In countrywide arrests and raids on activists, the Pune police’s claims will have to be backed by impeccable evidence
On Tuesday, the Pune police conducted synchronised arrests and raids across the country on activists, academics, writers, lawyers and journalists this Tuesday on the basis of an FIR in which they are not named.
This is related to events that happened eight months ago at venues where they were not present. The Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court, the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the nation at large await evidence that links these five arrested persons and those who have been raided to the events that took place on December 31 and January 1— which form the basis of the FIR registered on January 8 by a person named Tushar Ramesh Damgule at Vishrambag police station in Pune, Maharashtra.
Five activists and intellectuals including Left ideologue and teacher Varavara Rao, human rights activist and lawyer Arun Ferreira, writer, columnist and teacher Vernon Gonsalves, activist and writer Gautam Navlakha and the National General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and teacher at the National Law University Sudha Bharadwaj were arrested from different places in a synchronised action by the Pune police.
The police also conducted simultaneous raids at the homes/offices of Father Stan Swamy, adivasi rights activist based in Ranchi, Goa-based academic Anand Teltumbde, civil liberties lawyer Susan Abraham among others.
That these arrests are related specifically to this FIR and the investigations into the offences described therein is not in doubt; this is because the House Arrest Panchnama of the arrested persons cites it as the basis for the search.
The “offences” that the procedural code and the statute aimed at containing terrorist activities have invoked relate to two events – a meeting of the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017 and the violence that took place on January 1, 2018 in Bhima Koregaon to mark a historical event commemorated to assert Dalit identity and struggle against caste oppression in Maharashtra. In the FIR, it has been alleged that the violence was a result of inflammatory speeches and incitement to violence by various speakers at Elgar Parishad the day before the Bhima Koregaon event. Although the FIR did not mention the word “conspiracy”, it stated that the “banned Maoist organisation (CPI) have organised role to boast (sic)… strong Maoist thoughts in depressed class and misdirect and misguide them and turn them towards unconstitutional violence (sic) activities”.
A significant point has been raised by Justice PB Sawant, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, who wants to know why the realisation that these persons are connected to the Elgar Parishad conference and Bhima Koregaon violence, dawned on the police eight months after these events took place. Justice Sawant, who was one of the organisers of the Elgar Parishad on December 31, told a newspaper: “I don’t know why these persons have been arrested. The police are alleging that they are connected to the Naxalite movement and are also organisers of the Elgar conference on December 31, last year. Did they realise it after eight months? I have never seen them.”
None of them was present on the two events for which they were arrested and raided. If they were part of a conspiracy to organise violence that took place on January 1, surely the police should have more than a House Arrest Panchnama seizing their belongings, by way of justifying their arrests.
These are individuals with long years of work in specific areas of human rights, civil liberties, law and culture. None of them is underground. None of them exhibits any risk of flight. They are all rooted and respected in the areas they have been working for decades. Why were they not questioned or asked to assist in investigations related to the violence in Bhima Koregaon?
The explanation came in the court of the Pune city court where the arrested persons were produced by the police on Wednesday. Government prosecutor Ujjwala Pawar described in the city court a plot hatched by the banned CPI(Maoist) in a meeting of its Eastern Region Bureau to form an “All India United Front” and an “Anti Fascist Front”. According to the government prosecutor, the Elgar Parishad was organised under the aegis of the Anti Fascist Front. She then cited a letter recovered from activist Rona Wilson, arrested in June, and “other communication” which points to purchase of arms from Nepal, organising youth across the country and finally, a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi type incident”.
This letter was earlier leaked to select media houses who did prime time TV shows implicating Sudha Bharadwaj, a practising lawyer and civil liberties activists, in particular in a plot to assassinate the PM.
So, are the arrests related to a plot to assassinate the PM and overthrow the state or are they linked to Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregaon violence? Is there a separate FIR or are they related events? The link of Elgar Parishad to the CPI(Maoist) has not yet been shown to the court. Justice . Sawant has asserted that he would organise countrywide meetings of the Elgar Parishad “more so because the police and the government are after us”.
The Supreme Court, on a petition filed by five outstanding academics and activists who have alleged “gross abuse of police power which is intended to stifle if not kill independent voices and a different ideology from the party in power”, has maintained that dissent is the “safety valve of democracy… If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst”.
The police have to do better than producing letters by way of evidence of such sinister conspiracies as a plot to assassinate the PM and overthrow the state and leaking them to the media before apprehending the suspects. Where is the sense of responsibility and seriousness if the Prime Minister and, indeed, the entire government are facing the threat of annihilation?
Fantastic claims and assertions will have to be backed by equally impeccable evidence or the public faith in the civil force of the law will be irrevocably eroded.