India's top court ordered that five human-rights activists be held under house arrest Wednesday, the day after they were taken into custody by police in what many critics say was an attempt by the government to quash dissent.
The Supreme Court said the activists should be kept under house arrest until its next hearing on the matter, scheduled for September 6.
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Prashant Bhushan, a prominent civil-rights lawyer who represented the activists, said they had been "working on human rights causes for the past 20 to 25 years."
"Dissent is the safety word of democracy. If you do not allow dissent, the pressure cooker will burst," lawyer Vrinda Grover told reporters outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi, quoting comments made by the judge hearing the case.
Police from Pune in western Maharashtra state arrested Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varavara Rao at their homes in Delhi, Faridabad and Hyderabad, respectively, on Tuesday evening.
Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira were arrested at their homes in Mumbai and Thane.
The five were arrested for allegedly inciting caste-based violence at a rally in the state last year.
According to Pune police, the activists incited Dalits (the lowest Hindu caste) at a public rally on December 31, which led to violent clashes. One person was killed.
"They have shown intolerance to the present political system and decided to target other functionaries," said a police spokesperson at a news conference Wednesday.
Last December, Dalit groups gathered in Pune to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon.
The Battle of Koregaon, considered by Dalits as a monumental moment in the fight against caste oppression, saw Dalits fight alongside the British East India Company against the ruler, Peshwa Baji Rao II.
A day after the rally, clashes broke out between Dalits and right-wing groups that opposed the celebrations.
A 'witch hunt'
Critics have labeled the arrests a "witch hunt" against those who challenge India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
"The people who have been arrested yesterday hold responsible positions in society. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the government to put in the public space the reasons of arrest. This multi-city arrest is a witch hunt," Manish Tewari, a spokesperson for India's main opposition Congress party, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Amnesty International India and Oxfam India issued a joint statement condemning the arrests, saying the crackdown was "disturbing and threatens core human rights values."
"All these people have history of working to protect the rights of some of India's most poor and marginalized people. Their arrests raise disturbing questions about whether they are being targeted for their activism," said Aakar Patel, the executive director of Amnesty International India.
Oxfam India Chief Executive Amitabh Behar said that the arrests, "cannot become the order of the day".
"The government should protect people's rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear," he said.
Both the Indian government and the Maharashtra government have been asked by the Supreme Court to respond to matters in the case by the next hearing.