Pune: Maharashtra police on Tuesday raided the homes of prominent Left-wing activists in several states and arrested at least four of them for suspected Maoist links, sparking a chorus of outraged protests from human rights defenders.
The raids were carried out as part of a probe into the violence between Dalits and the upper caste Peshwas at Koregaon-Bhima village near Pune after an event called Elgar Parishad, or conclave, on December 31, 2017.
The arrests are "a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into panic. That lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals are being arrested on ludicrous charges," award-winning author Arundhati Roy told PTI.
Near simultaneous searches were carried out at the residences of prominent Telugu poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, activists Vernon Gonzalves and Arun Farreira in Mumbai, trade union activist Sudha Bhardwaj in Faridabad, and civil liberties activist Gautam Navalakha in New Delhi, a senior police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Subsequently, Rao, Bhardwaj and Farreira were arrested.
"They have been arrested under the relevant sections of Indian Penal Code and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for their alleged naxal activities," said the police official, without elaborating.
Although Navalakha was also arrested, the Delhi High Court ordered police not to take him out of the national capital at least until Wednesday. The high court was hearing a habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of Navalakha by his advocate Warisha Farasat after he was picked up from his Delhi home this afternoon by the Maharashtra police.
According to unconfirmed reports, others whose residences were raided are Susan Abraham, Kranthi Tekula, Father Stan Swamy in Ranchi and Anand Teltumbde in Goa.
Koregaon-Bhima occupies a central place in Dalit history -- it witnessed a major battle in which the Peshwa rulers were defeated on January 1, 1818 by the British army, comprising a large number of Dalit soldiers.
Every year, the anniversary of the battle is marked by thousands of Dalits assembling in Pune and marching to Koregaon-Bhima to a war memorial.
Police say the speeches made at the conclave on December 31, a day before the 200th anniversary of the battle, were one of the triggers for the violence.
Today's events mirrored simultaneous raids conducted in June when five activists were arrested in connection with the Koregaon-Bhima violence.
Rao's name had figured in a letter which the Pune police claimed to have seized during searches at the premises of one of the five people arrested in June in connection with the Elgar Parishad.
The five were accused of having close Maoist links, according to an FIR registered at the Vishrambaug Police Station after the event.
Rao was arrested from his residence at Gandhi Nagar in Hyderabad by a Pune police team, which earlier searched the residences of his two daughters.
A senior police official said the team conducted searches at the residences of Rao's two daughters and a journalist, among others, before arresting him.
"Pune police sought our assistance. We have provided them with local force to assist in conducting searches and making the arrest. He (Rao) ... will be produced in a court and taken to Pune on transit warrant," Deputy Commissioner of Police (Central Zone) Viswa Prasad told PTI.
Civil Liberties Committee president Gaddam Laxman accused the BJP Government of "attacking intellectuals physically and mentally torturing them."
"We are consulting legal experts. We will fight legally ... His arrest is a gross violation of human rights," Laxman told reporters.
In June, Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale was arrested from his home in Mumbai, while lawyer Surendra Gadling, activist Mahesh Raut and Shoma Sen were picked up from Nagpur and Rona Wilson was arrested from his flat in Munirka in Delhi in simultaneous raids.
"During our investigation in connection with the Elgar Parishad event, some evidence came to light about members of a proscribed organisation, following which the police carried out raids in Chhattisgarh, Mumbai and Hyderabad" today, the police official said.
The searches were conducted at homes of people having Maoist links and those directly or indirectly connected with the five arrested people, the official said.
The police claimed to have recovered "some incriminating documents" during the searches.
"We are also checking the financial transactions of these people, their modes of communication and also trying to gather technical evidence," the police official said.
However, outgoing joint commissioner of Pune police Ravindra Kadam, had said on August 2, that no Maoist links were found in the Koregaon-Bhima violence.
He had, however, said an anti-fascist front, formed by the Maoists to oppose the policies of the current government, was behind the Elgar Parishad.
Today's arrests were condemned widely.
"Fascist fangs are now openly bared," tweeted lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
"It is a clear declaration of emergency. They are going after anyone who has spoken against the government on rights issues. They are against any dissent," Bhushan said.
Noted historian Ramachandra Guha called the action "absolutely chilling" and demanded the intervention of the Supreme Court to stop this "persecution and harassment" of independent voices.
"Sudha Bharadwaj is as far from violence and illegality," tweeted Guha....