Anger after arrest of Indian activists

Dalit rights activists, intellectuals and journalists shouting slogans against the police raid and arrests of civil rights activists during a protest in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Dalit rights activists, intellectuals and journalists shouting slogans against the police raid and arrests of civil rights activists during a protest in New Delhi on Wednesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Five allegedly incited violence; critics say BJP govt cracking down on dissent

The arrests of five civil rights activists by the Indian police in different parts of the country have led to national outrage, raising questions about whether the space for dissent is shrinking in the world's largest democracy.

The five - trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj, journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha, communist writer and poet P. Varavara Rao, writer and lawyer Arun Ferreira and human rights lawyer Vernon Gonsalves - were detained after simultaneous police raids in multiple cities on Tuesday.

All five have been accused of having links with Maoist rebels and for inciting violence at a rally of so-called lower-caste Dalits, who were referred to in the past as the untouchables, in the western state of Maharashtra on Dec 31.

Maoist or Naxalite insurgents have waged a violent battle against the state for taking over large forest areas for industrial operations and mining.

Civil rights groups and an array of political parties in the opposition, including left-wing ones and the Congress, have slammed Tuesday's arrests.

"We condemn this arrest and we demand their immediate release. Activists can't be intimidated in this manner. This is a crackdown on dissent," said Mr D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

On Wednesday, some rights groups also held protests in New Delhi in support of the activists.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in 2014, tensions have soared between Hindu nationalists and right-wing groups on one side and left-leaning groups and civil rights activists on the other. The tensions have been particularly apparent on college campuses across the country.

The five activists were arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for allegedly inciting violence at the rally in the tiny village of Bhima Koregaon in Pune. The rally was to commemorate the Battle of Koregaon, in which a group of Dalits fought with the British against Maratha or an upper caste ruler.

Right-wing Hindu groups were opposed to the rally and clashes erupted at the gathering, leaving one person dead.

Local media reports said police had "incriminating evidence" against the five activists, who, however, have maintained their innocence.

"I am saying it from the beginning, that on the basis of false statements, a case was filed against me. I have faith in the law," Varavara Rao told Indian media yesterday.

Bharadwaj said the action against her was part of a broader crackdown on opponents of the government.

"The effort is whatever is the opposition to this regime, whether it is workers' rights, tribal rights, everybody who is in the opposition is being rounded up," she was quoted as saying.

The BJP has denied any crackdown on dissent, insisting that police were only doing their job. The ruling party pointed out that activists with links to Maoist rebels were also arrested when Congress was in power previously.

"We should let these agencies do their job," Dr Bizay Sonkar Shastri, a national spokesman for the BJP, was quoted as saying. "Opposition parties are not trusting the legal system and instead commenting on it. Is that right? The law will take its own course and justice will be done."

Many critics, including renowned historian Ramachandra Guha, who described the arrests as "chilling", said they were contributing to a climate of fear in the country.

A group of leading academics have petitioned the Supreme Court to release the activists and on Wednesday it ordered that they be removed from police custody and placed under house arrest until Sept 6, when it will hear the petition.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2018, with the headline 'Anger after arrest of Indian activists'. Print Edition | Subscribe