In Nationwide Swoop, Five Rights Activists Arrested, Several More Raided

Writer and activist Gautam Navlakha in police custody on August 28. Credit: PTI

Mumbai/New Delhi: In a coordinated operation that has drawn fierce criticism from civil society and opposition political parties alike, the Pune police on Tuesday launched simultaneous raids on the homes of several people in Mumbai, Delhi, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad, including activists, priests, writers and lawyers.

By the end of the day, five prominent rights activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira – had been arrested on a host of charges, including terrorism-related ones, prompting cries of a witch-hunt.

Bharadwaj is a prominent trade unionist and lawyer. Navlakha, a widely published writer and civil liberties activist, is 65 years old while Rao, a celebrated Telugu poet and Marxist intellectual and activist, is nearly 80 years old, according to his family.

The FIR on the basis of which the arrests were made relates to the violence which followed the Bhima-Koregaon commemorative event held in Maharashtra on January 1 this year.

The arrested activists: Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.

Three of the arrested – Ferreira, Rao and Gonsalves – are due to be produced before a Pune court today.

§

On Tuesday morning, the home of lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj near Badarpur in Delhi was raided and she was taken into custody. According to the panchama, Bharadwaj has been charged under Sections 153a, 505, 117 and 120 of the IPC and several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Orders for the arrest came from Swargate police station, Pune, acting on a First Information Report filed in January 2018, according to the police, and five policemen from Pune were part of the team that went to her house. The police were at her home from 5:30 am and all electronic devices were seized.

Sources told The Wire that the police took away Bharadwaj’s laptops, mobiles and a pen drive, as well as a diary with empty pages, and Bharadwaj expressed concern that these could be tampered with. Her daughter said that the police asked both of them to write down their email and social media passwords. When Bharadwaj’s daughter later tried to access her social media accounts, she reportedly found that they had been blocked.

Despite a high court stay on her transit remand for two days, there was high drama as the Pune police sought to fly her out of Delhi before they could be formally served notice. Bharadwaj’s counsel, Vrinda Grover, told The Wire she was eventually driven back to Faridabad and kept in a van outside the chief judicial magistrate’s residence past midnight. Inside, her lawyers sought a direction from the CJM to the police – as the high court had noted – that she be allowed to return home pending resolution of her plea before the Punjab and Haryana high court. The stay will be in place till August 30.

Sudha Bharadwaj conferring with her lawyer, Vrinda Grover, inside the Faridabad CJM’s residence on Tuesday night. Credit: Special Arrangement

§

In Mumbai, the activist-turned-lawyer Vernon Gonsalves was also arrested in the morning. His 23-year-old son Sagar Gonsalves told The Wire that a police team comprising of nine policemen from Pune and two from the local MIDC police station reached their home at 6:10 am.

“My father, like always, had gone out for a morning walk. He reached home and within less than five minutes the police knocked at our door.” Sagar said their phones were confiscated and that they were not allowed to make any calls until 1:30 pm when Gonsalves was finally taken away.

Gonsalves’ wife Susan Abraham is one of the lawyers who is appearing for the five individuals arrested in June in the same case. Sagar said that when the police arrived at their residence, they were not sure if the police had come for Abraham or Gonsalves.

“But as soon as they took away his phone and sat down with him and asked him several questions, we knew he would be arrested,” Sagar added. The police have taken away Gonsalves’ laptop, CPU of two old computers, his mobile phone, two spare phones, three pen drives and several books from his house. “Any book with Mao’s name on it or mentions of ‘Naxal’ and ‘political prisoners’ was taken away. A popular book on the Bolshevik revolution which was lying in the house was picked up too,” Sagar told The Wire.

§

In Hyderabad, the veteran Marxist poet and intellectual Varavara Rao was arrested from his home on Tuesday afternoon and taken to Nampally court. His family has alleged that their house was ransacked by a team from the Pune police.

Varavara Rao being taken away by the police on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

Rao’s nephew Venugopal, editor of Veekshanam Telugu magazine, told the TV channel Sakshi, “This is an attempt to stifle voices that talk about murders of Dalit and Adivasis in areas like Gadchiroli. There is a cooked up story that V.V. Rao was connected with an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no truth to it. Apart from V.V. Rao, his two daughters and son-in-laws have been targeted. They do not have any connection with V.V. Rao’s politics. The Central government, Maharashtra government, aided by the Telangana government, are engaging in intimidation to stifle democratic voices.”

Also read: ‘He’s Almost 80, How Will He Be in Jail?’ V.V. Rao’s Family Condemns Arrest

§

The Delhi-based writer and activist Gautam Navlakha was arrested from his home at around 2 pm. The police wanted to transfer him to Pune and obtained an order of transit remand from a court in Saket, but his lawyers, Nitya Ramakrishna and Warisha Farasat, managed to file a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi high court which the chief justice marked for prompt hearing. Since the documents produced in court were in Marathi – with only the transit remand in Hindi – the bench of Juatice S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel said that it was “not possible to make out from these documents what precisely the case against the petitioner is”. It has asked for the translated documents to be presented in court on August 29.

The high court said that it would hear the case Wednesday morning, and ordered that Navlakha be allowed to return to his own home under the supervision of the police till then. On Wednesday morning, however, the state of Maharashtra said it had been unable to prepare a translation of the Marathi documents, following which the court gave it time till afternoon.

