New Delhi: On August 28, the houses of several rights activists were simultaneously raided by the Pune police and five among them – Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Arun Ferreira – were arrested on a host of charges, including terrorism-related ones.
Three of the arrested activists – Ferreira, Rao and Gonsalves – were produced at a district court in Pune the next day and accused by the prosecution of being involved in a range of crimes from the planned assassination of top government functionaries to ties with Kashmiri separatists and riots in Pune.
Giving some reprieve to the five by ordering them to stay under house arrest till September 6, the Supreme Court in response to a plea against the arrests on Wednesday noted that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If not allowed, the safety valve will burst.”
While groups of retired civil servants, activists, lawyers and students have all condemned the actions of the Maharashtra police and called the arrests a clear attempt at stifling dissent, leading newspapers have used the power of the pen to editorially deride the government’s actions.
Times of India
In its editorial titled ‘McCarthy moment? Pune police’s countrywide swoop on left wing activists rightly elicits outrage and legal challenge,’ the Times of India stated that ideas must be fought with better ideas and not through coercion or repression – which is what distinguishes a democracy from an authoritarian state.
“India won half the battle against Maoism when it adopted a liberal democracy in 1950 and took another giant leap through liberal economic reforms since 1991. Now the Naxal ideology is losing traction even in remote tribal areas. This is hardly the moment to resurrect the figure of the “urban naxal” to target, say, Dalit or tribal or trade union activists.
Yet the fear mongering cannot be ignored because it recalls the McCarthy era in 1950s America, when left wing activists were persecuted.”
Questioning why “respected activists, a priest, a lawyer and a poet” had all been treated by the state “in the manner of dreaded terrorists and criminals,” the Indian Express editorial titled ‘The safety valve’ – in line with what Justice D.Y. Chandrachud has said – put the onus on the apex court to hold the government to account.
“And the Supreme Court must hold the government to account for any and every perversion of due process, any and every sabotage of justice, that is bared in the process. When the law is draconian and the politics intolerant, it falls on the Supreme Court to safeguard and uphold the Constitution.”
The burden on the Maharashtra police is extremely high, The Hindu noted in its editorial, ‘Shock arrests: On activists’ arrest.’ The daily stated that unless the police is able to prove the “sweeping allegations of unlawful activity” and those of “unverified assassination plots” against the human rights activists, “suspicions that the law has been bent with the sole purpose of targeting dissent,” will be confirmed.
“It is nobody’s case that activists or intellectuals are above the law, but the Maharashtra police carry the enormous burden of proof, having accused the activists of doing much more than inciting the violence that broke out in Bhima-Koregaon, near Pune, this year. What began as a controversy over allegedly provocative speeches made at a Dalit conference relating to the 200th anniversary of an iconic battle site has inexplicably morphed into a larger conspiracy involving the CPI (Maoist).”
The Asian Age
The failure of the Maharashtra police was in focus in the Asian Age editorial, ‘Arrests of activists totally unjustified’ as well. Emphasising that a plot against the prime minister is a “very serious matter”, the newspaper said charges like these should be “painstakingly investigated.” It shouldn’t, as has been done, “bandied about on television in order to score political points”.
The editorial said that while “friendly” TV channels have been suggesting that a plot to assassinate Modi is being unravelled, the idea that the arrested “dissenters” – each with a long record of working with the poor – had anything to do with such a plot is preposterous. “…though not to the Pune police, which picked up the five individuals.”
“Since none has been linked with violence and public disorder in their work going back decades, it’s plausibly being suggested their arrests are an example of the work of the “thought police”. It’s expected such actions will help keep government critics at bay.”
Labelling the actions of the Pune police a ‘major faux pas‘ given the gravity of the charges levelled, DNA drew focus on the growing threat of Naxalism in its August 30 editorial.
“.. the Pune police should have done a thorough spade work and furnished incontrovertible evidence,” the editorial stated, adding, “Instead, in their hurry to carry out arrests, they jumped the gun to disastrous effect.”
