It was left to the Supreme Court to stand up for due process, and it took the first step. The Pune police had swooped in on human rights activists in six cities on Tuesday, raiding residences, and arresting five of them under a draconian law that has a very low bar for evidence and a very high tolerance of state arbitrariness. The lack of clarity about why they had been arrested was not incidental.
What were the dots that connected these activists to the anti-Dalit violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon in January on the commemoration of a 200-year-old victory of Mahar soldiers in the British army over the Peshwa’s Maratha troops — the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), given teeth, incidentally, by a Congress-led government, does not oblige the state to answer that question.
Or any other, for that matter. What were the links between the Elgaar Parishad, a conclave held at Pune on the eve of the violence, and Naxal groups, and a purported conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister revealed by a letter found conveniently on a computer, and the activists who were raided and arrested? On Wednesday, the Supreme Court did not get daunted by a law that permits no questions even as it gives right of way to the state to trample on individual liberties. The court issued notices to the Centre and Maharashtra governments, sought answers, and allowed only house arrest of the activists till the next hearing a week later.
Most hearteningly, Justice DY Chandrachud, part of the CJI Dipak Misra-led bench homed in on the heart of the matter: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed then the pressure cooker may burst”. Justice Chandrachud’s cautionary note, his warning, must be heeded by a government that has earned itself quite a reputation for intolerance of political opponents and criminalising of protest. Tuesday’s arrests will be read against a backdrop. It is made up of the attempts made earlier on the watch of the NDA government, to label slogan-shouting students on a university campus as “seditious” and “anti-national”. It is shored up by the coinage of “urban Naxal/Maoist” as a catch-all description for all those who dare to disagree with the powerful and the majoritarian.
There is, of course, a clear and identifiable danger called Naxalism/Maoism, of guerillas engaged in a civil war against the state. But it is a travesty that the term should be extended and loosened to encompass citizens apparently armed with nothing but their dissenting views, at a time, ironically, when the guerillas are in retreat.
The Supreme Court has asked the question. The state must answer why it felt the need to treat respected activists, a priest, a lawyer and a poet in the manner of dreaded terrorists and criminals. And the Supreme Court must hold the government to account for any and every perversion of due process, any and every sabotage of justice, that is bared in the process. When the law is draconian and the politics intolerant, it falls on the Supreme Court to safeguard and uphold the Constitution.