Activist Arun Fereira was arrested from Thane by the Maharashtra police on Tuesday
New Delhi: Five activists arrested in a dramatic swoop by the Pune police yesterday and charged under an anti-terror law will be under house arrest until the Supreme Court's next hearing on September 6, three judges decided today. The court asked the Centre and Maharashtra to respond to a petition challenging the arrests. While delivering the judgment, Justice DY Chandrachud said, "Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don't allow the safety valve pressure cooker will burst".
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The arrests of lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj, Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao, and activists Arun Fereira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves were meant to muzzle dissent, said petitioners, urging the court to hold the arrests.
"Arrests should surely be of those who actually spread terror in society through assassination and lynching, and not of those who work for human rights - the rights that are essential to citizenship and democracy? Are these arrests a demonstration to show that the democratic rights of the Indian citizen have been annulled," asked one of the petitioners, historian Romila Thapar.
The Pune police said the activists are linked to Maoist groups and have shown "intolerance to present political system". There is "conclusive proof" that they have a nexus with other unlawful groups and deliberate involvement in larger conspiracy. The activists, the police said, were planning to recruit members from 35 colleges and launch attacks.
The activists have been charged under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which authorizes raids and arrests without warrant if a person is suspected to "support terrorist acts or unlawful activities". The accused cannot apply for bail and the police have 180 days to file a chargesheet, instead of 90.
The activists were produced in three different courts in Delhi and Pune, but the proceedings were superceded by the Supreme Court decision.
The arrests were made during synchronised multi-city raids yesterday. Prominent Telugu poet and Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao was arrested from Hyderabad, activists Vernon Gonzalves and Arun Farreira were nabbed from Mumbai, trade union activist Sudha Bhardwaj from Faridabad in Haryana and civil liberties activist Gautam Navalakha was arrested from New Delhi.
The raids followed the questioning of five people -- Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson and Shoma Sen -- who were arrested in June for alleged Maoist links, sources said. They had allegedly made "provocative" speeches, which, the police said, triggered the violence in Bhima-Koregaon in December last year.
The arrests have become the latest flashpoint between the government and the opposition. "There is only place for one NGO in India and it's called the RSS. Shut down all other NGOs. Jail all activists and shoot those that complain. Welcome to the new India," tweeted Congress chief Rahul Gandhi.
"Rahul Gandhi has perhaps forgotten how his own party called these "urban naxals" a bigger threat than those engaging in guerilla warfare in jungles," the BJP's Sambit Patra said.
The arrests are linked to the January 1 clashes at the Elgaar Parishad organized by Dalits to mark the victory of their soldiers over upper caste Maratha Peshwas in 1818. The police allege a Maoist plot to incite violence.