People from various organisations stage a protest against police raids at the premises of activists and their subsequent arrests, in New Delhi. (PTI Photo/Ravi Choudhary)

Climate of ‘Fear’ Among Rights Groups as India Arrests Activists

(Bloomberg) -- India’s top court has prevented police from jailing activists and lawyers swept up in a nationwide operation that human rights groups say is aimed at intimidating critics of the government.

The Supreme Court ordered that the five be kept under house arrest and not transferred into police custody. Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud -- one of those hearing the case -- said: "Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow the safety valve, the pressure cooker will burst."

Those arrested work with India’s marginalized tribal and lower caste communities and activists said they’d been rounded up for criticizing the government. In a joint statement on Tuesday evening, Amnesty International India and Oxfam India said the crackdown was creating an "atmosphere of fear". "Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism,” said Aakar Patel, Amnesty International India’s executive director.

The action comes amid growing concerns about rising nationalism and a crackdown on dissident voices ahead of general elections next year. Other activists and academics challenged the arrests with a public interest litigation that will be heard in the Supreme Court of India on Wednesday afternoon.

"One of them works in an organization I have funded for five years -- if he’s arrested I’m next," senior advocate Rajiv Dhawan told the court. "These are five random arrests not connected with any crime."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office did not respond to a call or text for comment. The officer in charge of the operation Shivaji Bodakhe, joint commissioner of the Pune police, which executed the arrests, didn’t answer calls and messages.

Rights Defenders

There are no formal charges and the activists have not been told why they’ve been detained, said prominent lawyer Vrinda Grover, who is acting for detained lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj.

"They have one thing in common -- they are fearless human rights defenders," said senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves, who knows all of the detained activists. "I’m absolutely sure, I don’t have a one percent doubt, that they are being hounded because of this."

The arrests were made in connection with a police investigation into clashes between lower and upper caste Hindus at an event near Pune on Dec. 31, according to a Times of India report.

Left-wing academics and intellectuals, particularly those who work with India’s tribal communities, are often accused of supporting Maoist groups that oppose industrial development and launch attacks on India security forces. For decades, Maoists have regularly attacked paramilitary troops and police, mainly in rural parts of the country’s poorer eastern states.

The arrests could be a way of polarizing voters ahead of India’s general election next year, said Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank. He said it could be an attempt "to turn the election into nationalist versus anti-nationalist binary so as to sideline the real issues," Sahoo said.

However, the ruling party said the police actions had nothing to do with freedom of speech.

"We should let these agencies do their job," said Bizay Sonkar Shastri, a national spokesperson for the BJP. "Opposition parties are not trusting the legal system and instead commenting on it. Is that right? The law will take its own course and justice will be done."

National Security

The events have already drawn in leaders from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the rival Congress Party.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that the only non-government organization allowed to operate freely in India was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a Hindu nationalist group that is the ideological parent of the BJP.

"There is only place for one NGO in India and it’s called the RSS," Gandhi wrote. "Shut down all other NGOs. Jail all activists and shoot those that complain. Welcome to the new India."

Lawmaker and junior home minister Kiren Rijiju responded with a tweet referring to former Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh’s comment in 2009 that Maoists, also known as Naxalites, were India’s main threat to national security.

"As Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had declared that Maoists are No.1 threat to India’s internal security," he wrote. "Now the Congress president openly supports the front organisations & sympathisers of the Maoists. Keep national security above politics."

The court is due to hear the matter again on Sept. 6.

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