Who are the five left-wing activists arrested by the Indian police?

Ready to ambush.
Ready to ambush.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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In a countrywide sweep on Aug. 28, the police in India arrested at least five activists accused of instigating violence earlier this year in the state of Maharashtra.

The raids and arrests were in connection with Elgar Parishad, a public meeting held in Pune, Maharashtra, a day before caste-based violence broke out in the nearby village of Bhima Koregaon on Jan. 01. Police say the activists were involved in funding and organising the event, where malicious statements were made.

The arrests have been made under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), India’s primary anti-terror legislation, which gives law enforcement officials wide-ranging powers to detain individuals for up to six months without a charge sheet.

Those arrested include prominent senior lawyers, journalists, poets, and trade unionists accused of having Maoist links. Some of them were also fighting court battles on behalf of other activists held earlier this year in connection with the same case.

The latest bout of raids and arrests have sparked heavy criticism, and renewed concerns over the freedom of dissent in India.

“That the raids are taking place on the homes of lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals—instead of on those who make up lynch mobs and murder people in broad daylight—tells us very clearly where India is headed,” Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy has said.

These are the five activists arrested on Aug. 28:

Varavara Rao

Rao is a Telugu poet and an ideologue of Maoist politics. 

Accused of crimes against the state at various points of time, he has been in and out of jail since 1973. However, none of the charges against him have ever been proven. He is one of the founders of Virasam (Revolutionary Writer’s Association), which the government of Andhra Pradesh state had briefly banned in 2005. His writings, too, have often been banned by the government. His work—15 collections of poetry—has been translated into several other Indian languages.

Rao mediated the first talks held between Maoist rebels and the Andhra Pradesh government in 2000.

Sudha Bharadwaj

Bharadwaj is a trade unionist, civil rights lawyer, and national council member of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a non-profit group. She practises in the high court of Chhattisgarh, the Indian state which is the seat of a Maoist-inspired insurgency. 

Bharadwaj was born in the US but gave up her American citizenship when she turned 18. She studied at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, after which she shifted to Chhattisgarh, where she has been working with trade unions for more than three decades. 

She obtained a law degree to represent the union workers in court and extended her practice to the broader defence of civil rights. She also founded Janhit, a legal aid group.

After a habeas corpus petition was filed by Bharadwaj’s lawyers on Aug. 28, the Punjab and Haryana high court stayed the transit remand that would have allowed the police to take her to Maharashtra. She will instead be under house arrest until further court orders.

Gautam Navlakha

Navlakha is a civil rights lawyer based in New Delhi. He has worked for more than three decades with the People’s Union of Democratic Rights, a non-profit group, and the academic journal Economic and Political Weekly, where his writings have been published since 1986

Navlakha has also worked in regions facing civil unrest, including Kashmir and Chhattisgarh.

His lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition on Aug. 28 and got the Delhi high court to issue a stay on his being transported from Delhi to Maharashtra. The court, instead, placed him under house arrest until further orders. “It is not possible to make out a case from the documents placed before us,” said one of the judges hearing the his petition. 

Arun Ferreira

The last time Ferreira was arrested in 2007, he ended up spending nearly five years in jail as an undertrial before he was found innocent. 

A graduate of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, Ferreira at the time was working as an activist with Deshbhakti Yuva Manch, an organisation branded Maoist by the government. He was charged in 10 cases and accused of being a propagandist for the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Every time a court acquitted him in a case, the police would charge him in another and rearrest him, often just outside the courthouse

Ferreira has alleged that he was severely tortured under custody and has even written a book detailing his experience. Following his eventual release, the 42-year-old returned to college to earn a law degree. He has since defended other prisoners, including his co-accused, in court. 

Vernon Gonsalves

Gonsalves is an ideologue of the Naxalite movement, the Maoist-inspired insurgency in central and eastern India. He completed his masters in commerce as a gold medalist from Mumbai University and later taught at the university’s DG Ruparel College and HR College. 

Along with Ferreira and others, Gonsalves, too, was arrested in 2007. He spent nearly six years in jail, battling some 20 cases against him. He was found guilty in one: In June 2013, a district sessions court convicted him of illegal possession of arms. Gonsalves had already served the incarceration period and was released the very next day.