It took the Supreme Court’s intervention on Wednesday to finally bring some semblance of order after the surprise arrests of five well-known civil rights activists under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) by the Pune police. In its interim ruling, the court directed the Maharashtra government to file a response by September 5. Till that time, the court allowed only house arrests of the activists. In a stinging criticism of the manner in which the raids were conducted and arrests made, Justice D Y Chandrachud, part of Chief Justice Dipak Mishra-led Bench, told the Centre’s counsel that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy… if it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst”. That statement itself should prompt the government and the police to do some serious introspection on the way they moved in the case.
There are many unanswered questions about the arrests. It was not clear even till Wednesday evening what the accusations were. It was initially reported that the five were accused of stoking violence in Bhima-Koregaon on January 1. However, as the hours elapsed, all kinds of other accusations (including the charge of a conspiracy to kill the prime minister, which seems to have been based on a forged letter) came to light. The arguments made in court by government lawyers had little to do with Bhima-Koregaon, the ostensible reason for the raids and arrests. In any case, Bhima-Koregaon saw group violence; so how does it attract the provisions of the UAPA? The court also asked a relevant question: Why now after nine months? One of the five accused is a lawyer who has been providing legal aid to people from disadvantaged groups. So was her arrest a way to prevent legal help to them and to discourage other lawyers?
Stepping away from the specifics of this case, the whole exercise reflects poorly on the way the State treats its citizens. One of the people arrested had been in jail earlier for five years, but was exonerated on all charges. Some of the people raided or arrested are in their 70s and 80s, what fear is there that they can wage war against the State? For these and other reasons, police credibility is low. Arrests have to be done with extra care especially since the cases involve a draconian law under which bail will be all but impossible. But the police came with documents in Marathi showing slipshod work that a court should look askance at. There are other questions, too. While people may be sympathisers of Maoists, unless they are actually doing something in terms of violence, financing violence, etc, there is no call for arrests. The Supreme Court itself had said in the Binayak Sen case that membership of a banned organisation was not in itself a crime. Nobody is above the law, but the police carry the enormous burden of proof, having made serious accusations against them. Unless proven, it will only confirm suspicions that the law has been bent with the sole purpose of targeting dissent. Finally, the lack of action against lynchers and other vigilantes identified with the ruling establishment stands in sharp contrast. Everyone has to be equal under the law. If they are not, then it is the State that has to answer.