Explainer: Why are India’s grassroots activists in danger?

By Prarthana Mitra

The Pune police on Tuesday led a number of raids across Delhi, Faridabad, Mumbai, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad, arresting at least five human rights activists, namely lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Arun Ferreira, activists Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves, and poet Varavara Rao. The authorities have alleged their complicity in the Bhima-Koregaon violence near Pune, which erupted on New Year’s Day during a celebratory meet organised by Dalit and Adivasi rights groups.

Additionally, in Ranchi, the Pune police raided the home and office of 83-year-old activist Stan Swamy. In Hyderabad, Varavara Rao, Kranti Tekula and Naseem were brandished similar search warrants. In Goa, a raid was conducted at the home of writer, professor and activist Anand Teltumbde.

The arrests were made based on names that emerged during the investigation of five activists arrested in June in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence and an alleged assassination plot aimed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those arrested on June 6 and still languishing in jail include lawyer Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen and activist Mahesh Raut from Nagpur, Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai and activist Rona Wilson from Delhi.

Here’s what happened at court

All of them have been accused of having Maoist links and were booked under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. JNU Professor Emeritus Romila Thapar moved to the Supreme Court, along with five other prominent members of civil society, challenging the arrest and demanding the immediate release of the wrongfully accused activists. Their petition stated the arrests and raids by Maharashtra police were an “exercise to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation and to instil fear in minds of people”.

The Delhi High Court which grilled Pune police officers regarding Navlakha’s arrest found their responses deeply unsatisfactory and inadequate, staying Navlakha’s transit remand and placing him on house arrest immediately. The Supreme Court bench on Wednesday has also asked all five activists to be placed under house arrest, as an interim order till further notice.

What happened at Bhima-Koregaon?

On January 1, thousands of Dalit citizens congregate at Bhima-Koregaon near Pune to commemorate the historic victory of lower-caste soldiers against the Peshwas in 1818. This year, on the 200th anniversary of the battle, around 260 NGOs organised Elgar Parishad, which was graced by speakers like Jignesh Mevani and Radhika Vemula. The gathering soon devolved into violence, with eyewitness accounts mentioning stone pelters clad in saffron, and Dalit activists blaming Hindutva groups for inflammatory anti-Dalit speeches a week before.

According to Scroll.in, the Pune police filed cases against Hindutva group leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide for inciting violence but Ekbote was released on bail in March, while Bhide roams scot-free despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest.

By April, the police were convinced that Rona Wilson and other organisers were responsible for the violence, and the speeches made by the activists were to blame. Pune police joint commissioner, Ravindra Kadam, even claimed that the Elgar Parishad was funded by Maoist organisations.

The alleged Modi assassination plot

Within a day of Wilson’s arrest in June, the Pune police leaked two letters to certain media organisations, which they allegedly recovered from Wilson’s residence wherein the aforementioned assassination plot is being hatched by Maoists. The authenticity of the letters has not yet been verified, but sharing these alleged pieces of evidence with the media before presenting them in court is a gross violation of the law.

Discrepancies in the salutations and names mentioned in the letters have raised serious doubts, and given the BJP’s history of using false allegations, fake videos and news, the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Why it matters

According to The Wire, with the 2019 elections drawing near, a new narrative is being fostered – of an enemy within who is not just against the government and its policies, but against the nation itself. Several other news organisations are calling this a smokescreen for the elaborate plans of Hindu-extremist group Sanatan Sanstha, to plant explosives at the Sunburn Music Festival in Pune.

In the meantime, Justice DY Chandrachud was the voice of hope and reason in these bleak times. Hearing Thapar’s petition on Wednesday, he said, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow dissent, the pressure valve of democracy will burst.”

Activist-writer Arundhati Roy calls this as close to a declaration of an Emergency we will ever get, raising an important question: ‘Why are raids taking place on the homes of lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals and not those who make up lynch mobs?’

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius