It was meant to be a show of unity, a show of strength. That it was. In an almost-packed open courtyard on a sticky summer afternoon, at the Press Club in New Delhi, a number of activists, authors and politicians from across platforms came together to fight for the five human rights activists who had been arrested. For those human rights activists who fight for the underdog. For those human rights activists who have been branded ‘Urban Naxals’. It was a full house even with two other political events happening simultaneously in Central Delhi. But, the place was teeming with cops too. One can only wonder why a press conference would evoke such a response.
Those arrested include trade-unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, lawyers Arun Ferriera and Vernon Gonsalvez, writer Gautam Navlakha and professor and poet Varavara Rao. They were linked to violence at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra last year. This is despite their names not being on the FIR; despite them not being present at the event, which was organised by Judges Kolse Patil and PB Sawant.
What began with Harish Dhawan of Peoples Union for Democratic Rights questioning why the five activists were arrested, reached a fever pitch when Bezwada Wilson of Safai Karamchari Andolan pointed out that, “How can the country oppose when the Dalits assert themselves? It was an event to celebrate for the Dalits, and there people were termed Urban Naxals. It is an attempt to undermine Dalit assertion?”
Wilson pointed out that everyone who was arrested stated their credentials and educational qualifications to prove that they had done nothing wrong, “but, what about the ordinary citizen, who doesn’t have any qualification and is on the margins”.
It was ably aided by Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani. "Those who are taking steps to maintain the secular identity of the country are being terrorised. The Delhi and Pune police were hand-in-glove. Peaceful protests of Dalits and poor are branded Naxal or Maoist movements. They are forced to remain silent. But voices will continue to be raised and marches will be conducted across the country on September 5 and 15 as a mark of protest," said Mevani. He described the arrests as “a combination of an undeclared emergency, fascism and the Gujarat model”.
Wilson pointed out that everyone who was arrested stated their credentials and educational qualifications to prove that they had done nothing wrong, “but, what about the ordinary citizen, who doesn’t have any qualification and is on the margins”
"All norms of the Constitution are being violated. Right to freedom of expression is at stake. The arrest of the five activists is an indication that any voice raised in support of Dalits or poor will be silenced in this country," said activist Aruna Roy of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
Castigating the Modi-led NDA government, author and activist Arundhati Roy, asked the people to not allow their "attention to stray from even when strange events befall us".
"The Modi government is following divert and rule. We will not know from where and how and when and what kind of fireball is going to fall on us. They are trying to distract us," Roy said at a press conference here to condemn the arrests, before firing a series of salvos that targeted the government on its "anti-dalit" "anti-poor" "anti-minority" policies such as demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
“Years ago, when the vigilante army called the Salwa Judum was raised in Bastar and went on a rampage, killing people and burning whole villages, Dr Binayak Sen, then the General Secretary of the PUCL (Peoples Union for Civil Liberties) Chattisgarh spoke up for its victims. When Binayak Sen was jailed, Sudha Bhardwaj a lawyer and Trade Union leader who had worked in the area for years, took his place. Professor Saibaba, who campaigned relentlessly against the paramilitary operations in Bastar stood up for Binayak Sen. When they arrested Saibaba, Rona Wilson, stood up for him. Surendra Gadling was Saibaba’s lawyer. When they arrested Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakaha and the others stood up for them… and so it goes,” emphasised an almost parched Roy.
Roy pointed to the investigation by the Karnataka Police into the assassination of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh and said that it has “unveiled several Hindu right-wing organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha
Arundhati pointed to the investigation by the Karnataka Police into the assassination of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh and said that it has "unveiled several Hindu right-wing organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha".
"This has shown the existence of a full blown terror network with hit-lists, hideouts, safehouses, arms, ammunition and plans to bomb, kill and poison people... As it prepares for the 2019 general elections, the BJP has emerged by far the wealthiest political party in India. Outrageously, the electoral bonds ensure that the source of the donations to political parties can remain anonymous,” pointed out Arundhati.
"How many of these groups do we know about? How many of these are still working in secret? They have the assurance and blessing of the powerful and even the police. With the elections coming what plans do they have in store for us? What surprise attack, where will they be, in Kashmir, in Kumbh mela, or in Ayodhya. They will attempt to derail everything with some minor or major attack," Arundhati alleged.
Ridiculing the government for making a joke out of ‘Make In India’ projects, Roy said, “The real bonfire of the idea of ‘Make in India’ is the Rafale fighter plane deal, that was announced by the Prime Minister in Paris seemingly without the knowledge of his own Defence Minister.”
Adding to this was the soft-spoken Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “What is happening in the country,” he questioned, “the people responsible for the attacks were Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide. Why are they still out? And what is this Urban Naxal term.”
Kalyani Menon Sen of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression asserted that the real crime of those arrested was that they upheld the Constitution. “All they did was tell people about their rights. The reality is being twisted,” Kalyani pointed out.
The joint press conference was supported by more than 30 organisations including Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Committee for Release of Political Prisoners, Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra, National Alliance of People's Movements, Pinjra Tod, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights and Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights.