NEW DELHI: The raids on and arrests of intellectuals and activists by Pune Police in several cities across India prompted widespread condemnation from civil society at large, with many describing the action as the government's "attempt to strike terror among those fighting for justice for the marginalised.”

NGOs and rights groups have released hard hitting statements condemning the police action, and protests have been organised across the country demanding that those arrested – Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and others – be released immediately.

The Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP) says “Right at the time when the terror plots by the rightwing Sanatan Sanstha is emerging, the bogey of an assassination plot on the Prime Minister is re-invoked and these arrests and raids are carried out. More importantly, the 90-day period of judicial custody for the five activists arrested in June 2018 is just about to end and the charge sheet has yet to be filed. At this time, when the police narratives are falling apart, these arrests reveal the desperation of the Maharashtra police to shut down all criticism by arresting more activists… While those who unleashed violence on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon are roaming free, Dalit and Adivasi intellectuals and Human Rights Activists who have stood by them are being targeted by the state. These arrests and raids are a blatant attempt at stifling dissenting voices revealing a sinister, premeditated and politically motivated effort to malign the arrested and discredit them through branding instead of evidence…”

“The intention of the police becomes amply clear when we note that each of the arrested persons are well regarded human rights activists who have publicly worked for the rights of dalits, adivasis, minority communities, women’s rights, workers’ rights and spoken and written extensively about the policies of the state. Moreover, all the persons targeted by the state have been steadfast and resolute in their stands for decades. These charges, none of which stand up to the slightest scrutiny, are meant merely to incapacitate and silence these voices by sending them into custody for extended periods of time… The order for the raid and arrests, coming from Swargate Police Station in Pune, is motivated to foist false cases on democratic rights activists through fabrications and strong-arm tactics. The callous disregard for the rule of law and the fundamental rights of people by the institutions of the state reveals a stark image of a fascist Indian State,” the statement adds.

A statement by the Human Rights Forum (HRF) says, “The arrests are part of a clear design to lock down on democratic dissent, undermine free speech and create a climate of fear. This is quite alarming. These arrests as well as the raids on the homes of a total of nine persons in Delhi, Ranchi, Bombay and Hyderabad are plainly intended to persecute dissenters and those critiquing rights violations by governments. They are based on utterly vague and numerous flimsy and sweeping accusations. According to information available, the highly undemocratic legislation – the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 – is being invoked against those arrested. The UAPA is a draconian statute that is in open contempt of fundamental political freedoms and should not have any place in a civilised society… These raids and arrests are part of a concerted onslaught by the State to clamp down on politics that is inconvenient to the ruling dispensation. Slapping the label Maoist has become the routine option for the State to crack down on dissent. The ‘discovery’ of incriminating Maoist literature/ letters is of a piece with this dubious strategy. The real intent is to criminalise the democratic activity of these activists, harass them and ensure their extended incarceration.”

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) strongly condemned the arrests, saying, “The arrests and raids are nothing but a targeted crackdown and attack by the police and state on civil liberties and democratic rights activists across the country in a concerted attempt to crush human rights interventions and silence voices of dissent… PUCL believes that the intention of the state and police in targeting the aforesaid human rights activists by foisting false and fabricated cases against them, is clear and apparent from their profiles of work. All the aforesaid human rights activists targeted in this multi-city “operation” by the police have been tirelessly involved in advocating the cause and fighting for the rights of the poorest, most marginalised sections of society against serious state violations and unscrupulous corporates. They have stood for the principles of human rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution and the international standards on human rights… PUCL strongly condemns the actions of the state and police.

"This simultaneous crackdown against human rights activists across the country signals the imposition of an unofficial Emergency in our nation and is a direct attack on Indian democracy. This is a deliberate strategy of the state to target noted human rights activists in a clear act of reprisals against them for calling out human rights violations by the state and police, and to intimidate those who are fighting for justice.” “PUCL cautions the public at large on the concerted efforts underway to stifle voices of dissent and threaten the democratic fabric of the country,” the statement concludes.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) condemned the raids and arrests, saying, “It sees this repressive and arbitrary action as a part of the wider politics of silencing dissent and deterring activists, lawyers and intellectuals for raising their voice and organising people against the terror tactics of the SanghParivar and its vigilante groups.” “AIDWA also sees these arrests as part of diversionary tactics to hoodwink the public in the wake of the recent charges against saffron terror organisations like the Sanathan Sanstha who have been involved in the murder of Gauri Lankesh and the serial bomb blasts during Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi,” the statement adds.

The Indian Cultural Forum issued a statement in solidarity “with all those who speak for our fellow citizens’ rights.” “This too at a time when the investigation into the assassination of Gauri Lankesh, M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar has revealed bombs, guns, camps for arms training, hit lists and plans for what can rightly be called “criminal conspiracy” to use violence to kill, crush diversity and dissent, undo the Constitution, and the India it promises all of us.” “We condemn this attempt to distract the public from this real conspiracy with a fabricated one. We condemn the crushing of dissent. We stand in solidarity with all those who speak for our fellow citizens’ rights,” the statement adds.

A joint statement signed by Admiral L. Ramdas (retd), Harsh Mander, journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, social activists Teesta Setalvad and Swami Agnivesh and several others, states that “people like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha and others arrested are friends of the people who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of the people. By arresting them, the BJP is only exposing its own insecurities and its intolerance of any dissent or criticism of its policies.”

Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS) says, “This repression, along with the terror unleashed in Maharashtra after Bhima Koregaon and in many states after the April 2 protests, not only reveals the anti-dalit nature of the State, it also makes it clear that creating a sense of terror and helplessness among the democratic people of this country is the primary intention of the Maharashtra police. In this open assault on democratic people of this country, police forces both state and central have played the role of agents of terror instead of upholding the law. The Modi-Shah regime has brought fascism to our doorsteps. The arrests of well known democratic rights activists from across the country, with the police trawling for any and all persons it considers a threat, is particularly targeting activists who have stood resolutely by dalits, adivasis, Muslims, and worked all their lives for the betterment of marginalised sections of the country, in line with a true democratic spirit.

"It is meant to strike terror among the vast majority of people who have been daring to speak out against the anti-people policies of the state, be it opposing land acquisition, the relentless loot of resources, displacement and brutal violence committed by the security forces against the people of this country and standing tall in the face of Brahmanical fascism in all its forms.

"By using terms like Urban Maoists for democratic rights activists, the police working with the BJP and RSS makes an effort to malign and isolate those raising uncomfortable questions while shielding right wing leaders like Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide despite all evidence. Today, we are faced with the challenge of standing united against a ruthless state apparatus that abuses the law to its own ends.”

Additionally, press conferences condemning the raids and arrests have been organised across the country, involving the PUCL, the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Bharat Bachao Andolan, Police Reforms Watch, Human Rights Defenders Alert, the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, People’s Commission of Shrinking Democratic Spaces, Citizens for Justice and Peace, and several other organisations.