Arrest of rights activists an act to silence dissent: Historian Romila Thapar, others in plea to SC

The petition filed by the five intellectuals alleged that the police action was the biggest attack on freedom and liberty of citizens by resorting to high-handedness without any credible evidence.

Published: 29th August 2018 09:36 PM  |   Last Updated: 30th August 2018 12:46 AM   |  A+A-

Revolutionary writer P Varavara Rao arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case being produced at a court in Pune on Wednesday Aug 29 2018. | PTI

By PTI

NEW DELHI: The arrest of five rights activists by the Maharashtra Police on alleged Maoist links is aimed at silencing dissent and instilling fear in the minds of the people, noted historian Romila Thapar and four other academicians told the Supreme Court today.

The petition filed by the five intellectuals alleged that the Pune police action was the "biggest attack" on freedom and liberty of citizens by resorting to high-handedness without any credible evidence.

It also alleged that no action was taken against right-wing workers, against whom FIRs were lodged as they "were behind" the Koregaon-Bhima violence.

While observing that the dissent was the "safety valve" of democracy, the apex court today kept the five human rights activists arrested in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence case under house arrest at their homes till September 6.

Besides Thapar, noted economist Prabhat Patnaik, Padma Bhushan awardee and noted economist Devaki Jain, a Sociology professor in Delhi University Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala who is barrister by training and senior advisor with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative have filed the petition in the apex court challenging the arrests.

Also Read | Activists' arrest: Never heard of their Naxals links, says Sharad Pawar

The petition sought to "bring on record the gross abuse of police power in the country which in intended to stifle, if not kill, independent voices and differing ideology from the party in power."

"The entire exercise is to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation and to instill fear in minds of people," the petition said.

"The timing of this action leaves much to be desired and appears to be motivated to deflect people's attention from real issues. Petitioners are seriously concerned about the erosion of democratic values and are moving this court not to stop the investigation into allegations but to ensure independent and credible investigation by such persons as deemed fit under the supervision of this court. Anything short of this will damage the fabric of nation irreparably," the petition said.

Activists Varavara Rao, Arun Farreira, Vernon Gonzalves, Sudha Bhardwaj and Gautam Navalakha were arrested by the Pune police yesterday in connection with an FIR lodged following an event -- 'Elgaar Parishad' (conclave) -- held on December 31 last year that had triggered violence at Koregaon-Bhima village.

Also Read | After SC order, Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao, two others put under house arrest

The petition alleged that the charges against the activists on the face of it appears to be indiscriminate, unwarranted and part of a malicious campaign to threaten human rights defenders, independent journalist, writers and thinkers from criticising the government and its policies and an attempt to muzzle dissent.

"The use of the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act), meant for exceptional and violent activity, against such persons when there has been absolutely no evidence of acts of violence by these activists is deeply disconcerting and calls for an urgent intervention by the court," the plea said.

The plea by the academicians said the police had filed FIRs on January 4 this year against Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Shambhaji Rao Bhide based on eyewitness accounts that they and some fringe groups had incited the violence against the Dalit congregation.

Also Read | Government terrorizing people with the use of draconian laws: Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde on activists' arrest

They alleged that the Maharashtra government and its police did not take any purposeful and decisive action against the right-wing leaders "who were behind" the Koregaon-Bhima violence and instigated the attacks.

"The police instead embarked on a motivated process of arresting a large number of human rights activists, lawyers and journalist who all are known for their commitment to the cause of respecting and promoting the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities, in particular the Dalits, Adivasis, women, landless labourers and the poor," it said.

There was a "systematic strategy" deployed by the police probing the Bhima-Koregaon violence to put out "highly provocative" but "completely unsubstantiated", unverified and unproven allegations through "select media channels" to prejudice public opinion against those arrested.

It alleged that the arrest memo of both Navlakha and Bhardwaj were signed by persons who were witnesses brought as part of the entourage of the Pune police.

"The seizure memos were prepared in Marathi and again signed by panchs who were brought by the Pune police as part of their entourage. The aforesaid FIR on which these arrests are based is in Marathi and no translation was provided to the activists arrested," it alleged.

"Because the use of the draconian UAPA against these peace-loving activists who have no history of indulging or instigating any violence is clearly mala fide and an attempt to browbeat and intimidate them and other similar people.

"That the targeting and persecution of political and ideological opponents/ adversaries through abuse and untenable use of legal processes runs contrary to the core tenets of the rule of law which governs the society," the plea said.

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