Around 7 AM on Tuesday, police teams simultaneously conducted raids in Mumbai, Delhi, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad. The extensive, well coordinated, covert operation was not against armed rebels or murderers.
Homes of lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Susan Abraham, activists Kranthi Tekula, Vara Vara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Father Stan Swamy, Gautam Navlakha and author Anand Teltumbde were raided.
Subsequently, five of them were arrested.
After Bharadwaj and Navlakha approached the High Courts in Haryana (and Punjab) and Delhi, they are being kept under house arrest. And have not been shifted to Pune. When asked for the grounds of their arrest, Shivaji Pawar, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Pune, said details would be divulged at a press conference soon. However, since policemen investigating the Bhima Koregaon violence had participated in the arrests, many are making the obvious connection.
Charges range from conspiracy to inciting violence amidst groups. But, the most serious ones are under what is popularly termed India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. It took a section of TV channels no time to brand those arrested as “Urban Naxals”.
“One of the most important reasons for the flagrant use of ‘Urban Naxals’ and laws such as UAPA is to intimidate anyone who dares to speak up,” Navlakha told me in an interview earlier this year.
In July this year, Republic TV did hours of programming based on a letter it had supposedly unearthed which established a “direct link between Urban Naxals and Kashmiri separatists.” A certain Advocate Comrade Sudha Bharadwaj was said to be the writer of the letter.
Bharadwaj immediately clarified in the media that she had nothing to do with the letter.
Tuesday morning felt like deja vu for those who had followed the arrests of lawyers Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, activists Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and writer Sudhir Dhawale in June this year.
The same trajectory ensued for both sets of arrests: an early morning knock on the door, confiscation of electronic gadgets followed by confusion about charges filed, charges filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and eventually arrested for the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Branding the lawyers and activists “Urban Naxals” implies that they are the face of the banned Left-wing extremist organisation, Communist Party of India (Maoist).
However, Maoists, as they are commonly referred to, believe in the overthrow of the Indian State and certainly do not adhere to the Indian Constitution. Contrarily, lawyers arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case were standing in the courts every day to fight on the basis of the laws guaranteed in the Constitution.
Why then do the police believe that lawyers – who struggle to uphold Constitutional values – are Maoists?
All the arrested lawyers have one thing in common – they were fighting to ensure that the State upheld democratic values espoused in the Constitution.
Surendra Gadling was Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba’s lawyer. Saibaba, a paraplegic, is lodged in Nagpur Central Jail for allegedly conspiring to wage a war against India. He was also termed “Urban Naxal”.
While Saibaba languishes in prison, writing letters to his wife about how he would not survive the winter, his lawyer, Gadling, has also found himself in the same prison now. Gadling’s lawyer Susan Abraham, who was fighting cases for other human rights defenders as well, also watched while her house was raided on Tuesday.
Delhi-based lawyer Rona Wilson worked with the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners.
Immediately after Gadling’s and Wilson’s arrest, Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL), a collective of human rights lawyers, held a press conference in Delhi. In which, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj publicly condemned arrests of fellow human rights lawyers.
She remains in house arrest until further court hearings. Bharadwaj has been a trade unionist for more than three decades. She practices as a lawyer at the Chhattisgarh High Court, where she fights cases in the areas of labour rights, land acquisition, forest rights and environmental rights.
“Well, the fear has worked,” said a 29-year-old lawyer in Delhi, who asked to remain anonymous as he works on sensitive political cases. “I don’t want to voice my opinion in public anymore. If they wanted to install fear, it has totally worked,” he added. For most urban-dwellers Maoism was a problem in far-off jungles, he explained, now, the scare is brought closer home. Anyone who dares to differ can easily be termed an “Urban Naxal”, he said.
Such indiscriminate arrests of legal professionals go against the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted by the UN in 1990.
According to the Principles, governments should ensure that lawyers can perform all of their professional functions without intimidation or hindrance. Lawyers should not be threatened or prosecuted for discharging their professional duties.
“Everybody deserves to be defended, regardless of his crime. Our entire criminal justice system is based on that,” said the 29-year-old lawyer from Delhi.
Importantly, the UN document says, that lawyers should not be identified with their clients’ causes. For lawyers defending alleged Maoists, this has not been true.
Take the case of Ayyanan Murugan, a lawyer from Madurai. He was defending two women who were allegedly members of the CPI (Maoist). But, since the women were communicating with their lawyer on the phone throughout the trial, the Tamil Nadu police sought to implicate Murugan in the same case.
Murugan is now in jail in Tiruchinapalli, fighting charges under the UAPA.
This is similar to the case of lawyer Upendra Nayak in Gajapati district of Orissa. He fought and won a series of cases in 2009 and 2010, where the accused were alleged Maoists. In February 2018, he was arrested in connection to the very same cases he fought years ago.
Who will be left to fight such cases is the question lawyers in trial courts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Maharashtra are asking. “I am currently fighting three cases where my clients have UAPA against them,” said a lawyer from Chhattisgarh, requesting anonymity. “I am wondering if I should continue fighting them,” he said.
And then there are cases like that of Uttar Pradesh lawyer Chandrashekhar Azad who founded the
Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission, which ran free schools for Dalit children of Saharanpur. After violence broke out between upper-caste Thakurs and Dalits in 2017, Azad had 24 cases lodged against him. He was finally arrested by UP Police from Dalhousie.
“A cursory look at the so-called Maoist cases will reveal that the main intention of the police is to harass people by keeping them in jail for as long as possible,” wrote author Anand Teltumbde, who was arrested today.
Human rights lawyers form an important link in the journey towards attaining justice.
The criminal justice system, a colonial inheritance, alienates many Indian citizens even today. To navigate its impermeable labyrinth one needs cunning legal strategies, money and most importantly, knowledge of the law.
In January 2016 I met a man in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. Let’s call him Ram. Over several cups of lal chai, Ram narrated his seven-year ordeal in an overcrowded cell of the Jagdalpur Central Jail.
Ram was arrested in 2008, at the age of 26, but had not faced trial for five years. “I didn’t know there was to be a trial,” Ram told me back then. Not only that, since he didn’t know how to read and write, he didn’t know why he was arrested.
Finally, in 2014, when some human rights lawyers stumbled upon his case, Ram finally faced a trial for “Maoist activities”. In three months, he was acquitted.
Ram is one of the lucky people as he got access to legal aid. His neighbour, who was arrested a few months later, is still in prison. As are many others.
According to responses to RTI applications filed by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, more than 96 per cent of those arrested from 2005 to 2012 in the five districts of Bastar region were acquitted because of lack of evidence. More than half of them were under-trials for two to five years.
Hundreds of Rams from invisible parts of the country might ask “who will defend us”.