“I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Sudha Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too.” There cannot be stronger words than these, posted by Ramchandra Guha, an author and historian of repute, to describe the unparalleled police raids at the residences of human rights activists in six States last week. The day-long raids conducted by the Pune police ended up with the arrest of five well-known rights activists – Varavara Rao, Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. Raids were also conducted at the residences of Adivasi rights activist Fr. Stan Swamy in Ranchi and management professional Anand Teltumbde in Goa, though they were not arrested. Amid nation-wide condemnation of the police crack-down, Supreme Court’s observation was loud and clear: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst.”
The sequence of events leading to the ruthless police action started with the violence at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in January during the commemoration of the 200-year-old victory of Dalit soldiers in the British army over the upper caste Maratha troupes. During the investigation, the police had unearthed proof to nail Hindutva outfits like Hindu Ekta Manch and Shiv Pratishtan. One of its leaders, Milind Ekbote, was arrested, though he was released soon. But, slowly the accusing fingers turned 360 degrees, and the police investigation took a U-turn. They found a Maoist hand in the violence; going further, they unearthed ‘telling evidence’ of a plot to assassinate a top leader in the country. In the end, they uncovered ‘conclusive proof’ to link human rights activists, whom the saffron brigade now calls with a newly coined word ‘Urban Naxalites’, to the Bhima Koregaon violence and the assassination plot. In fact, a completely new set of people have been labelled as the accused in the case.
However, in the highest court of the land, the police stood exposed. The Pune police had been investigating the case for the last eight months; they claimed to have laid their hand on explosive proof against the accused to charge them with sedition and bid to overthrow an elected government. But they could not place before the court enough proof to get even a ‘transit remand’ of the arrested activists. Not surprisingly, the police action is seen as highhanded at the instance of some people in the higher-ups.
It is nobody’s contention that rights activists are above law. Neither they are expected to aid extremist organisations in any manner in their acts of violence. But, they cannot be chained on the wrong notion that mere link with such organisations is enough to put them behind bar. Expression of dissent cannot be construed as incitement to violence. If free speech is dealt with police crack- down, it is end of democracy. By all accounts, what was witnessed across several States was a chilling account of unleashing ‘police raj’ apparently at the behest of some to choke dissenting voices. The voice of civil society is the voice of democracy. Fabricated evidences should not be used to suppress that sane voice.(Published on 03rd September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 36)