On August 30 Pune Police Commissioner K. Venkatesham and Joint Commissioner Shivaji Rao Bhodke addressed a Press meet and stated that there was substantial evidence against the five accused human rights activists whose arrests shook the activist communities across India. These accused whose houses were also raided were taken into custody on 28th of August. But the Supreme Court intervened and stayed their arrests on the 29th of August. The Apex Court criticized the Pune Police for procedural lapses in the way these arrests were made and sought replies from both Maharashtra police and State government.
The five accused include,
- Sudha Bharadwaj, a well known Human Rights Lawyer, who is associated with the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL)
- Gautam Navlakha, a Delhi based human rights activist associated with People’s Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR)
- Arun Ferreira, a lawyer, and writer from Mumbai, whose book ‘Colours of the Cage’ published in 2006 gives details of his own arrest and custodial torture that he was subjected to on charges of being a ‘Maoist’ and his subsequent acquittal of all charges.
- Varavara Rao, an octogenarian poet and writer in Telegu language who is based in Hyderabad was also taken into custody.
- Vernon Gonsalvez, a public intellectual who is based in Mumbai was also arrested by the Pune police.
The houses of Anand Teltumbde (an internationally acclaimed Ambedkarite scholar who teaches in the Goa Institute of Management) and Father Stan Swamy (a Ranchi based social activist) was also raided.
All these people were originally accused of stoking violence in the Bhima Koregaon march, that took place on the 1st January 2018. None of these people, however, were named in the original FIR that was filed after violence broke out around the Bhima Koregaon March.
Subsequently, the Pune police accused them of being a part of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and also accused them of procuring arms and ammunition for the CPI (Maoist), an underground organization that was banned by the State in 2009. The letter mentioning the plot to assassinate Prime Minister was released to the media on June 7, but the same has not yet been submitted in Court as evidence.
This round of arrest was preceded by arrests of five other lawyers and activists namely advocate Surendra Gadling, Prof. Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut on June 2018.
There have been accusations that the police is using certain media to construct a narrative. Unsigned letters which the Pune police claimed that has been digitally recovered from the hard drive of one of the accused Rona Wilson, are continuously being leaked to the media but are not submitted in Court as evidence.
Leaked letters to certain media appeared to be written by one comrade Sudha to comrade Prakash giving ‘extensive information’ about Maoist links, implicating Gautam Navlakha and links these alleged ‘Maoist functionaries’ to Kashmiri separatists.
The police claim that the named Sudha is, in reality, Sudha Bharadwaj although they have not been able to establish any other pieces of evidence to nail these claims. The day Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested from her home in Faridabad, the Pune police reportedly waited for an hour before taking her to Faridabad Sessions Court, for Republic TV camera crew to arrive. Only after they covered the arrest, she was moved to Court.
These acts of Maharashtra police to sensationalize the cases is in clear contravention to an order of the Bombay High court passed in 2014, as well as the Maharashtra government’s own circular which was passed in June 2015 in compliance with the order.
In 2014 Rahul Thakur, a criminal lawyer, filed a Public interest Litigation (PIL) against Police leaking names, faces, address and other personal details as well as the details of the investigation in the media before filing a charge sheet. Thakur who had been defending many accused in the past, who had been framed by the police, vilified in the media but were subsequently acquitted, sought for the safeguards because he witnessed how malicious media trial destroy the prospects of the witnessed even after they are exonerated by the Court.
The Bombay High Court issued directions to the police and Maharashtra government. Maharashtra Government issued a circular in 2015 agreeing to comply with the guidelines issued by the Court of not disclosing personal details as well as the detail of the investigation to any media, till a concrete charge sheet is filed in Court.
The acts of the Pune police following the arrests in June and August show complete disregard to these guidelines.
Advocate Susan Abraham, a criminal Lawyer based in Mumbai, told TWJ that “None of this so-called evidence that the Pune Police are putting out to the media, are being presented in Court. We are hoping the Supreme Court will take cognizance of this bizarre media trial. Far from respecting the Court and legal process, the Pune police are threatening that they will make more arrests. Already the raids in the houses of Anand Teltumbde and Stan Swamy have taken place. This is really worrisome how the Pune Police are sensationalising the issue in the media and are flouting basic legal procedures. We hope the Supreme Court will take proper note of these serious legal violations.”
The Supreme Court so far has taken note of the procedural violations in the arrests of the five accused and canceled the transit remand of the Pune police, to take them to Pune. While Gautam Navlakha and Sudha Bharadwaj were not allowed to be taken out of Delhi, as per Court directions, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalvez, and Varavara Rao were returned to their respective cities in Mumbai and Hyderabad from Pune.
All five are being kept under house arrests till next hearing in the Supreme Court which will take place on the 6th of September. Justice Chandrachud of the three-judge bench that is hearing the matter, mentioned that ‘dissent is the safety valve of democracy’.
He made clear his displeasure prima facie of the way the arrests were made of these five noted human rights activists. What position the Supreme Court takes on this entire matter on the 6th remains to be seen.