New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday extended till September 17 the “house arrest” of five human rights activists who were taken into custody over the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Maharashtra. Acting on a writ petition by Dr Romila Thapar and others challenging the arrest of Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and P. Varahara Rao for their alleged Maoist links from Delhi, Faridabad, Mumbai, Thane and Hyderabad, the Supreme Court had on August 29 directed them to be kept under house arrest till September 6, and this order was extended till Wednesday. The court said dissent was the safety valve of democracy and couldn’t be curbed by such arrests.
The Maharasthra government had said before a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Kanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud that the five activists were arrested not for their “dissent” but for their active role in the conspiracy to create violence in Bhima-Koregaon. During the resumed hearing on Wednesday, a plea was made to adjourn the case as senior counsel Abhishek “Manu” Singhvi was held up in another court. Accepting the plea, the bench adjourned the hearing till September 17 and clarified its interim order placing the five accused under house arrest would continue until the next date of hearing.
Senior counsel Anand Grover, appearing for lawyer Surendra Gadling, one of the accused, arrested in June this year, drew the court’s attention to an additional document filed by him. The counsel said: “It is the (Maharashtra) chief minister’s speech... We have put it on affidavit that the advocate was threatened... ‘You will be next’, it was said... the lawyer is in hospital and wants to argue his case but is not being allowed. He is an advocate of 25 years’ experience. Gadling was arrested as he had appeared as a defence counsel for Delhi University professor and Maoist activist G.N. Saibaba.”
Additional solicitor-general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the state, said: “When a lawyer is arrested, we know how to treat him. We know our responsibility. We will show relevant records. Please take it as a jurisprudential issue now. The affected parties have joined as intervenors here while their cases are also being examined by the jurisdictional courts... others (other activists) have also moved the high courts, like the Punjab and Haryana high court.”
“No, you do not! Just because he appeared for Saibaba, he’s being treated like a third-grade criminal”, argued Mr Grover, and said he would be filing additional materials. In their petition, Dr Romila Thapar and the others said the arrest of activists without any credible material was the biggest attack on freedom and liberty of citizens and the entire exercise was to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden. The timing of the arrests after nine months leaves much to be desired and appears to be motivated to deflect the people’s attention from real issues, they said, and prayed for a stay of the arrests and a probe by independent persons.
It may be noted that last week, four of the five accused — advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Arun Ferreira — have filed a supplementary affidavit seeking impleadment to the proceedings before the Supreme Court.
The state said this court was dealing with persons against whom cogent evidence had so far come on record, showing they were active members of a banned terrorist organisation, namely the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and were involved in not only planning and preparing for violence but were in the process of creating large-scale violence, destruction of property resulting in chaos in society as per the agenda prepared by the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which was banned as a terrorist organisation in 2009.
The five accused arrested by the Pune police in June this year for the Bhima-Koregaon violence had also moved the Supreme Court seeking their release on bail on the ground that they were in custody in the same FIR.
Minal Surendra Gadling, wife of Gadling, sought bail for her husband and four others — Dr Soma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhavale — arrested by the Pune police in June. They said their arrest has shown to the court the manner in which dissent had been suppressed in the country.
They said the present petition arose out of the arbitrary arrests of activists and lawyers from various parts of the country, under the guise of fighting fictitious urban Naxals. They recalled that the Supreme Court, by an interim order on August 29, had put those arrested under house arrest. The bench posted all the petitions for hearing on September 17.