being branded as a naxalite upsurge.”

“A conspiracy theory which has absolutely no evidence whatsoever – that these people were arrested in connection to the prime minister’s assassination attempt – is doing the rounds. Since 2002, I have seen that every time there was an election, the Gujarat police would say that jihadis were planning to kill chief minister Narendra Modi. When the government has nothing to talk about its achievements, it tries to draw sympathy by pedalling such false claims,” he said, further asking why these activists are facing action when the government’s own minister, Ramdas Athawale, has said that the Bhima Koregaon event had no links with Naxalism.

People protest against the police raids and illegal arrest of human right activists in New Delhi on August 30. Credit: Akhil Kumar/The Wire

Bhushan said the arrests are part of a larger trend. “Lynch mobs have been let loose and Dalits, Adivasis and minorities, the most vulnerable sections of our population, are being attacked. There were two FIRs in the Bhima Koregaon case. The first mentioned the names of Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Shambhaji Bhide. Ekbote was arrested only to be given bail in minutes. Then the second FIR suddenly appeared, which made a claim that the violence in Bhima Koregaon could have been incited by Naxalites. Everyone knows who is protecting whom in the case.”

He added, “A book I was reading – How Democracy Dies [by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt] – says that democracy will not die by military coups these days but by a gradual crushing of human rights by the state. The same is happening in India.”

Arundhati Roy said the government was trying to deflect attention from real issues by raking up the so-called urban naxal theory. “To be murdered, to be lynched, to be poor, to defend the poor, is a crime now. The government knew that all of us will rise in protest to attack the government, yet it arrested those people. Recent surveys have clearly shown that Narendra Modi’s popularity has fallen to a great extent. ‘Divide and rule’ is now an old tactic, ‘divert and rule’ is the new phenomenon,” she said.

“The government wants us to forget Rafale, demonetisation, GST. So, apart from attacking the activists, it is taking apart educational institutions. By massively privatising education, the government is re-brahminising education. Even the smallest benefits of reservation for Dalits and Adivasis are being denied. They are being pushed out.”

Apart from the charges against those arrested to be scrapped and repeal of UAPA, the organisations demanded that appropriate action be taken against the Maharashtra police for launching a “vicious and malafide attack against activists” and that the laptops and mobile phones seized by the police be immediately returned to the owners. They also thanked the lawyers and courts for questioning the irregularities and lapses on part of the Maharashtra police while arresting the activists.