The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a notice to the Centre and the Maharashtra government asking them to explain the grounds on which five eminent human rights activists of the country were arrested in a coordinated operation conducted in five states on Tuesday.

A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Deepak Misra, and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, also prevented the police from keeping the five activists into custody but said they can be kept under house arrest.

Hearing a petition filed by historian Romila Thapar, economist Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande, economist Devaki Jain and human rights activist Maya Daruwala, the apex court observed that “dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed then the pressure cooker may burst”.

The petitioners said that the arrests are an attempt “to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the Nation and to instil fear in minds of people”.

“The timing of this action leaves much to be desired and appears to be motivated to deflect people’s attention from real issues,” the petition read.

Prashant Bhushan, one of the lawyers defending the activists in the SC, said, “We argued that this investigation is clearly being done in a malafide manner.”

He added that house arrest only means that the accused cannot venture out of the house.

Besides Bhushan, the petition was mentioned by a host of lawyers including advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Indira Jaising, Dushyant Dave, Raju Ramachandran, Amarendra Sharan and Vrinda Grover.

The apex court has scheduled the next hearing for Thursday, 6 September, by which time both the Centre and the Maharashtra government will have to file their responses.

In a press conference held today, the Pune Police said that the arrested activists were planning to “target higher political functionaries”

“We seized laptops, phones, memory cards and several other documents which clearly show links to a conspiracy,” said a Pune Police official at a press conference.

Addressing the activists as “urban Naxals” the police said that they have links with Naxal outfits.

“Some of the evidence collected reveal a nexus between the activists and other unlawful organisations. They were even thinking of targeting higher political functionaries,” the office reportedly said.

What happened on Tuesday?

In a major raid conducted across five states on Tuesday, the Pune police arrested five activists on charges of being Naxal sympathisers and investigate their alleged connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence that rocked Pune in January this year.

The five persons arrested are Varavara Rao (Telangana), Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Pereira (Mumbai), Sudha Bharadwaj (Chhattisgarh), Gautam Navlakha (Delhi).

Read More: Who are the five?

The homes of Kranti in Telangana, Stan Swami in Chhattisgarh and Anand Teltumbde in Goa were also raided.

Police confiscated belongings like phones, cameras, laptops, SIM cards and also seized documents and writings from the residence of the activists.

This is the second time that the police have taken such an action. On 17 April, the Pune Police swooped on over half a dozen Dalit activists and those involved with the Kabir Kala Manch, which organised an Elgar Conference in Pune on 31 December 2017.

According to the police, the speeches made by the activists arrested at the Elgaar Parishad conclave, a day ahead of the bicentennial celebration of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, were one of the triggers for the violence that was gripped Pune the next day.

The violence left one person dead and ended with Maharashtra shutdown on 3 January called by the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, headed by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of BR Ambedkar.

The police had also targeted prominent human rights activists like Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale (all arrested) besides raiding Harshali Potdar, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaychor and Sagar Gorke.

In June, police in Pune had allegedly recovered a letter mentioning a plan to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the house of one of the five persons arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.

The letter written by a person identified only as ‘R’ reportedly mentions a plot to kill the Prime Minister on the lines of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

It also referred to requirement of Rs 8 crore to purchase an M-4 rifle and four lakh rounds to execute the plot. The letter reportedly mentioned Varvara Rao’s name.