Maharashtra police arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and Varavara Rao under India’s principal counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and sections of the Indian Penal Code. At the same time, police conducted raids across the country, including at the homes of Dalit scholars K. Satyanarayana and Anand Teltumbde, civil rights activist Stan Swamy, and journalists Kranthi Tekula and K.V. Kurmanath.
“The latest arrests of human rights activists show the government’s widening assault on free speech to create an atmosphere of fear across India,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Officials are again targeting human rights defenders and those working with poor and marginalized communities just for doing their jobs.”
On August 29, activists and academics filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking the release of those detained and an independent investigation into the arrests. Stating that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” the Supreme Court ordered that the activists be placed under house arrest and not in police custody until the next hearing on September 6. The court also issued a notice to the Maharashtra government seeking a reply before then.
Police allege that the activists incited Dalits, formerly “untouchables,” at a large public rally on December 31, 2017, leading to violent clashes the next day in which one person died and several were injured. Hundreds of Dalits had gathered in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state on January 1 to commemorate a 200-year-old battle in which Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the ruling Peshwas. Hindu nationalist groups and alleged supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), some carrying saffron flags, objected to the celebration, calling it anti-national for celebrating a colonial victory. The organizers of the Dalit rally said they wanted to campaign against the pervasive ideology in India that leads to attacks on Dalits and Muslims.
The activists have long worked to defend the rights of some of India’s poorest and most marginalized communities, including Dalits and Adivasis – India’s indigenous peoples. As poets, journalists, and advocates, they have been vocal in their criticism of government policies and therefore, have often been targets for the authorities.
Sudha Bharadwaj, 57, is a trade unionist, human rights lawyer, and general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Chhattisgarh state. She has long worked for labor rights, marginalized communities affected by land acquisitions, and spoken out against security forces abuses in Chhattisgarh.
Arun Ferreira, 48, is a Mumbai-based activist, cartoonist, and lawyer who was arrested in 2007 for murder, criminal conspiracy, rioting, possessing arms, and under provisions of the UAPA. By 2011, he was acquitted in several cases, and was released on bail. But he was rearrested at the prison gates, framed in new cases. He was finally acquitted of all charges in 2014 and wrote a memoir detailing his years in prison, alleged torture, and the authorities’ use of terrorism-related offenses to target civil rights activists.
Vernon Gonsalves, 60, a Mumbai-based activist, has worked for the rights of laborers. In 2013, he was convicted under the Arms Act and the UAPA. By then, he had already undergone incarceration for the period he was sentenced, so he was released.
Gautam Navlakha, 65, a Delhi-based journalist was the secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and is an editorial consultant for the journal Economic and Political Weekly. He has written about human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir state, and along with Bharadwaj, Ferreira, and Gonsalves, is a vocal critic of the UAPA.
Varavara Rao, 78, a poet and civil rights activist based in Telangana state, founded the Revolutionary Writers’ Association. He has been arrested several times in the past, including for conspiring to overthrow the Andhra Pradesh state government but was acquitted of all charges.
The National Human Rights Commission has issued notices to Maharashtra state’s chief secretary and director general of police, saying that it appears police did not follow the standard operating procedure in these arrests, “which may amount to violation of their human rights.” It has called for a report from them within four weeks.
Maharashtra police earlier arrested several other activists in relation to this case on what appear to be politically motivated charges, said Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India.
On June 6, Maharashtra police arrested Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, and Mahesh Raut under the UAPA and several sections of the Indian Penal Code. The authorities named nine other people in the case; several of them are members of Kabir Kala Manch, a Pune-based cultural group of singers, poets, and artists.
“The police in India have repeatedly used counterterrorism laws against government critics and social activists, and often, they have targeted the same people by filing multiple cases against them,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India. “The authorities continue to ignore Supreme Court directives to not conflate sympathy for concerns expressed by the Maoists, with criminal complicity in violence.”
Several Dalit and Adivasi activists in Maharashtra, including Dhawale and members of Kabir Kala Manch, have been previously arrested on similar accusations. In January 2013, the High Court in Mumbai ruled that membership in an illegal organization should be interpreted in light of fundamental freedoms such as rights to free speech and expression, and that “passive membership” was insufficient for prosecution.
Indian courts have ruled that merely possessing literature that espouses a particular philosophy does not constitute an offense. The Supreme Court has also ruled that “mere membership of a banned organization will not make a person a criminal unless he resorts to violence or incites people to violence or creates public disorder by violence or incitement to violence.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India have repeatedly urged the Indian government to ensure that any restrictions on organizations do not violate the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly and urged the repeal of the UAPA.
“The Indian government has long pointed to India’s vocal and diverse civil society as a test of its democracy,” Patel said. “For this to be true, the government should protect freedom of expression and assembly and activists should be able to speak without fear.”