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'Assault On Free Speech': All You Need To Know About The Arrests Of Human Rights Activists Across India

Here's what has happened so far after the police arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Gautam Navlakha.
A protest rally against the arrest of the five activists.
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A protest rally against the arrest of the five activists.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday reminded the police who earlier this week raided and then arrested several prominent lawyers, activists and public intellectuals that "dissent is the safety valve of democracy", but the immediate future of those arrested is still uncertain.

Human rights organisations and activists around the world have criticised the arrest of the five activists national secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties Sudha Bharadwaj, revolutionary poet Varavara Rao, lawyer and author Arun Ferreira, lawyer and activist Vernon Gonsalves and former secretary of People's Union for Democratic Rights Gautam Navlakha.

Even as protests are being held over the police action on the activists being targeted, HuffPost India has learnt that the Meerut police on Thursday arrested Dalit rights activist Dr Sushil Gautam, along with five others.

What has happened so far?

The multi-city raids began on Tuesday morning in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Thane, Ranchi, Delhi and Faridabad.

The activists were arrested later in the day by the Maharashtra police, who claimed that they had connections with Maoists.

After the arrests, Shivaji Bhodke, joint commissioner of police, Pune, told The Times of India: "We have made these arrests on the basis of incriminating evidence collected during our investigations and the documents recovered from the five activists arrested on June 6."

On the night of the arrest, a dramatic showdown ensued between the police and the lawyers of Bharadwaj. The Faridabad Chief Judicial Magistrate granted transit remand, only to change it four hours later and asking her to be kept under house arrest.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court directed that the arrested activists should be kept under house arrest till 6 September, even as it questioned the police action.

Justice DY Chandrachud, part of the five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Deepak Mishra, said, "Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don't allow the safety valve, pressure cooker will burst."

This was while hearing a petition filed by historian Romila Thapar and four others, seeking release of the activists.

What's next?

Poet Rao will be taken back to Hyderabad on Thursday. His supporters have been demonstrating in the city over his arrest.

Sudha Bharadwaj's lawyers and Pune police will appear at the Chief Judicial Magistrate's court in Faridabad on Thursday evening.

Several prominent activists and authors including Arundhati Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Bezwada Wilson and Aruna Roy held a press conference at the Press Club in New Delhi at 4pm on Thursday.

Speaking at the presser Jignesh Mewani said that two predominantly Dalit-led agitations will be held on 5 September and 15 September.

On 5 September, the Pune police have to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court explaining why the arrests of the five activists are necessary.

On 6 September, the Supreme Court will hear the case again.

Reactions to the arrests

National Human Rights Commission (NHRC): Taking suo motu cognizance of the arrests of the five activists, the NHRC said, "The Commission has observed that it appears, the standard operating procedure in connection with these arrests has not been properly followed by the police authorities, which may amount to violation of their human rights. Accordingly, it has issued notices to the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police, Maharashtra calling for a factual report in the matter within four weeks."

Amnesty International and Oxfam India: Calling the arrests "disturbing" and a threat to "core human rights values" the two organisations put out a joint statement. Amnesty International India's executive director Aakar Patel said, "Today's arrests (are) the second of such crackdowns on rights activists, advocates and journalists who have been critical of the state. All these people have history of working to protect the rights of some of India's most poor and marginalized people. Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism."

Human Rights Watch: Calling the arrests "politically motivated", Human Rights Watch said that India should stop trying to stifle dissent. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a press statement, "The latest arrests of human rights activists show the government's widening assault on free speech to create an atmosphere of fear across India. Officials are again targeting human rights defenders and those working with poor and marginalized communities just for doing their jobs."

Arundhati Roy: The writer was quoted by Outlook as saying, "In the run up to elections, it is an attempted coup against the Indian Constitution and all the freedoms that we cherish."

Meanwhile she told The Hindu, "This, potentially, is more serious and more dangerous than the Emergency. This time, it is the state itself that is unleashing a law and order problem on minorities, on Dalits, Christians, Muslims and Leftists and anyone else who disagrees — through its proxies in the media, its murderous vigilantes and hate-speech vendors."

Ramchandra Guha: The historian took to Twitter to call the incident "chilling". He also said if Mahatma Gandhi were alive, he would don his lawyers' robes and defend Bharadwaj.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact