New Delhi — Surendra Gadling was produced at 5 am in the morning in a district courtroom in Pune last week; his family was unaware of his whereabouts. His court-appointed lawyer was shaken out of bed at 4:30 am and appeared before the court with no prior information on the case.
Gadling's own legal representatives were denied access to him by the court, as their names were not on the vakalat-nama, and soon he was remanded to 8 days of police custody.
"Advocate Gadling was not given an opportunity to present a proper defence," said Sidhartha Patil, who is part of Gadling's legal team. "There was no reason to grant police custody as the search and seizure of his house is complete." Police custody — unlike judicial custody — Patil noted, meant Gadling could not apply for bail.
The arrest and subsequent treatment of well-known human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling has shaken human rights defenders, members of the legal fraternity, and political activists who see a conspiracy to silence a lawyer with a history of fighting politically-charged cases. Gadling's arrest, they say, is the latest front in the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party's attempts to quell all political dissent.
Gadling, who is Dalit, was arrested on June 6 from his home in Nagpur as part of a broad country-wide sweep.
"He has got lots of acquitals," said Arun Ferriera, author Colours of the Cage, who himself was arrested under the UAPA in 2007, and subsequently acquitted with Gadling as his lawyer. "This is one of the reasons why he has been a thorn in the side of the establishment."
Gadling, who is Dalit, was arrested on June 6 from his home in Nagpur as part of a broad country-wide sweep in which the police also arrested Dalit activist and publisher Sudhir Dhawale, Professor of English literature Shoma Sen, and activists Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson, for allegedly fomenting violence in the aftermath of massive Dalit protest in Bhima-Koregaon in January this year.
Last week, the investigation took surreal turn when the police claimed to have discovered letters pointing to a plot to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"This is clearly a conspiracy by the Modi government and the Godi Media to malign committed Ambedkarites, but Dalits are not going to buy this nonsense," said Dalit leader and Vagdam MLA Jignesh Mevani, referring to a tendency to faithfully amplify police insinuations by sections of the Indian media.
"We have already lost Rohit Vemula, Chandrashekhar Azad is in jail, and now this," Mevani said, referring to the death of the former and the arrest of the latter as instances that young Dalit voices were being silenced. "Violence is a specialty of Prime Minister Modi, not the Ambedkarite movement."
Surendra Gadling began his career, almost two decades ago in Nagpur, fighting cases for those arrested under the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1985, or TADA, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
He also worked as a special public prosecutor on dowry-related cases and was one of the leading lawyers in connection with the Khairlanji agitation – a protest movement launched after the gruesome caste-murders of a Dalit family in Maharashtra.
He is also a lawyer for Prof. G.N. Saibaba, a wheel-chair bound Delhi University professor sentenced to life imprisonment, by a district court in Gadchiroli, for aiding the Maoists. Prof. Saibaba is appealing the verdict.
"There is a clear pattern here that stretches all the way back to the encounter killing of Ishrat Jehan."
The police's attempt to link Gadling to a plot to assassinate Modi, writer and political analyst Anand Teltumbde said, was a ploy to misrepresent the Dalit mobilization against the BJP as a Maoist plot, and latest iteration to an oft-repeated claim, by Modi, that his life was under threat.
"There is a clear pattern here that stretches all the way back to the encounter killing of Ishrat Jehan," said Teltumbde said, who has written a book on Khairlanji. "This drama has been enacted before."
Jehan was killed by the Gujarat police in 2004, while she was ostensibly on a mission to assassinate Modi while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Subsequent investigations cast a long shadow of doubt on this claim, indicating that she was killed in a cold-blood by the Gujarat police.
Current BJP President, and Modi's right-hand man Amit Shah was jailed for a few months in relation to the case before he was let off.
Gadling's arrest, lawyers said, is the most recent step in stifling dissent by targeting the lawyers representing people deemed as a threat to the current establishment.
In a press conference in Delhi last week, laywer Sudha Bhardwaj — who has represented many adivasis accused of working for the Maoists in Chhattisgarh — noted that lawyers like Upendra Nayak of Odisha, Murugan of Tamil Nadu and Satyendra Chaubey of Chhattisgarh had been targeted by the police.
Bhardwaj and Gadling are both senior officer bearers of the Indian Association of People's Lawyers, a collective that offers legal advice to the needy.
"The aim here is not to convict Gadling, but to freeze his actions. It is something society should take note of."
"This shows a serious trend where the state is targeting lawyers. It shows a complete breakdown of the rule of law," said Mihir Desai, a Mumbai High Court lawyer who represented the family of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, another man allegedly killed in cold blood on false pretenses by the Gujarat police, when Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Booking Gadling under the UAPA, Desai noted, made it very difficult for him to get bail.
"The aim here is not to convict Gadling, but to freeze his actions," Desai concluded. "It is something society should take note of."