NEW DELHI: Echoing for the rights of the human rights activists, the Supreme Court on Wednesday came down heavily on the Maharashtra government's crackdown on them and stayed their arrests till next week.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said the five activists must be kept in "house arrest in their own homes" till the next hearing on September 6.
"Dissent is the safety wall of any democracy, if you don't allow these safety valves, it will burst," Justice D Y Chandrachud told Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who opposed the court intervention.
The court also issued notices to the Centre and Maharashtra government on the petition that has challenged the validity of ten arrests.
The plea also sought an independent investigation into the entire episode of nationwide raids and subsequent arrests.
On Tuesday, Pune police began multi-city searches and arrested revolutionary poet P Varavara Rao from Hyderabad, advocate Sudha Bharadwaj from Faridabad, Gautam Navlakha from New Delhi, and Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves from Mumbai.Rao, Bharadwaj, Farreira, Gonzalves and Navalakha were arrested under IPC Section 153 (A), which relates to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place or birth, residence, language and committing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.
Bharadwaj and Navlakha are currently under house arrest after the high courts of Delhi and Punjab & Haryana intervened Tuesday night, but Rao and three others were taken to Pune and produced before a magistrate. They will now have to be released.
Five eminent citizens, including historian Romila Thapar, moved the top court early Wednesday against the arrests in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence this January.
Questioning the standing of the five petitioners, Mehta said, "They may be good citizens, we don't know." He also erroneously claimed that those arrested have a "previous record," referring specifically to Sudha Bharadwaj.
But Justice Chandrachud shot back: "What are you saying. they are professors. They say it is an attempt to muzzle the voice of dissent. Let us examine it."
This led senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi appearing for Thapar to say that democracy will be dead if such arbitrary arrests are permitted, the CJI replied, "That is why we have issued notices."
"The larger issue is the chilling effect merely because on does not agree with you (government). FIR has no mention of arrested people," Singhvi argued.
Senior advocates also strongly batted for those arrested. Indira Jaising said Bharadwaj was her junior, while Rajeev Dhawan said he's been funding her organisation for over five years.
"It could be any of us next. You can't go after those who defend human rights," Jaising told the court.
The case will be heard next on September 6.