NEW DELHI: Voices in protest against the concurrent police raids and arrests of activists on Tuesday morning continue to erupt all over the country. The five arrested include civil rights activist and writer P Varavara Rao, human rights activist Gautam Navlakha, lawyer Vernon Gonsalves, human rights activist and lawyer Arun Ferreira, and activist-lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj.

A statement issued by social service organisation Sahmat says, ‘A witch-hunt is being conducted against those who dare to take up the cause of the downtrodden and dare to criticise the government for trampling on their rights. While the BJP government in power was until now implicitly supportive of lynch mobs targeting minorities and dissident intellectuals, it had avoided large-scale arrests of critics of the government. Even that restraint, it seems, has now been abandoned. The threat this poses to our democracy is palpable and serious.’

According to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, ‘There has been systematic abuse of the legal process by the government to malign human rights activists and advocates over the past couple of months. The arbitrary arrests and raids are nothing but an escalation of the government’s campaign to crush dissent and criminalise any person or organisation that questions or opposes the violation of fundamental rights and human rights by the state and its agencies... whether students, activists, academics or individuals who question the policies, actions and the abuse of power by the government.’

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties stated that the ‘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. It is a deliberate strategy of the state to target noted human rights activists in a clear act of reprisal against them for calling out human rights violations by the state and its police, and to intimidate those who are fighting for justice.’

In a statement to the media acclaimed writer and activist Arundhati Roy also termed the actions of the police as signs of an undeclared Emergency.

Meanwhile, a petition has been filed in the Supreme Court by five prominent members of civil society including Romila Thapar and Prabhat Patnaik, for the release of the wrongfully arrested activists. ‘The impugned actions of the Pune Police are the biggest attack on the freedom and liberty of citizens by resorting to high handed powers without credible material or evidence.

‘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 timing of this action leaves much to be desired and appears to be motivated to deflect people’s attention from real issues.’ The petition further states that the charges against those arrested ‘appear indiscriminate, unwarranted, part of a malicious campaign to threaten human rights defenders, independent journalists, writers and thinkers in this country, from critiquing the government and its policies and an attempt to muzzle dissent.’

‘The use of the UAPA meant for exceptional and violent activity, against such persons, when there has been absolutely no evidence of any acts of violence by these activists is deeply disconcerting and calls for urgent intervention by the Court.’

Meanwhile the Delhi High Court asked why the Pune Police’s arrest documents, which were written in Marathi, were not translated for Gautam Navlakha who does not understand the language. Navlakha termed his arrest a ‘ploy against political dissent’ by a ‘vindictive and cowardly government’. He is currently being held under house arrest ordered to last till September 6.

Public protests are also being convened by citizens all across India who wish to speak out against the unlawful nature of the raids and arrests. A citizens’ protest was held at the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi yesterday, and the Jan Ekta Jan Adhikar Andolan has called for a joint protest in Parliament Street today. In Hyderabad the police used force to break up a protest, detaining around two dozen demonstrators.

Varavara Rao has been put under house arrest in Hyderabad. ‘I have been saying from the beginning, that on the basis of false statements, a case was filed against me. I have faith in the law,’ he said to the media.

Meanwhile, the National Law University Delhi – where Sudha Bharadwaj, one of the arrested activists, serves as visiting lecturer – also released a statement condemning the actions of the police. ‘[This] flagrant abuse of state power to persecute and endanger those who uphold the Constitution and its core values threatens the foundation of the nation.’

Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression also issued a statement condemning the arrests and raids, saying, 'These searches and arrests are a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the spine chilling revelations about the Hindu Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janjagruti in connection to the assassinations and bomb terror which they have been masterminding... [These arrests continue] while those responsible for the violence at the traditional Bhima-Koregaon celebrations are not only roaming scot free, but also enjoying the utmost support of those in power.’

48 retired officers of the Central and All India services published an open letter in response to ‘what we perceive as the most brazen display yet of coercive authority by the State... The vagueness of the allegations, the manner and the timing of the arrests, the choice of the persons arrested (none of whom were a part of the Bhima Koregaon incident), the use of a law which has lower standards of evidence required for establishing a ‘prima facie’ case, all go to show the insidiousness of the intent. The evidence in the public domain against those arrested appears to be incredible. This is shameful.’

Police raids were also conducted on Tuesday on the residences of advocate Susan Abraham, journalist Kranthi Tekula, activists Stan Swamy SJ and Anand Teltumbde, and K Satyanarayana, professor at the English and Foreign Languages University. The university’s Teachers’ Association (EFLUTA) released a statement calling the raids ‘a clear-cut project of threatening and suppressing citizens who work for Dalit, Adivasi, and other marginalised groups. It is also part of a project to destroy academic freedom and progressive traditions within the universities.’

K Pavana, who is married to Satyanarayana and whose father Varavara Rao was also arrested, told students that absurd questions were raised by the police team during the raids, such as why she doesn’t wear a mangalsutra, and why there are pictures of Ambedkar instead of gods and goddesses in her house. The EFLU Student Union also condemned the raids, boycotting classes for a day and convening on campus ‘in solidarity with a teacher whose rights have been unjustifiably snatched away by the government… the university administration is obliged to provide an explanation of how such brutal treatment of a campus official was permitted’.