Stating that the arrest of five rights activists and lawyers in connection with a meeting on the eve of the January 1 violence at Bhima Koregaon was not about curbing dissent or “difference in ideology”, the Maharashtra government Wednesday told the Supreme Court there was “cogent evidence” to show that the arrested persons were “active members” of the banned CPI (Maoist) who “were in the process of creating large scale violence, destruction of property resulting in chaos”.
The five activists — Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha — were arrested by Pune police on August 28 and a day later, the Supreme Court directed that they be placed under house arrest until the matter is heard on September 6.
Maharashtra government was issued notice on a petition filed on behalf of the arrested activists by historian Romila Thapar, economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, sociologist Satish Deshpande and rights lawyer Maja Daruwala.
While issuing notice, Justice D Y Chandrachud, one of three judges on the bench headed by CJI Dipak Misra, had said: “There are wider issues raised by them (petitioners). Concern raised is that you are quelling dissent. Democracy is not safe if you quell dissent and that is what they are worried about.”
Responding to the notice, Pune Assistant Commissioner of Police Shivaji Panditrao, in an affidavit, said the activists were arrested on the basis of material recovered during a probe carried out against certain others — in June, Pune police had arrested activists and lawyers Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling and Mahesh Raut.
This material, the affidavit stated, “clearly show that they were involved in selecting and encouraging cadres to go underground in ‘struggle area’, mobilising and distributing money, facilitating selection and purchase of arms, deciding the rates of such arms and suggesting the routes and ways of smuggling such arms into India for its onward distribution amongst the cadres. Some of them have suggested training and laying of booby traps and directional mines”.
The Maharashtra government urged the court to look at some of the material seized by police, saying it would be sufficient to remove the impression being created that “political dissenters” who are “intellectuals” are being “hounded” and the “voice of dissent is being suppressed”.
Calling petitioners Thapar and others “strangers” to the probe and stating that their petition was based on “individual perception” that those arrested were “all outstanding, well-known and well respected human rights crusaders”, the state government urged the court to allow police to question the activists.
The affidavit said house arrest only restricts physical movement of the arrested persons who can “always ensure not only destruction of evidence elsewhere, but can alert other potential accused” from their homes.
The police investigation, the affidavit said, showed that the five activists were also part of a criminal conspiracy and “their role was not merely peripheral… but they were found to be playing a very vital role in the criminal offences committed and/or planned by others”.
It pointed out that one of the five, Vernon Gonsalves, was once convicted by a Nagpur special court under provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his alleged involvement in Maoist activities.
The state government maintained it was “committed to the protection of fundamental rights of every citizen”: “A mere dissenting view, difference in ideology or vehement objections to the political thinking can not only not be prohibited but should always be welcomed in any democratic country.”
“…even if a citizen very vociferously and vehemently professes a different political or other ideology or expresses his dissent with the programmes, policies and working of the Government, cannot be and should not be a ground to curtail personal liberty of such a person/s or infringe upon any of the fundamental rights and any such infringement would definitely be violative of the cherished principles underlined in Chapter III of the Constitution,” it stated.