The government should cease politically motivated arrests and harassment of human rights activists and other actions aimed at stalling peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International India said in a joint statement on Thursday.
The Maharashtra Police had on Tuesday arrested leftwing activists Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha, and raided the homes of several others as part of their probe into the 'Elgar Parishad' conclave in Bhima-Koregaon village near Pune on December 31 last year.
The conclave at Bhima-Koregaon had triggered violence between dalits and upper caste Peshwas.
Others whose premises were reportedly searched this week were Father Stan Swamy, Susan Abraham, Kranthi Tekula and Anand Teltumbde.
"The latest arrests of human rights activists show the government's widening assault on free speech to create an atmosphere of fear across India," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying in the statement.
"Officials are again targeting human rights defenders and those working with poor and marginalised communities just for doing their jobs," Ganguly said.
The activists have long worked to defend the rights of some of India's poorest and most marginalised communities, including dalits and Adivasis—India's indigenous peoples. As poets, journalists, and advocates, they have been vocal in their criticism of government policies and therefore, have often been targets for the authorities, according to the statement.
"The police in India have repeatedly used counterterrorism laws against government critics and social activists, and often, they have targeted the same people by filing multiple cases against them," said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International India.
"The authorities continue to ignore Supreme Court directives to not conflate sympathy for concerns expressed by the Maoists, with criminal complicity in violence," Patel added.