Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, the pressure cooker might burst.” Justice D Y Chandrachud made this salutary observation on the detention of five human rights activists, including lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and poet Varavara Rao, for their alleged Maoist links—apparently unearthed in the Pune police’s probe into the Elgaar Parishad meeting a day prior to the violence against Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon. In one fell swoop, the activists were picked up from across states, as if they were millionaire businessmen about to take flight.
The public reaction was mostly one of outrage. In fact, the petitioners before the Supreme Court were prominent citizens like Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik and Satish Deshpande, who spoke of ‘trumped up charges’ being used to crack down on dissent. Dissent cannot be criminalised, the judge said, and is an integral part of democracy. The comforting obiter dicta aside, what brought real relief is that the SC directed the activists be only put under house arrest, not taken into transit remand, till the next hearing on September 6.
The SC also noted none of them had been named in the FIR on the alleged ‘Rajiv Gandhi type incident’ plot against PM Narendra Modi. No plot to assassinate anyone can be condoned, if credible. But random arrests of activists, some of them expert professionals in their spheres, may not stand the test of credibility, or do much good to the image of the nation. Lawyers are entitled to fight cases for all accused. India even tried an obvious terror accused, Ajmal Kasab, with proper legal assistance.
Does that make a lawyer accused in the case? But this episode has proved that Indian civil society and its legal system still have the capacity to fight against aberrations. In the same breath, the Congress, P Chidambaram in particular, should be reminded that neither covered themselves in glory when in power. Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves were first arrested in 2007, Gautam Navlakha detained in Srinagar in 2011, all under the UPA regime. So was the poet Rao. The NDA is following the template.