New Delhi, Apr 15 (efe-epa).- Human rights nonprofits on Wednesday came down hard against the Indian government a day after the arrest of scholar Anand Teltumbde and rights activist Gautam Navlakha under an anti-terrorism law for allegedly inciting violence during a protest in 2018, calling it a clampdown on dissent.
Teltumbde and Navlakha had on Tuesday surrendered before the National Investigation Agency in the cities of Mumbai and Delhi respectively, after the Supreme Court on Apr. 8 rejected their pleas for protection from arrest, which had also cited the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in prisons.
“Indian authorities are using draconian counterterrorism laws against activists simply for criticizing the government or raising their voices against injustice,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of nonprofit Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The two activists have been charged under the Unlawful Activities and (Prevention) Act, a controversial law that makes it difficult for the accused to get bail.
The police allege that the two were involved in inciting violence at a large public rally on Jan. 1, 2018, where clashes between Dalits – members of marginalized castes formerly called ‘untouchables’ – and right-wing Hindu groups had left one person dead and injured many others.
The police had already arrested nine other prominent activists for conspiring together to spark unrest at an annual event at Bhima Koregaon, 30 kilometers from the western city of Pune, where thousands of Dalits gather every year to commemorate the victory of a Dalit regiment of the British army over an oppressive king of the region in 1818.
Subsequently investigators also alleged that the group of activists was hatching a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, rights groups have rejected the police claims and alleged that the case was meant to silence prominent voices of dissent against the government.
“The charges filed by police cite flimsy evidence and raise serious concerns that the investigations were politically motivated. Two retired judges, who say they were the ‘main organizers and sole funders’ of the rally, have said that most of the activists arrested in the case had nothing to do with the event,” HRW said.
On Tuesday Amnesty International had denounced the arrests as “an extension of a crackdown on anyone who is critical of the state” including “human rights defenders, journalists and activists” seeking state accountability.
Navlakha, 65, is the former secretary of the nonprofit People’s Union for Democratic Rights and a freelance journalist, while 68-year-old Teltumbde is a professor of technology and has written extensively on caste issues, gaining recognition as a vocal advocate of Dalit rights.
The two had earlier been granted protection from arrest by lower judiciary and later the Supreme Court, however, last week the top court ordered them to surrender.
Some critics have pointed out the irony of Teltumbde being arrested on Apr. 14, the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and a Dalit icon who ensured that the so-called “lower castes” received equal rights. Teltumbde, a Dalit himself, is also the grandson-in-law of Ambedkar.
“It marks a day on which this country will celebrate the 129th birth anniversary of one of its greatest minds and hearts, Dr. Ambedkar, and on which the mighty nationalist machinery seeks to crush the spirit that kept the flame of democracy alive in our mids,” a group of Dalit lawmakers from opposition parties and other leaders had said in a joint statement on Apr. 12, after it became clear that the scholar would be arrested. EFE-EPA