At Parliament Street on Thursday afternoon, in the midst of students, trade union leaders, activists and artists, stood 79-year-old V K Dogra, with a walking stick and a story from 1975, when the Emergency was imposed. “I was put in Tihar Jail for 19 months… I defended democracy then, I will defend democracy now,” said Dogra, a former government employee.
Two days after five human rights activists and lawyers were arrested by the Maharashtra Police from across the country, a protest was organised by Jan Ekta Jan Adhikar Andolan in the capital. Rows of barricades and 100-plus security officials were stationed at the site, where over 200 protesters had gathered.
As slogans such as “masoomo ko riha karo”, “tanashahi nahi chalegi” and “UAPA ko radd karo” reverberated through the air, artist Preeti Singh (36) walked around wearing a mask with arrested activist Gautam Navlakha’s face painted on it. Delhi-based researcher, Oshin Siao Bhatt (24), said, “There is increasing oppression…educational institutions are being demonised, those who dissent are being arrested, and that’s why I am here.”
The protest was also attended by CPM leaders Brinda Karat and Subhashini Ali, activist Teesta Setalvad, and Delhi Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam, among others. “This is not the time to be scared, we have to fight against the state oppression and reclaim our streets,” Setalvad said.
At a press conference earlier in the day, civil society members said the situation in the country was “worse than Emergency” and that the attacks on people were increasing in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Writer Arundhati Roy, Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan and activists Aruna Roy and Bezwada Wilson were among those who spoke at the Press Club of India.
Bhushan said the term ‘Urban Naxal’ was being used against “anyone who was standing up for the rights of Dalits, Adivasis and minorities”. The activists demanded immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the FIR, appropriate action against Maharashtra Police for launching a “vicious and malafide attack”, and the unconditional repeal of UAPA.
Speaking at the conference, Aruna Roy said there was “Constitutional breakdown” in the country. “There’s complete failure of the rule of law and violation of Constitutional values. A situation is being created to instil fear among people so that they stop speaking against the kind of injustice happening…,” she said.
Gujarat MLA Mevani said, “They want to divert attention from real issues and discredit the Dalit movement. The so-called Maoist plot to kill the Prime Minister is an effort to garner sympathy before the elections.” He said protest rallies by Dalits will be held at various places on September 5, and a ‘Lalkaar Parishad’ will be organised in 20 states on September 15.