Citing 2014 home ministry data, DNA stated that over 12,000, including security forces, have been killed by Naxals in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Adding that while there wasn’t concrete proof of ‘urban naxalism,’ “reports of sleeper cells and Maoist ideologues inciting the youth to take up arms and resort to violence crop up every once in a while.”
“The police and the government must be mindful of the fact that those arrested are prominent rights activists, professors and lawyers and not petty criminals. If the police are not careful, this issue may snowball into a national political challenge.”
“Where exactly is the law?” asked the Telegraph in its editorial titled ‘Action at dawn.’ The simultaneous early morning raids, the arrests and manner in which they were conducted, is a sign that the proactiveness of the police was rather one-sided.
“… absent in the case of the upper-caste leaders who allegedly led the violence on January 1, or of gau rakshaks on their lynching sprees, slack when rationalists and journalists are killed, although the recent revelations about the murderous activities of outfits like the Sanatan Sanstha seem to have made the arrest of activists even more urgent.”
The label of ‘urban Naxals’, adds the piece, is like an “echo of the Brazilian Carlos Marighella’s 1969 definition of the ‘urban guerrilla'”.
Grave charges have been levied against the five activists, but without tangible proof, notes The Tribune‘s editorial ‘Clampdown on Left activists,’ the timing of Maharashtra police’s action “is bound to raise suspicion about the motive of law-enforcing agencies, as also State control, and give credence to the Opposition’s claim of a ‘virtual declaration of Emergency’.”
“There is need for circumspection. Democracy will self-destruct in the face of systematic annihilation of dissent. No matter how inconvenient, how uncomfortable the truth, the Kalburgis, Dabholkars, Gauri Lankeshs must be allowed to speak out, and live. Unless the last man has said what he must — without fear — and has been heard, we will remain a democracy in the making.”
Citing the Supreme Court’s observation that dissent is the safety valve of any democracy, Amar Ujala‘s editorial ‘Conspiracy and arrests’ said that while what the top court had noted was serious, if ideological differences reach a point of violence and unlawfulness, as claimed by the Pune police, then that threat is equally serious.
Stating that while the police claimed to have enough evidence and to having kept a close watch on the five, it failed in its purpose because the activists have been ordered by the apex court to be kept under house arrest.
The challenge before the Maharashtra police now, the Hindi daily stated, was to put forth documents and evidence before the court supporting its claims so that the matter can be brought to its just end.
In the Dainik Bhaskar editorial titled ‘There is no space for violence in the fight of ideas’, the newspaper said that while the activists should be punished if indeed it can be proved that they had planned to assassinate leaders in the government, in turn, the government needs to be held accountable if the allegations turn out to be false.
“If this hearing before the upcoming elections so that the government can spread some sort of political sensationalism and benefit from it, opposition parties and civil rights groups must come forward and join hands in the struggle to save our human rights.”
Nav Bharat Times
The daily Nav Bharat Times, recapping the events of the past two days, stated that it’s the government’s duty to tackle Naxal-related violence, but the Centre should ensure that any police action shouldn’t create an environment of fear. During Emergency, this country fought a long battle to guarantee its citizens rights. “Protecting these rights should be as important as increasing the country’s GDP”.
The Dainik Jagran took a position quite different from other media groups, arguing in its editorial ‘The supporters of Naxals’ that even if the people arrested were not supporting the Naxal movement, there are others “very much like them” in Indian cities who are.
“No matter what conclusion the Supreme Court comes to at the next hearing, there is no doubt that Naxals in India’s rural areas are receiving support from people in cities very much like the people the Pune police has arrested. …While after the five were arrested people have been saying that this is a crackdown on dissent and an Emergency-like situation, it is a fact that in the urban areas, a group of literate people is sympathising with the Naxals and supporting them.”
The newspaper also slammed the Congress for speaking out against the arrests, saying the party was well aware of these city-based Naxal supporters, but is now using any excuse to get after the BJP government.
Note: This article has been updated to include The Tribune‘s editorial.