Keep arrested activists confined to homes, not jail, for now: SC to cops
Top Court Issues Warning Against Muzzling Dissent
Warning against muzzling dissent in a democracy, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered Maharashtra police to keep arrested human right activists and lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, P Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves confined to their “own houses” till September 6 and not to take them to jail.
After hearing Singhvi and senior advocates Rajeev Dhavan, Dushyant Dave, Indira Jaising, Raju Ramachandran, C U Singh, Huzefa Ahmedi and Prashant Bhushan for the petitioners, the bench curtly told Maharashtra police, represented by Nishant Katneswarkar as well as additional solicitors general Tushar Mehta and Maninder Singh, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker will burst.”
The bench clarified that it had not taken a final view yet on the merits of the arguments of the two sides.
Interim order an interim order, all contentions kept open: SC
The Supreme Court said, “Needless to say, an interim order is an interim order and all contentions are kept open.” Asking the Union government, Delhi police special cell and Maharashtra police to file response to the petition, the SC said since Bhardwaj and Navlakha had already been ordered by high courts to be kept under house arrest, the others — Rao, Ferreira and Gonsalves — “if arrested, will be kept under house arrest in their own homes. House arrest of Navlakha and Bhardwaj will be extended till September 6”, when the petition will be heard again.
The petitioners had sought “immediate release from custody of all activists arrested in connection with Koregaon Bhima violence and stay of any further arrests until the matter is fully investigated and decided by the Supreme Court”.
The police had arrested the activists for their alleged role in the Elgar Parishad on December 31, which also marked the 200th anniversary of the Koregaon Bhima battle in which Dalit soldiers under the British had defeated the Peshwas. Violence marred the celebrations and police registered an FIR on January 4.
Singhvi opened the arguments for the petitioners and said the nationwide swoop on those who voiced dissent against the government was meant to deliver a chilling message to those who opposed the regime. ASGs Mehta and Singh said it was a strange petition, where none of the petitioners faced arrest yet they were before the court seeking bail for others. “Is this permissible in criminal law?” they asked.
When Maharashtra counsel Katneswarkar tried to explain the sequence of events leading to the arrests, the bench shouted at him for making what it called irrelevant arguments.
Singhvi said the petitioners were raising the larger question of right to life and the government’s attempt to trample it. “The entire exercise is to silence dissent, stop people from helping downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation and to instil fear in the minds of people. The petitioners are seriously concerned about erosion of democratic values and are moving the SC not to stop investigation into allegations but to ensure independent and credible investigation by such persons as may be deemed fit under SC supervision,” Singhvi said.
Dhavan said he contributed financially to an NGO run by one of the arrested persons. “This means I too should be arrested,” he said. Dave said it was a shame that right to dissent was getting muzzled by the government using brute police force. Jaising said lawyers who helped poor people in litigation had been picked up by the Maharashtra police.
Singhvi said it was ludicrous on part of the Maharashtra police to slap “fabricated charges” under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act against academicians, poets and lawyers for merely attending a conference at Koregaon Bhima in December last year and accuse them after nine months of helping a banned Maoists organisations. “This conference was attended by retired judges and other eminent persons too,” he said.