Arrests of activists

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The raids at the homes of several activists in different parts of India including Delhi and Mumbai on Tuesday, and arrest of five of them by Pune police, as part of a probe into the eruption of violence at a conclave organized for assertion of Dalit and tribal rights in Bhima-Koregaon on January 1 last are not only shocking, they signal a new low in persecution of the intellectual class in this country. The manner in which the Maharashtra police wanted to arrest and shift all of them to Pune made it appear that there was malafide in their actions in the first instance. The Pune police did not have any answer to the questions of the activists as well as the courts when they were asked to provide sufficient reasons for making the arrests. This is the point where the intervention of the High Court and Supreme Court came as a breather for the activists as most of their counterparts from judiciary, lawyers and journalistic fraternity challenged the action of the Pune police. Not only, the Supreme Court observation that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy and if dissent is not allowed then the pressure cooker may burst” holds good for the in view of the present circumstances when the ruling elite is focusing only on silencing the opposition. The ruling dispensation having thought process inspired by fascist forces does not appear to be shying away from going to any extent to silence its critics, who form majority of civil society activists calling for right to life and property besides freedom of speech and expression. This has caused a dangerous situation in the country for all the right and free thinking people, who are out to raise their voice in support of the marginalized and downtrodden sections of the society. The Supreme Court intervention has given a hope that the cases for proceeding against the activists will be properly scrutinized and the police will not be allowed to have its way without any basis. The focus will now be on the next hearing in Supreme Court, but the dramatic developments – which came months after some Left-leaning activists were arrested in a case relating to the Bhima-Koregaon violence – has raised a fundamental question. Firstly, whether the arrests were the culmination of a legitimate probe into a Maoist plot, as the police claim. Secondly, whether this is yet another clumsy failure to distinguish between those who indulge in or actively support violent activity, and those who attempt to understand or empathise with the social conditions that breed extremism and insurgency. It is nobody’s case that activists or intellectuals are above the law, but the Maharashtra police carry the enormous burden of proof, having accused the activists of doing much more than inciting the violence that broke out in Bhima-Koregaon, near Pune, early this year. What began as a controversy over alleged provocative speeches made at a Dalit conference relating to the 200th anniversary of an iconic battle site has inexplicably morphed into a larger conspiracy involving the CPI (Maoist). It is nothing new that the human rights activists, particularly those working in conflict-prone areas, have been harassed and even arrested on the suspicion of being in league with extremists. The police action against them has routinely been making the headlines in the newspapers, the harsh truth is that successful prosecutions have been rare. The charges against the activists such as sedition, waging war against the government and promoting disaffection against the state rarely end in conviction. The main reason for the failure is that prosecuting agencies typically believe in guilt by association; they confuse empathy with incitement and compassion with collaboration. Also, cases are often filed with utter disregard for the principle that charges such as ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘terrorist acts’ should not be invoked in the absence of actual acts of violence or incitement to violence; mere verbal expression of support cannot and should not be the basis for arrest. In making sweeping allegations of unlawful activity and the enormity of implicating them in unverified assassination plots, the burden of proof on the police is extremely high. Unless these charges are proven, it will only confirm suspicions that the law has been bent by the Pune police with the sole purpose of targeting the dissent.