‘Dissent is democracy’s safety valve’: Supreme Court on activists’ arrests

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New Delhi, August 29: Five prominent activists arrested by the police should be placed under house arrest till September 6 and not sent to jail, the Supreme Court ordered on Wednesday on a petition that asked the top court to order an independent probe into the Bhima Koregaon violence earlier this year.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy… the pressure cooker will burst if you don’t allow the safety valves,” the court observed, questioning the arrest of the five activists nearly nine months after the violence.
The court has told the authorities to put the five activists under house arrest till it takes up the case again on September 6.
Pune police raided the residences of prominent lawyers and activists across five states on Tuesday and arrested five people for alleged Maoist links — a move that was condemned by opposition leaders and other public figures as an attack on civil rights.
Lawyer and trade union activist Sudha Bhardwaj, poet P Varavara Rao, activist Gautam Navlakha, and lawyers Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy, creating fear and enmity between groups, and under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The arrests were part of an investigation into violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on January 1 during the bicentennial celebration of a British-era war.
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.
The Supreme Court was hearing a petition filed by academician Romila Thapar and four rights activists challenging the arrest of five prominent activists by Pune police for alleged Maoists links after raids across five states a day before.
The petition filed by Thapar, along with Devki Jain, Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande and Maya Daruwala.
Earlier in the morning, senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Dushyant Dave and Indira Jaising appeared before the CJI when he assembled with other judges for a constitution bench hearing.
Singhvi said the extraordinary situation made it necessary for him to mention the matter before a constitution bench. Since the CJI could not take up any urgent matter while he heads a constitution bench, he asked Singhvi and others to come back at 3.45 pm before a three-judge bench.
The petitioners want the court to stay the arrest of the activists and hold an independent inquiry. They also urged that the court seek explanation from Maharashtra for the “sweeping round of arrests” in the case, reported PTI.
A police team also searched the residence of Father Stan Swamy in Ranchi although he was not arrested in the absence of “evidence,” a senior official said.
While Varavara Rao, Ferreira and Gonsalves have been brought to Pune from Hyderabad, Thane and Mumbai, Navlakha and Bhardwaj approached the courts to oppose their transit remand.
The Delhi high court on Tuesday stayed Navlakha’s transit remand for a day, ordering him to stay in his house with two guards posted outside. He was allowed to meet his lawyers.
Stopping the police from taking Navlakha to Pune before they heard the matter first thing on Wednesday, a bench of justice S Muralidhar and justice Vinod Goel said that the transit remand application was in Marathi and it was very difficult to make out the details of the case or understand the allegations.
There was drama in the case of Bhardwaj, who was arrested from her home in Faridabad, with her lawyer alleging that the Pune police did not follow the orders of the Punjab and Haryana high court. (Agencies)