“Yesterday you seem to have had no problem with getting a translation,” the bench noted – a reference to police claims made in court on Tuesday that they had translated the FIR for the Saket magistrate who granted them transit remand.

§

Arun Ferreira was arrested from his home at around 3:15 pm. “I am been arrested in the same case as [Sudhir] Dhawale and [Surendra] Gadling. I will be taken to Pune now,” he said while being arrested.

Police constables had been stationed outside Ferreira’s house in Thane. Around 15 officers from the Pune police landed up at Arun Ferriera’s place around 6 am. Ferreira, who stepped out briefly around 2 pm, told The Wire that he was then still under interrogation. “The police is inquiring and the process is still on. I can’t say anything concrete right now,” Ferreira said. Ferreira, his wife Jennifer, his son and mother-in-law were home when the Pune police reached their residence.

Arun Ferreira being taken into police custody on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

According to Ferreira’s family, the police told him to cooperate and said that they would only be carrying out search raids. It was only around 3 pm that he was told that he would be taken to Pune. His wife’s laptop and pen drives have been seized, and the entire family’s bank details have been noted, they told The Wire.

The panchnamas say that the arrested individuals will be taken to Pune later today.

Ferreira spent five years in jail when the police in Maharashtra filed 10 UAPA cases against him. In 2012, he received bail and in 2014 was acquitted of all charges.

From Jharkhand to Goa, police raids

Among those whose residences were raided by the Pune police on Tuesday were Susan Abraham, journalist Kranthi Tekula in Hyderabad, Father Stan Swamy in Ranchi and Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde in Goa. A relative of Varavara Rao confirmed that his daughter Anala and son-in-law K.V. Kurmanath’s house had also been raided, and their laptops and hard drives seized. A relative of Abraham’s said, “Susan and Arun are defending the accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence of last January.” 

Dipak Nikam, inspector, crime branch Pune, led a team of eight Maharastra police accompanied by the local Ranchi police to the residence of Father Stan Swamy with a search notice written in Marathi. The team searched Swamy’s room for about three hours. Nikam said that there is case in the Vishambagh police station in which Swamy is a suspect. “We have seized a laptop, memory card and compact disks. We had only a search order, and we did not have any arrest order for Stan Swamy.”

Nikam said there is an organisation called Elgaar Parishad which is suspected to have links with the Dalit movement in Maharastra, and the Vishambagh police suspects that Swamy has links with Elgaar Parishad.

When The Wire spoke to Swamy, he said he has never heard of, let alone had links with, any organisation called Elgaar Parishad.

Swamy has been actively speaking and writing against the BJP government’s alleged excesses against tribal people in Jharkhand. Recently, the state police had lodged a sedition case against him because of his support for the Pathalgadi movement in which adivasis inscribe passages from the Constitution on stone slabs and place them at the entrance to their villages.

Dayamani Barla and Vasavi Kiro, noted social activists who reached Stan’s residence when the search operation was on, said the BJP using these methods to harass Stan as he is fighting for the rights of the Adivasis.

Police outside Arun Ferreira’s house in Thane, Maharashtra. Credit: The Wire

Teltumbde’s house in Goa, on the premises of the Goa Institute of Management, was raided while he was not in town. “He is out of Goa and his house was locked. He was informed by an official at the Institute that police had arrived at the campus with sanction to raid his house,” The Hindu quoted a source as saying.

Those already arrested for the Bhima Koregaon violence include human rights lawyer from Nagpur Surendra Gadling, Dalit rights activist and journalist Sudhir Dhawale, former Prime Minister Rural Development fellow Mahesh Raut, prisoners’ rights activist Rona Wilson and associate professor from Nagpur University Shoma Sen.

Kavita Srivastava, president of the Rajasthan chapter of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, told The Wire on the raids and arrests, “We are outraged at what happened. This is a complete witch hunt. Completely false and baseless charges against top human rights activists. The Modi government is showing its fascist side. We are really going to fight back.”

V.S. Krishna, Human Rights Forum Andhra Pradesh and Telangana coordination committee member, told The Wire, “The letter produced by the police alleging assassination threat to Modi seems fabricated. The charges against those arrested today also seem outlandish and the UAPA has once again been used to clamp down on dissent.”

Also read: Politicians, Civil Society Groups Condemn Arrests, Raids Carried Out By Pune Police

A number of activists and political leaders including Swami Agnivesh, Teesta Setalvad, Jignesh Mevani, Shehla Rashid and Sanam Sutirath Wazir had issued a statement condemning the police action. ” The arrests should be seen in continuation with the recent attacks on pro-justice voices such as Swami Agnivesh, Umar Khalid and many other student activists from Delhi to Lucknow. A BJP lawmaker from Karnataka even advocated the murder of “intellectuals.” Both the arrests and the physical attacks on justice loving people must be seen in a series of attempts to stifle dissent and deny social justice. We demand immediate release of the arrested individuals, dropping of all false and malicious charges, as these arrests are politically motivated and unjustified,” the statement said.

In March, Milind Ekbote, president of the Samata Hindu Aghadi, had been arrested. He is the prime accused in the violence against Dalits which had left one person dead. He was released on bail in April. Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh’s leader Prakash Ambedkar had accused Hindutva groups of attacking Dalits who had gathered on the spot outside Pune to commemorate the 200th anniversary of a historic victory against the Marathas in which Dalit soldiers had taken part. The other leader named by Ambedkar, Sambhaji Bhide, has not yet been arrested. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had said investigations had shown that Bhide was not involved.