By Amritananda Chakravorty
On 6th June, 2018, the Maharashtra police in one swoop arrested five activists, including a lawyer known for his work on dalit rights and political prisoners, in connection with caste-based violence that erupted in Bhima-Koregaon town in Maharashtra in the first week of January, 2018. The five activists include Surendra Gadling, Advocate and General Secretary of Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers (IAPL); Rona Wilson, PR Secretary, Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP); Professor Shoma Sen, Head of English Department, Nagpur University; Sudhir Dhawale, founder of Republican Panthers Jaatiya Antachi Chalwal and Mahesh Raut, anti-displacement activist and Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF). While Gadling, Sen and Raut were arrested from Nagpur, Dhawale was arrested from Mumbai and Wilson from Delhi and they were all taken to Pune, where they are being tried. Besides alleging that these activists instigated the violence in Bhima-Koregaon clashes, which resulted in the death of one person in Maharashtra, the police also claimed that they have links with banned Maoist organisations, and thus charged them under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (‘UAPA’). In a shocking allegation, the Pune police also claimed that they had allegedly recovered a letter from Rona Wilson’s house in Delhi, which mentioned a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a Rajiv Gandhi style assassination, which created huge outrage in the media.
Through this so-called ‘letter’, the Pune police is painting these five activists, including Gadling, as dreaded Maoists plotting to kill the Prime Minister, and to wreck havoc in the country, which is ludicrous to say the least, and most sinister. In one stroke, the investigation had shifted from Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, the two Hindutva leaders who were seen to be instigating anti-dalit violence by inciting the mobs, to these five activists working on tribal and dalit rights. In fact, Ekbote was even arrested in March for his role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence and later released on bail. For months, the investigation focused on these two, while several witnesses came forward to testify about their critical role in inciting the violence. There was not even a whisper about any maoist links with the violence or any involvement of maoists themselves. And now to suddenly arrest these five activists on charges of instigating the violence and to paint the caste clashes as being funded by Maoist groups has all the trappings of a vindictive government going after lawyers and activists who work for the marginalised communities.
Out of these five arrestees, Gadling’s arrest is very problematic, since he is known for his work on defending poor tribals and dalits and also for defending professors like G.N. Saibaba who was also arrested and then convicted under UAPA for having Maoist links. To arrest lawyers who defend political prisoners or those who are condemned by the State is to target the integrity of the legal profession itself, since all accused have a fundamental right to quality legal presentation. And this is not an isolated incident. This government has increasingly persecuted outspoken lawyers, whether Ms. Indira Jaising, Ms. Teesta Setalvad, who has been on the verge of arrest several times in the last few years, lawyers of Jagdalpur Legal Aid group, who were hounded out of Chattisgarh, S Vanchinathan from Tuticorin who was defending the protestors arrested in anti-Sterlite protests, and now Mr. Gadling. Its contempt for public spirited lawyers is well-known as well as its modus operandi of targeting acitivists and civil society actors. But the arrest of Gadling on trumped up charges, and creating a mass hysteria about a ‘possible PM assassination plot’ is deeply malicious, and sinister, since it is a blatant attempt to influence the media and judiciary to ensure that due process is not followed. Reports suggest that the police denied even basic amenities to these five activists, including cot and chair for Shoma Sen, who is 60 years old and suffers from arthritis, and law books for Gadling. The Sessions Court finally granted law books to Gadling, subject to the verification of books by the prison officials.
It is here that Bar Council of India should intervene and stand in support of lawyers who are being targeted merely for doing their job, and not make baseless allegations against Justice Chelameswar. Considering BCI’s chequered record in the last few years, I know it’s a tall order for BCI to support conscientous lawyers like Gadling. It is for the Bar, especially the young lawyers to rise up to the occasion and say no to the bullying tactics of the Government. The easiest way to shut down rights work is to shut down the lawyers, which then shuts out the justice system from being accessed. As lawyers invested in protecting the constitutional framework of India, we shall not let it happen. (IPA Service)
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