Observing that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy… if it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst”, the Supreme Court Wednesday issued notice to the Maharashtra government and directed that five rights activists and lawyers arrested by Pune police be placed under house arrest until the matter is heard next on September 6.
Probing an alleged Maoist link to a meeting of the Elgaar Parishad in Pune on the eve of the January 1 violence in Bhima Koregaon, Pune police Tuesday searched homes of nine rights activists and lawyers and arrested five: Varavara Rao in Hyderabad; Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai; Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad; and, Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi.
Rao, Gonsalves and Ferreira were taken to Pune while Navlakha and Bharadwaj were awaiting word from the high courts on petitions moved on their behalf.
Hearing a separate petition moved by Romila Thapar, Devaki Jain, Prabhat Pattnaik, Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala on behalf of the arrested activists, Justice D Y Chandrachud, on the bench with Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justice A M Khanwilkar, directed Maharashtra to file a response by September 5: “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.”
The petitioners sought immediate release of the five activists, saying the arrests and searches by Maharashtra police were an “exercise to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation and to instil fear in the minds of the people”.
Appearing for the petitioners, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi said they had “impeccable educational qualifications” and the “FIR has no mention of these people”. Two retired judges, he said, were admittedly part of the group which organised the Pune gathering.
Referring to Bharadwaj, Singhvi said one of the arrested persons was a US citizen who gave up her citizenship to work as lawyer in India and had been teaching at NLU Delhi. The five persons picked up by police were not present at the event, he said, adding they have been detained after nine months of the incident.
Opposing the contention of the petitioners, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the petitioners before the court are not the people against whom action has been taken by police. “They (the arrested) are in courts, strangers are here,” he told the bench.
Calling the arrests “random”, Singhvi said “you can’t have this chilling effect, because I disagree with you”. On the question of the locus standi of the petitioners, he said: “This is an Article 32 petition for the whole country… All our liberties will be jeopardised.”
The CJI said: “Your petition may be for a cause. But we also need to know what is against them.” He said the court will issue notice and hear the matter next week.
Singhvi said the petitioners also wanted a stay on the arrest. At this, Mehta objected: “How can a stranger ask for stay of arrest of others?”.
Singhvi said: “Can you carry out such massive sweeps on respectable people leading professional lives?”. On Mehta’s contention that the petitioners before the Supreme Court were not the accused, Singhvi said families of the arrested persons will soon move court.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, also appearing for the petitioners, said “nobody will be safe” if the arrests were allowed. He said the activists were not people with criminal antecedents.
Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan said: “These are arrests of five well-known activists working on the ground.” He said one of them was working with an organisation which he was also funding. Dhavan too said these were “random arrests” but Mehta countered: “No, these are not random arrests.”
When a lawyer appearing with Mehta told the bench that the matters were pending before the lower courts and that habeas corpus petitions had been moved, the judges were furious. “This is not that… they are professors… You arrest them after nine months,” Justice Chandrachud said. The CJI said the “nomenclature (of the petition) does not matter”.
The court then issued notice to Maharashtra government and directed that the activists be kept under house arrest as an interim measure. Singhvi said that the house arrest be in their own homes. The court agreed to this.