An ‘anti-fascist front’ to overthrow government, claims Pune police
One activist organized photo exhibitions about lynchings, court is told. Another is alleged to have tried to buy arms from Nepal.
As three of the five activists arrested across the country on Tuesday were produced in a Pune court, public prosecutor Ujjwala Pawar claimed that they were members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) and constituted an “anti-fascist” front that aims to overthrow the government.
Two activists detained on Tuesday – Sudha Bharadwaj in Haryana and Gautam Navlakha in Delhi – had petitioned the High Courts and had been placed under house arrest. But the police had managed to bring three others to Pune – Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Varavara Rao. Pawar made arguments in the Pune sessions court in an attempt to secure their custody.
Before the Pune court could rule on the matter, the Supreme Court, in a near-simultaneous hearing of a petition filed by five eminent citizens challenging the arrests, ordered that all five detained activists should be held under house arrest until September 6.
The warrants presented during searches of the activists’ homes on Tuesday stated the police action was part of an investigation based on a complaint that the caste violence that took place on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon, near Pune, had been instigated by speeches made at the Elgaar Parishad, a public meeting held the previous day.
However, the prosecution’s arguments in the Pune sessions court on Wednesday barely referred to the meeting or the violence. Focusing on the alleged Maoist links of the activists, she claimed that one of them, Varavara Rao, a poet and writer who lives Hyderabad, was involved in procuring arms from Nepal. Another activist, lawyer Arun Ferreira, who lives in Thane, was recruiting young people by holding photo exhibitions about mob lynchings, which created “anti-government opinion among young minds”, she alleged. The prosecutor described the activists as “Urban Naxalites”.
Legal experts and security analysts say many of the prosecution’s arguments are questionable. “The arguments showcase the utter bankruptcy of ideas on the part of the prosecution,” said Yug Chaudhary, a lawyer in Mumbai. “I wonder if the prosecutor has received proper instructions. How is being anti-fascist illegal? If anything, it is a virtue. Is the government admitting that it is fascist by booking anti-fascists under UAPA [the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act]?”
Ajai Sahni, the Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said, “The prosecution should first be taken to task by the court and the authorities for suggesting that the government is a fascist organization. If the accused have set up an anti-fascist front, they are, in fact, acting in defence of democracy and the Indian Constitution.”
Justice Hariparanthaman, former judge, Madras High Court said, “It is ridiculous to say things like holding a photo exhibition that has anti-government sentiments would be an unlawful activity. If speaking against lynching is Maoist propaganda, the government should remember that even the Supreme Court has made sharp comments against it.”
However, Pune police and prosecution maintained that it was legitimate on their part to press charges against the activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and demand that they be kept in police custody.
Background to the case.
The Bhima Koregaon incident
Every New Year’s Day, lakhs of Dalits gather in Bhima Koregaon, around 30 km from Pune, to commemorate the victory in 1818 of a small contingent of Mahar soldiers fighting under the British flag over the vastly superior forces of the Peshwa, a regime that was noted for its oppressive practices against members of lower-caste communities. This year, the event was marred by caste clashes that left one person dead.
Initially, the police investigation focused on inflammatory speeches made by Hindutva leaders days before the January 1 event. But subsequently the investigation turned to the role of speeches made at a public meeting called the Elgaar Parishad in Pune, the day before the Bhima Koregaon commemoration. The police alleged that the organizers of the meeting had Maoist links.
The first set of police raids took place in April, targeting members of the Kabir Kala Manch, one of the organizers of the Elgaar Parishad, among others. But no arrests were made. In a second set of raids on June 6, five lawyers and activists from Maharashtra and Delhi – Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson – were arrested by Pune police.
The raids and arrests were based on a First Information Report filed by Pune resident Tushar Damgude on January 3. Damgude identified himself as a follower of Sambhaji Bhide, a Hindutva leader, and addresses him as Guruji (respected master). Shortly after the violence at Bhima Koregaon and other parts of Maharashtra, Bhide and Milind Ekbote, another Hindutva leader, were named in several cases. While Ekbote got bail, Bhide has so far not been arrested.
On June 7, before the five activists were even presented in court, two letters purportedly recovered from Wilson’s laptop that discussed a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi made their way to select media houses and television channels, where they were intensely debated. On Tuesday morning, in the third set of coordinated raids in six cities , the Pune police searched the homes of several human rights activists across the country, arresting five of them. It was suggested that the set of arrests had been the result of documents obtained after the June detentions.