Wrongly Arrested Activists

Bharat Dogra

Ahead of the Independence Day, it would be a much appreciated gesture on the part of the government if it releases several dissenting activists, including distinguished scholars and lawyers, who are widely believed to have been wrongfully arrested or implicated in wrong cases. Sometime back the Supreme Court’s firmness in upholding the Bombay High Court’s order granting bail to a distinguished scholar Anand Teltumbde arrested under the Elgar Parishad case was widely appreciated, as was an earlier court order granting bail to another widely acclaimed public interest lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj known to have taken up many cases of poorest persons. However there is a strong feeling in human rights circles in India that there is need for much more to be done in this case. In this context one my recall what the 74-year-old distinguished scholar activist Anand Teltumbde, coming out after spending 31 months in prison, had to say regarding the case in which several other distinguished activists, scholars and lawyers have also been implicated—“the sad thing is that this is the fakest case and it put us behind bars for years.”

16 activists known for their pro-poor leanings and work, including human rights lawyers and scholars, were arrested in this case on issues relating to events in Pune in 2017-18, which essentially related to mobilisation of a large number of pro-poor organisations for cultural and related celebrations. Unfortunately, there was some violence later at another gathering with several common participants. Several of those arrested, for example Fr Stan Swamy who died in the course of imprisonment, leading to worldwide expression of dismay, were completely at a loss to understand why they were being arrested in this case.

One main accusation has been that the Elgar Parishad event had Maoist links. This allegation should have been dismissed at a very early stage as two retired, highly respected senior judges had clearly stated that they were the organisers and fund mobilisers.

Justice P B Sawant was earlier a judge of the Bombay High Court and subsequently of the Supreme Court of India. He then became the Chairperson of the Press Council of India and showed high concern for ethical issues relating to media. Justice (Retired) Sawant breathed his last sometime back, after having been very distressed in his last days at the way in which the Elgar Parishad case had been built up and pursued by the authorities. Justice B G Kolse-Patil was a judge of the Bombay High Court at a relatively young age. Both of these judges immersed themselves in pro-poor, communal harmony and national integration activities after their retirement.

While Fr Stan Swamy died in the course of his imprisonment in this case, serious medical problems of several other imprisoned activists have also been highlighted from time to time by their family members as well as lawyers.

Such cases which appear prima facie to involve a lot of injustice are bringing a lot of avoidable disrepute to the human rights record of the country at a time when, particularly due to its presidency of G-20, the country should do all it can to improve its human rights record.

There are some cases relating to some protests which were very peacefully organised. Then there have been reports of some cases relating to Delhi riots in which some activists known for their record of communal harmony and justice have been wrongly implicated. There are several fewer known activists from adivasis and other weaker sections who have been wrongly imprisoned for quite some time and due to the poverty of their families have not been able to arrange even for bail and legal help, left to languish in jail as under-trials.

Some time back President Droupadi Murmu said very rightly, “Our job is to think about the poor undertrials languishing in jails. We all have to think and come out with a way…”

One hopes that the government will quickly initiate the long overdue process of release of several activists and other dissenting persons who are widely believed to have been victims of injustice.

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Vol 56, No. 6, Aug 6 - 12, 2023