PM Narendra Modi has come under fire after police arrested five lawyers and left-wing activists for suspected links to Maoists. Rights groups say the government wants to stifle dissent ahead of the general election.
Indian police launched a nationwide crackdown on Tuesday, arresting a number of activists, including communist poet Varavara Rao, human rights lawyer Vernon Gonsalves, writer and lawyer Arun Ferreira, journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha, and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj.
The authorities are investigating violence between low-caste Dalits and upper-caste Hindu groups following a political meeting in the western city of Pune on December 31 last year. The Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency said the five activists were detained in connection with that meeting.
"These persons have been arrested for their Maoist links," Shivaji Bodakhe, joint commissioner of Pune police, told AFP news agency.
PTI also quoted security officials as saying that "two letters, purportedly exchanged by Maoist leaders indicated plans to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the president of the ruling BJP party Amit Shah and Home Minister Rajnath Singh, led to the police action."
Local media reported that police also raided homes of other prominent anti-government activists on Tuesday. Five other people were detained in June.
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Rights organizations said that the arrest of five prominent activists is part of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) campaign to silence critics ahead of next year's general election.
Umar Khalid, a student activist and member of the "United Against Hate" civil society group, told DW the authorities are using sedition laws to curtail free speech in the country.
More than 20 civil society groups took to the streets to protest the arrest of activists. The Associated Press reported that police rounded up around two dozen protesters in Hyderabad city, the capital of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states.
Following the arrests, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, accused PM Modi's government of seeking to silence its opponents.
"There is only place for one NGO in India and it is called the RSS," Gandhi said on Twitter, referring to the BJP's ideological Hindu nationalist backer, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. "Jail all activists and shoot those that complain."
The arrests followed months of tensions between BJP supporters and liberal activists in college campuses across the country.
Rising intolerance and polarization
Human rights groups say that right-wing extremism has been rising in India since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
Modi's critics say the government's crackdown on opposition and rights activists has intensified in the run-up to the 2019 polls.
"This is an attempted coup against the Indian constitution and all the freedoms we cherish," Arundhati Roy, activist and Booker Prize winning novelist, told DW. "This is a concerted drive by the state and this drama of diversion and distraction will play out till the general elections of 2019."
Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer, told DW that those arrested on Tuesday have a history of working for India's marginalized communities and their arrests raise questions about government's motives.
Global human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Oxfam also condemned the arrests, urging the Indian government to respect "people's rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly instead of creating an atmosphere of fear."
Additional reporting by Murali Krishnan, DW's New Delhi correspondent.