NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court temporary stalled the arrest of five leading intellectuals on Wednesday after historian Romila Thapar led a group of civil society activists to petition the judiciary to save democracy.
Responding to the public interest petition filed by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, the court observed that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy and if dissent is not allowed then the pressure cooker may burst”.
The five human rights activists — Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha — who were arrested after the countrywide crackdown on Tuesday would not be sent to jail but be under house arrest until Sept 6, the court ruled.
Other leading rights activists were arrested in June. Prof Shoma Sen from Nagpur University; Surendra Gadling, a well-known human rights lawyer who has been defending Prof G.N. Saibaba; Sudhir Dhawale, editor of a magazine; Rona Wilson, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Political Prisoners; and Mahesh Raut, anti-displacement activist; were arrested under sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act allegedly for inciting violence and communal enmity.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and comprising Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud will hear the government’s submission on Sept 5. The arrests relate to a Dalit protest in January this year in Koregaon-Bhima village near Pune, which the Maharashtra government says led to caste violence involving other groups.
The government sees this as the handiwork of Maoists, and links the accused with the banned group.
“This petition is being filed to subserve larger public interests and to prevent stifling of honest dissent so as to protect democratic values and the democracy,” Prof Thapar and four others said in their plea.
“This petition seeks to bring on record the gross abuse of police power in the country which is intended to stifle if not kill independent voices and a differing ideology from the party in power.”
Other petitioners are acclaimed Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik, human rights defender Maja Daruwala and academics Devaki Jain and Satish Deshpande.
Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2018