SC order puts activists in house arrest till Sep 6 (Third Lead)

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New Delhi : Describing dissent as a safety valve, the Supreme Court on Wednesday directed that the five human rights activists arrested by Pune Police should be kept under house arrest until the next date of hearing on September 6.

In a huge relief to the activists, an apex court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice A.M. Lhanwilkar and Justice D.Y. Chandrachiu ordered the house arrest on a petition filed by well-known historian Romila Thapar as well as Devika Jain, Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande and Maja Dharuwala challenging the Tuesday arrests.

Taking a dim view of the crackdown, Justice Chandrachud said: "Dissent is a safety valve of democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst."

Those arrested on Tuesday included Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, Sudha Bharadwaj in Haryana and Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonzalves in Maharashtra.

Chandrachud noted that the arrests had taken place nine months after the activists were linked to the violence at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra.

Visibly peeved over the action of the Pune Police, the judge said: "Nine months after Koregoan incident you go and arrest these people."

"Nomenclature of the petition does not matter," Chief Justice Misra said as Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta questioned the maintainability of the petition by Romila Thapar and others, saying "strangers" can't seek relief for the arrested activists who had already approached the High Court.

Telling Mehta that they will hear the matter, Justice Chandrachud said: "It is a larger issue as their concern is that you are quelling dissent."

The court issued notice seeking a response from the Centre, Maharashtra and Haryana to the petition by Thapar and other activists and directed the next hearing on September 6.

Noting the submission by senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi that in pursuance of the High Court Navlakha and Bharadwaj have been kept under house arrest and his suggestion that as an interim measure Varavara Rao, Ferreira and Gonsalves, if arrested, too be kept under house arrest at their own home, the court said, "We order accordingly."

The bench clarified: "Needless to say, an interim order is an interim order and all contentions are kept open."

Describing the matter as a "serious issue", senior counsel Singhvi, appearing for Thapar and others told the court that those who have been arrested were not even named in the FIR lodged after the Bhima-Koregoann incident.

Senior counsel Dushyant Dave told the court that the arrested activists had no criminal antecedents.

Another senior counsel, Rajeev Dhavan, told the court that one of the arrested lawyers was working in an organisation funded by him and expressed the apprehension that by that measure he too could also be arrested.

Indira Jaising said that five lawyers working with her were arrested in June and she may be the next.

They were to have been taken to Pune but would now be sent home and put under house arrest.