When Activists are Arrested, Who Will Defend the Defenceless?
When human rights lawyers and activists are arrested, who will remain to defend the defenceless?
Lawyer Surendra Gadling successfully defending his clients under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) was arrested and thrown behind bars on 6 June of this year.
Now, lawyer Susan Abraham defending Gadling in Pune saw her house in Mumbai be raided and her husband Vernon Gonsalves arrested. Vernon has earlier faced prosecution under UAPA and was acquitted after spending over five years in prison. Today, he has been arrested again.
Sudha Bharadwaj, a prominent trade unionist and academic, has been arrested and will be taken to Pune, as per latest reports. Her 20-year-old daughter has had her Facebook accounts locked and her electronic devices confiscated.
Other activists whose homes were raided include Stan Swamy in Ranchi, Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, Anand Teltumbade in Goa, and Varavara Rao, her daughter Ananla and son-in-law Kamalnath in Hyderabad. Some of them have also been arrested as I write these painful words.
Susan, Shoma (Sen) and Sudha are all mothers bringing up their children – sons and daughters – peacefully. They are all professional working women, law-abiding citizens who uphold our constitutional morality to the last letter. Today, they are either behind bars, or are witnessing their homes invaded by the State.
Why? What’s their crime? To represent the country’s Dalits? Muslims? Adivasis? Women? The disenfranchised and dispossessed?
Is that why they are being branded “Urban Naxals”, “Half Maoists” — by members of the ruling party, including eminent ministers, as well as by sections of the TV, digital and social media? Are these arrests the draconian fallout of those words, those narratives played over and over again during prime time on national television?
‘Half Maoists’ – a New Cuss Word
On 14 August, I was invited to the launch of a book published by Oxford University Press, edited by Abhishek Manu Singhvi, and a compilation of the writings of his late father Dr L M Singhvi. Among the invited guests were former President Pranab Mukherjee and Union Minister Nitin Gadkari.
The eminent panel was being moderated by senior journalist Karan Thapar. When Thapar asked about the issue of Union Cabinet minister Jayant Sinha’s public garlanding of those accused of lynching and questioned what Gadkari’s party, the BJP, had to say about that, Gadkari’s answer was that the party was not aware of who all is garlanding whom and who is getting photographed with whom.
As Thapar pressed on – “but he is our minister” – Gadkari replied: “In this country, there is no guilt by association”, thereby justifying Sinha’s garlanding.
Everyone kept quiet. There was no challenge to him. On the contrary, people clapped and exclaimed how charming he was.
I put my hand up and when my turn came, I asked: “You say there is no guilt by association. Yet your ministers call us ‘Half Maoists’ – a new cuss word for us, and we are held guilty by association. Can you explain that to me?” Gadkari then said: “Yes I am aware that something has happened in Nagpur, there have been arrests. If it’s only by association, it should not happen.”
Now I feel his words were ominous. Is the government trying hard to prove that there is an actual role to justify the initial arrests? What have we come to? Are we a country which arrests its lawyers first to prevent them from defending their clients?
Every human being has a right to a legal defence.
We are going through times when lawyers who are on the front lines taking up unpopular causes are being maligned, attacked, arrested and held in prolonged detention, and/or killed. If this does not stop, one day there will be no one to defend the rule of law, since there will be no rule of law to defend.
(Indira Jaising is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court and founder of the legal activism group the Lawyers Collective. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published in The Leaflet.)
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