Onus on courts and law enforcement in the wake of arrests of activists

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MAHARASHTRA: The furor over the raids and subsequent arrest of activists across the country has continued to grow as law enforcement lay out their case.

 

On Monday, the Bombay High Court raised questions about Maharashtra Additional Director General (Law and Order) Param Bir Singh providing details in a press conference about an ongoing investigation of national attention. The bench proclaimed, “How can the police do this? The matter is sub judice…revealing information pertaining to the case is wrong”.

The police, in that press conference provided details of how the evidence they had collected during raids pointed to ‘established links between Maoist groups and the arrested activists’. The evidence included letters that were allegedly exchanged by the activists. The police allege that there was a concerted effort to overthrow the established government. The police then added, “The arrested accused played an active and crucial role in this conspiracy”.

The activists arrested were poet Varavara Rao and activists Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha. These follow similar raids and arrests made in June in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence at the beginning of this year. The police have stated that evidence collected during the June raids prompted the action taken on the most recent raids and arrests. Varavara Rao is someone who isn’t a stranger to controversy. He’s been arrested a few times before by the Andhra Pradesh government for his alleged involvement in conspiracies to destabalise the government.

The concern here is obvious; a government determined to crack down on dissent. Unless there is substantial and irrefutable evidence of the alleged conspiracy that can be proved in a court of law, it’s a dangerous precedent that has been set. The Hindu editorial points to the courts role here, “The intervention of high courts and later the Supreme Court has given rise to the hope that they will not be put away without sufficient basis, and that the case for proceeding against them will be properly scrutinised”.

The onus now falls on the police and law enforcement as they now carry the burden of proof. No one is above the law, not even human rights activists, who have been the target of intimidations and arrests. In Tamil Nadu, in the aftermath of the protests in Tuticorin over the Sterlite Cooper plant, some activists were arrested on the suspicion of inciting the violent protests that lead to deaths. The editorial lays out the stakes for this case and for the government given the serious allegations, “Unless proven, it will only confirm suspicions that the law has been bent with the sole purpose of targeting dissent”.

In the immediate aftermath of the arrests, there was swift condemnation from various circles. Author and journalist Ramchandra Guha stated that the arrests were due to the “corporate cronies of the ruling government” whose intentions were to capitalize on the resources and land from tribals; some of the activists have worked closely with tribals in fighting for their rights and causes. Former Chief of the Indian Navy, L Ramdas, in an op-ed for the Indian Express, expresses his concern regarding the recent events, “As a citizen and a service veteran, I feel it is my sacred duty to express my deep distress and concern… Our silence is not to be mistaken for consent. Large numbers of veterans are deeply unhappy with the turn of events in our republic”.

Events and arrests such as the ones that took place set a dangerous precedent for those who peacefully protest or those who are ideologically different from the current government. One of peoples’ houses that were raided was Professor Anand Teltumbde, a professor at the Goa Institute of Management, who called the arrests “face of the urban Naxal” and stated that this was a period of undeclared emergency. While hyperbole isn’t warranted, this could be the beginning of a slippery slope for the country to go down on.

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