Activists arrested in police raids in five states over alleged Maoist links
Pune police raided the residences of prominent lawyers and activists across five states on Tuesday and arrested five people for alleged Maoist links.
Lawyer and trade union activist Sudha Bhardwaj, poet P Varavara Rao, activist Gautam Navlakha, and lawyers Arun Pereira and Vernon Gonsalves were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy, creating fear and enmity between various groups, and under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The arrests were part of an investigation into the violence that rocked Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on January 1 during the bicentennial celebration of a British-era war.
The near-simultaneous police raids, led by Pune (urban) police, began at 6am in Hyderabad, Delhi, Faridabad, Mumbai, Thane and Ranchi and continued till afternoon. Police said the operation was part of a probe into an event called Elgar Parishad in Pune on December 31, 2017, when various activists and Dalit organisations came together.
The next day, violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon, about 40 km from Pune, as tens of thousands of Dalits celebrated the 200th anniversary of an 1818 war between the British army, manned mainly by Dalits, and the state’s Peshwa rulers, who were notorious for oppressive caste practices. Widespread stone pelting left one person dead and four injured. Protests swept Maharashtra over the next two days, bringing the state capital Mumbai to a virtual standstill.
“We have arrested five persons today for their association with the Maoist movement and support to Elgar Parishad, which triggered violence the next day,” said Pune Joint Commissioner of Police Shivaji Bodkhe.
The arrests were condemned by several opposition parties.
“There is only place for one NGO in India and it’s called the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Shut down all other NGOs. Jail all activists and shoot those that complain. Welcome to the new India. #BhimaKoregaon,” tweeted Congress chief Rahul Gandhi.
“No human rights activist should be arrested without a proper case. I defend the rights of everybody, more particularly human rights protestors. They are selfless NGOs, activists and obliged to fight in the enveloping darkness in dictatorial tendencies,” Congress spokesperson S Jaipal Reddy said. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the police raids constituted “a brazen attack on democratic rights and civil liberties”.
In the evening, the Delhi high court stayed Navlakha’s transit remand for a day, ordering him to stay in his house with two guards posted outside. He is allowed to meet his lawyers. A bench of justice S Muralidhar and justice Vinod Goel stopped the police from taking Navlakha to Pune and said they would hear the matter first thing on Wednesday. One police team also searched the residence of Father Stan Swamy in Ranchi although Swamy was not arrested in the absence of “evidence,” a senior official said.
According to the police, the names of those arrested on Tuesday cropped up during the interrogation of five persons arrested in June for Maoist links as part of the same investigation. These five were activist Sudhir Dhawale, lawyer Surendra Gadling, activist Rona Wilson, former Prime Minister’s rural development fellow Mahesh Raut, and retired professor Shoma Sen. They were arrested for allegedly having close Maoist links.
Those arrested on Tuesday were being brought to Pune on transit remand to be produced in the court on Wednesday said Bodke. Rao was arrested from Hyderabad, Bhardwaj was held in Faridabad. Another team of Pune police arrested Gonsalves in Mumbai and Ferreira from Thane. “We have recovered some documents, laptop, pen drive, hard disk and other material. The scrutiny of the seized items is on,” said a senior official on condition of anonymity.
Interestingly, Pune (rural) police has charged two Hindu right-wing leaders, Milind Ekbote and Shambhaji Bhide, for the violence on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon. Ekbote is currently out on bail while Bhide has not yet been arrested. The investigation into the Elgar Parishad event on December 31, 2017 is being conducted by the Pune (urban) police.
The arrests were opposed by several activists. “The arrests are a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into panic,” author Arundhati Roy told PTI. Historian Ramachandra Guha called the action “absolutely chilling” and demanded the intervention of the Supreme Court to stop this “persecution and harassment” of independent voices.