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Will India care for human rights by releasing undertrial activists ahead of G20 summit?

By Bharat Dogra* 

India has a very rich tradition of opposing wrongly arrested persons, going back to the days of the freedom movement, when hundreds of thousands of freedom fighters including such legendary leaders as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Badshah Khan and Subhash Bose were arrested time and again by colonial rulers. Despite all the repression and cruelty of colonial rule, India could defeat the biggest imperialism force of those times.
While remembering the great sacrifices of those freedom fighters who time and again went to prison just because they believed firmly in the most noble and natural objective of freedom of their people, India should take extra care to guard the freedom of people to hold dissenting views. Democracy is all about people being able to have views which are different from those of the authorities, and having the freedom to spread their views and to struggle for them without indulging in violence against anyone.
Hence, ahead of the Independence Day, it would be a much appreciated gesture on the part of the government if it releases several dissenting activists, including distinguished scholars and lawyers, who are widely believed to have been wrongfully arrested or implicated in wrong cases. To give one often discussed example of what is widely believed to be a case of wrongful arrests, we may mention here the Elgar Parishad case.
Some time back the Supreme Court’s firmness in upholding the Bombay High Court’s order granting bail to 74 year old distinguished scholar Anand Teltumbde arrested under this case was widely appreciated, as was an earlier court order granting bail to another widely acclaimed public interest lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj known to have taken up many cases of poorest persons. However there is a strong feeling in human rights circles in India that there is need for much more to be done in this case.
In this context we my recall what Teltumbde, coming out after spending 31 months in prison, had to say regarding the case in which several other distinguished activists, scholars and lawyers have also been implicated: “The sad thing is that this is the fakest case and it put us behind bars for years.”
Yes, the notorious Elgar Parishad case has been attracting strong criticism from several human rights and democracy activists and organizations during the last few years. 16 activists known for their pro-poor leanings and work, including human rights lawyers and scholars, were arrested in this case on issues relating to events in Pune in 2017-18, which essentially related to mobilization of a large number of pro-poor organizations for cultural and related celebrations.
Unfortunately there was some violence later at another gathering with several common participants. Several of those arrested, for example Fr Stan Swamy who died in the course of imprisonment, leading to worldwide expression of dismay, were completely at a loss to understand why they were being arrested in this case.
One main accusation has been that the Elgar Parishad event had Maoist links. This allegation should have been dismissed at a very early stage, as two retired, highly respected senior judges had clearly stated that they were the organizers and fund mobilizers of the Elgaar Parishad “with the simple motive of spreading the message of fighting communal forces.”
It is amazing that the authorities who built up this case did not heed such a stand taken by two retired distinguished judges with complete clarity, leaving no room for doubt. These judges were helped by a large number of pro-poor organizations of the region to stage the event, which testifies to the broad-based, open, non-secretive, transparent nature of the event, as stated by the two learned judges as well.
What is more, these two judges have been known for their exceptional integrity and concern for justice to the poor and weaker sections. Justice (retired) PB Sawant was earlier a judge of the Bombay High Court and subsequently of the Supreme Court of India. He then became the Chairperson of the Press Council of India and showed high concern for ethical issues relating to media. 
Justice Sawant breathed his last some time back, after having been very distressed in his last days at the way in which the Elgar Parishad case had been built up and pursued by the authorities. The other judge, Justice (retired) BG Kolse-Patil, was a judge of the Bombay High Court at a relatively young age.
Both of these judges immersed themselves in pro-poor, communal harmony and national integration activities after their retirement. Hence the organization of a big pro-poor event by them was very logical and understandable in terms of their various other activities and should not have led to any suspicions at all.
Several of the activists who were arrested in the Elgar Parishad case were not even known to these two judges who were the main organizers, and in fact the judges and the arrested activists, as well as their family members and well-wishers have been at a loss to understand what exactly is the base of this case and its wide-ranging accusations involving so many persons living in many different parts of the country.
While Fr Stan Swamy died in the course of his imprisonment in this case, serious medical problems of several other imprisoned activists have also been highlighted from time to time by their family members as well as lawyers.
Such cases which appear prima facie to involve a lot of injustice are bringing a lot of avoidable disrepute to the human rights record of our country at a time when, particularly due to its presidency of G-20, the country should do all it can to improve its human rights record. Hence, the government would be taking a great step forward in improving the human rights record of the country if on its own it initiates action to withdraw the cases against those implicated in the Elgar case, whether they are in jail or , as in the case of a few, already released on bail.
Similarly, there are several such cases, such as those involving Delhi university teacher GN Saibaba, who is severely affected by disability and poor health, where the government should move quickly for release of the arrested persons in poor health. There are some cases relating to some protests which were very peacefully organized. Then there have been reports of some cases relating to Delhi riots in which some activists known for their record of communal harmony and justice have been wrongly implicated.
There are several less known activists from adivasis and other weaker sections who have been wrongly imprisoned for quite some time, and due to the poverty of their families have not been able to arrange even for bail and legal help, left to languish in jail as under-trials. Some of those imprisoned under Elgar Parishad case were in fact trying to provide much-needed legal and other help to those facing such injustice.
Some time back President Droupadi Murmu said very rightly, “Our job is to think about the poor undertrials languishing in jails. We all have to think and come out with a way…”
One hopes that the government will quickly initiate the long overdue process of release of several activists and other dissenting persons who are widely believed to have been victims of injustice.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man over Machine’, ‘When the Two Streams Met’ and ‘Protecting Earth for Children’

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