Crackdown needs much convincing

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s expected, a massive controversy has erupted over the arrest of five prominent activists with alleged Maoist links in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence in January, in which Dalit activists had clashed with upper-caste Marathas. They are also supposed to have hatched a plot to assassinate PM Narendra Modi and bring down his government. With the Supreme Court, on Wednesday, ordering that the detained human rights activists be held under house arrest instead of police custody, the action at the behest of the Pune police has invited nationwide outrage as a massive crackdown against critics of the Modi government.

The arrest of the five activists followed what appeared to be almost a countrywide operation. Telugu poet Varavara Rao was taken into custody in Hyderabad, while activists Vernon Gonzalves and Arun Ferreira were held in Mumbai and Pune, respectively. Journalist Gautam Navlakha was detained in New Delhi and civil rights lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj in Faridabad. The charges against them include making inflammatory speeches which triggered protests and violence in Pune.

The Modi government, already under attack for trying to subvert democratic institutions and suppressing dissent, would have done better without the crackdown. In fact, while ordering house arrest for the accused activists, the Supreme Court expressed doubts over the government’s action. “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow the safety valve, the pressure-cooker will burst,” justice DY Chandrachud, among the three judges hearing the case, observed.

The national outrage saw more activists join the protest, with over 35 civil rights groups warning about stepped-up action against those defending human rights in the country. They were joined by lawyers, academics and authors. The claim of the Pune police of having unearthed a letter referring to a plot to assassinate Modi in a Rajiv Gandhi-type attack in June had led to a security alert by the home ministry, but Modi’s detractors had raised doubts about the letter as a possible ‘plant’ to create sympathy for the PM.

The crackdown hints at a threat to Modi only by implication as the main charge is of inciting violence by Dalits during the Bhima-Koregaon clash. The violence continued for three days and spread to other places. The Pune letter had, however, focussed more on a Maoist plot against Modi. It is doubtful if the countrywide swoop will lend credibility to the alleged Maoist threat. The fiercely negative reaction from human rights activists rather indicates the opposite, with opinion gaining ground that the whole episode may have been stage-managed. If it emerges that the activists have been rounded up without sufficient grounds, the prospects of which appear to be bright going by the court’s observations, it would, indeed, be bad for Modi’s image.