Economist Jean Dreze said on Thursday that he and two right to food activists were threatened with arrest and detained at a police station for two hours in BJP-ruled Jharkhand for trying to address a food security meeting that police described as unauthorised.
At the police station, police officials asked them to sign a bond saying they had no complaint against the government but “we refused” to do so, Dreze told The Telegraph. The three were released after two hours.
The detention triggered widespread outrage in the country, especially because Dreze has been at the forefront of the fight against hunger, and Jharkhand had witnessed several deaths linked to starvation in recent years. The meeting had been organised to help guide the poor in accessing subsidised food supplied by the government.
“The meetings organised by various village self-help groups and other voluntary bodies play a crucial role in ensuring food security for Jharkhand’s poor people,” Dreze said.
The activists, Vivek Gupta and Anuj Gupta, are members of an organisation called Dehan, which had sought permission for the meeting in Garhwa, 240km from Ranchi.
Dreze and the two activists were to address the meeting at a field in Bishunpura, some 25km from Garhwa town.
Garhwa SP Shivani Tiwari said the meeting would have violated the model code as it did not have permission. “Vivek had applied for permission which the SDO did not grant. Also, there were loudspeakers on the meeting grounds. Both tantamount to model code violations,” she said.
A source in the district administration said the names of speakers were not included in the application, a purported reason for the rejection.
Dreze said the officer-in-charge of Bishunpura police station reached the venue and did not allow the meeting to begin. “He threatened me and two others, Vivek and Anuj, with arrest under certain sections and jail. We were made to sit at the police station for about two hours but were actually not arrested. Detention would be the right word,” the economist said.
“The administration neither gave permission (for the meeting) nor denied it,” he said.
“The understanding of and space for democracy is shrinking in the country,” Dreze added. “Holding peaceful gatherings on important issues concerning public welfare should be encouraged in a democracy. I am not aware that holding a public meeting on non-political issues violates the model code.”
Additional reporting by Reuters