The supreme court has extended the house arrest of five human rights activists who were arrested last week. However, when the case comes before it on 12th September, it would be a enormous service to nation if it could reflect on the larger picture of the country in which human rights activists are branded, framed, arrested and sent to jail to suffer as political prisoners for years.
The case does not relate to only five activists, and is not purely criminal, as made out to be but relates to larger civil liberties that protect citizens under the constitution. It relates to thousands of human rights defenders who are presently in jail or will be there in near future if this trend continues. The court’s verdict will go a long way to indicate if it would end or door remains open.
It is incumbent on any prosecuting agency to explain reasons for arrest a person unless it is a state of martial law. It is unlawful for any prosecuting agency to read out evidence in public while declining to share it with the judiciary. Maharashtra police did both of it. This should be enough to earn the ire of law.
The human rights activist have lately come under severe pressure in the country. For example, Swami Agnivesh, the veteran human rights activist was assaulted in Pakur, Jharkhand, on 18 July when he had gone there to attend a civil society meeting. In June, the police, in an inter-state operation arrested five human rights activists from different parts of country at odd hours.
They included Mahesh Raut, a young graduate from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who organised natives at Gidchiroli against mining; Rona Wilson, who advocated against death penalty and release of political prisoners; Surendra Gadling, a lawyer who fought the cases of political prisoners like Dr Sai Baba; Shoma Sen who voiced against growing sexual violence against women in conflict zones ; and Sudhir Dhawale, organiser of Elgaar Parishad, an assembly of over 250 dalit and minorities’ organisations that deliberated to fight implications of caste and communalism in daily life.
All the activists were framed under sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a law that can cover street protest to satayagraha. Mahatma Gandhi was arrested under the earlier while later is stringently used for tribals who resist homelessness due to ‘development’.
For example, Mahesh Raut, a prime ministers’ national rural fellow demanded implementation of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) that prohibits mining in tribal inhabited areas like Gadchiroli. He organised people of the area who resented perilous effects of mining on their lives and livelihood. Similarly, Sudha Bhardwaj provided legal aid and empowered thousands of indigenous people in Chhattisgarh who were victims of atrocities of police, cost of courts and greed of corporate.
A human rights’ activist feels the pain of a violated fellow human beings and reaches out to protect them at personal risks including life. They are the heroes of war and peace alike, as Ashok Mitra, observed, they, “instead of being a top brass in the government system, assert their rationality, which is an integral element of the human mind, against the rampant asymmetry of the human condition”. Their contribution in society is no less than a soldier, General or a prime minister.
Human rights activists have an inevitable role in any due to skewed power distribution in society which operates on Darwinian principle than altruism, a concept further elaborated by Richard Dawkins in the book, The Selfish Gene. Post 1990 liberalism while number of billionaires in India has risen so have landless in the country; as billion dollar houses have risen so have slum clusters around them.
On an average, in the country, one human rights defender becomes victim of state misuse of power in three days. According to the National Human Rights Commission, 30 such cases were reported in three months between April and June 2018. These included failures to take lawful actions and abuse of power like unlawful detention, false implication and illegal arrests. All these people end up as 293,000 under trial prisoners who like Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan make up 67.2 per cent of India’s total prison population, like Franz Kafka’s Josef K in the novel, ‘The Trial’, spending six months to five years in overcrowded jails.
As it is not something normal for a democracy, on next hearing, in the light of preamble and chapter III of the constitution, the court would do a great service to democracy in the country to reflect how the present regime could be restrained from abuse of power and subject its noble citizens to injustice for exercising their constitutional rights.
*Melbourne-based researcher and author