On 28 August 2018, five prominent Indian human rights activists were arrested during simultaneous police raids conducted in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Faridabad, Pune, Ranchi, and Goa. The raids were part of an investigation into events that occurred earlier this year during a Dalit commemoration of an 1818 battle in Bhima Koregaon in which many Dalits lost their lives, and they follow a wider crackdown on Indian activists in recent months.

‘These and other arbitrary arrests undermine free speech and dissent, which are cornerstones of truly democratic societies,’ emphasises Carl Söderbergh, Director of Policy & Communications at Minority Rights Group International (MRG). ‘India should be a safe home for ideas and arguments, and those who call for equality and fairness should be celebrated rather than threatened and detained.’

The activists arrested were noted trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, widely published writer and civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha, intellectual and poet Varavara Rao, activist lawyer Arun Ferreira and lawyer Vernon Gonsalves. They have a long history of working for India’s minorities and marginalised populations including Dalits and adivasis. The police seized laptops, mobile phones and several reading materials from their homes during the coordinated raids.

The activists were arrested for allegedly inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon in January 2018 and have been accused of having ‘Maoist links’. The accusations leveled against the activists include violations of various sections of India’s Penal Code including the draconian anti-terror legislation, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which gives the police the power to carry out raids and arrests without warrant if a person is suspected to ‘support terrorist acts or unlawful activities’. It also gives the police 180 days to provide details of the charges, rather than the usual 90 days.

The arrests have been criticised as a politically motivated attempt to stifle dissent, creating a climate of fear and intimidation in India. This follows another spate of arrests on similar charges in June this year, which were also met with widespread condemnation as the charges do not reflect what was reported on the ground at the time.

‘India has excellent policies for Dalits and Adivasis. It should be protecting the rights of Dalits and fighting caste-based oppression,’ said Paul Divakar, of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). ‘Instead our country is arresting our leaders on spurious and unlawful grounds, in a display of total disregard for the freedom of expression and basic human rights.’

Dalits and other marginalised groups in India are increasingly resisting the violation of their rights and demanding justice. This has spurred a violent backlash against them, including from dominant castes, and has led to heightened tensions and attacks. Figures from the National Crime Records Bureau show that crimes against Dalits in India have increased by 25% between 2006 and 2016.

While the activists may well eventually be cleared, the curtailing of their liberty undermines their important work, and they risk harassment and ill treatment if taken into custody.

‘We stand in solidarity with the arrested activists and call for their imposed house arrest to be immediately lifted pending further investigation, and for the release of other human rights defenders who are being unfairly targeted simply for their work to ensure justice’ said Meena Varma, Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.