Police in the Indian state of Maharashtra on Wednesday arrested five Dalit activists on charges of inciting violence earlier this year, drawing criticism from community leaders.
The arrests of Dalit writers and activists – Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, and Surendra Gadling – were made in connection to clashes between lower caste Dalits and upper caste groups at Bhima Koregaon and ensuing protests in January. Two people were killed in the violence.
Dalits, who have suffered thousands of years of exclusion and extreme poverty, are at the bottom of India’s Hindu caste hierarchy.
Shivaji Pawar, additional commissioner of police in Pune, told Al Jazeera the “probe is at a primary stage”.
“They have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Act and charges under the Indian penal code,” Pawar said.
In January, Dalits from across Maharashtra took to the streets to protest against a January 1 attack on the community during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon.
In that battle in 1818, lower-caste Dalits sided with British colonial forces to defeat upper-caste rulers.
The police are probing links of those arrested on Wednesday to “inflammatory speeches” at an event in Pune on December 31, 2017.
“They want to instill fear in the hearts of Dalit leaders,” Prakash Ambedkar, an activist and grandson of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and a Dalit icon, told Al Jazeera.
A statement by People’s Union for Civil Liberties called the arrests “vindictive and arbitrary”.
Ashok Kamble, the leader of Dalit group Bhim Army, said Wednesday’s arrests were a “pressure tactic”.
“Dalit groups have no funds but we are committed to fighting oppression. We can’t be bought, that’s why the state uses such tactics against us,” he told Al Jazeera.
Activists point to how right-wing upper-caste leaders, with links to the ruling party, have yet to be arrested – despite cases filed against them for the January 1 attack on Dalits.
India is home to about 200 million Dalits, many of whom complain about continued social discrimination despite the outlawing of caste-based discrimination by parliament in 1955.
Hindus are traditionally grouped into various castes and membership is determined by birth.