The attempt to browbeat rights activists, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde to ‘surrender’ to the National Investigation Agency, amidst a nation-wide lockdown on account of Covid-19, marks a deep and scathing new low in the political history of contemporary India.
For over two years now, the Bhima Koregaon case, as it has come to be known, has been the mainstay for the State resorting to arrests of democratic rights activists, lawyers and journalists across the country – those who have been tirelessly raising issues of grave human rights violations in the dirty war being waged by the State in the forests at the heart of the country. To arrest these 11 prominent individuals, the government has orchestrated a political conspiracy by relying wholly on the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and its ban provisions to link them with the banned CPI (Maoist) party. Projected as overground or ‘urban Naxals’, each of the accused, including Navlakha and Teltumbde, have been charged of hatching a conspiracy of carrying out a ‘Rajiv Gandhi like incident to end Modi-raj’. The outrageous allegations against them range from procuring finances and weapons to recruiting cadres for unlawful activities. It bears remembering that the origins of these allegations lay in an entirely unconnected incident: the violence against dalits at the Elgaar Parishad on 1 January 2018. The FIRs relating to this violence have been selectively acted upon, such that the perpetrators of the violence, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, are still at large, while persons unrelated to the event and not named in the FIRs have been arrested and incarcerated for 18-20 months without bail.
None of the original FIRs make out these allegations against the accused, and the case of the police relies wholly on digital documents presented at press conferences, leaked to media houses and divulged in ‘sealed envelopes’ before the courts. Revelations regarding the unauthorized use of the Pegasus software against many of those arrested raises serious doubts on the authenticity of these digital documents. Even the Supreme Court, in its dissenting opinion in August 2018, expressed doubts on the impartiality of investigations in the case and called for the constitution of a Special Investigative Team (SIT). Just when the Maharashtra government decided to institute a SIT to probe into the dubious role of the police in this case in January this year, the Central Government decided to hand over the case to the NIA, an action that doubly confirms the political nature of this case. The new FIR filed by the NIA mentions as accused the 11 arrested persons and unnamed ‘others’, leaving the possibility of further intimidation and arrests of more activists, journalists and lawyers in the case.
The role of the UAPA in furthering the claims of the police against the activists is also evident from the fact that none of the eleven accused have been allowed bail, regular, interim, medical or anticipatory, barring the one time when one of the accused was allowed to attend the cremation of her father. Denial of bail is an essential part of the punishment under this law. For this law operates also as a vehicle for preventive detention, stealing away many years of life solely on the basis of charges framed by the police.
All of those arrested are public minded individuals who have successfully brought to light the untold misery and suffering being inflicted on adivasis by State forces and powerful vested interests. In many cases, the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission recognized the illegalities committed by the government and the armed forces. These 11 individuals and the organisations they are associated with have been taking up issues of workers, peasants and tribal rights, on issues of caste and communal violence, of development, displacement and the environment, of police firings, encounter killings and custodial violence. Thus, conducting fact-finding missions, associating with the issues of the victims, providing them legal help has been part of the activities of these public minded individuals and the organisations they have been associated with. It is this engagement that is sought to be criminalized through these arrests.
Legally the Indian State may not recognize that there exists a category of political prisoners in the country, but through its actions of denying requests made for specific relief in times of Covid-19 by those implicated in this case, be it for extra time to surrender in case of Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, or bail in case of 80 year old Varavara Rao or Shoma Sen who is suffering from arthritis, the State has definitely shown that a dual system of justice does prevail when it comes to prisoners who have been incarcerated because of their political beliefs.
For us at PUDR, the fact that one of them, Gautam Navlakha, apart from being a well recognised journalist and author also happens to be an active long-standing member of the organization, makes this process of state vengeance doubly disturbing. PUDR expresses its solidarity with all those who have been falsely implicated in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case and demands their immediate release along with the repeal of UAPA.
Radhika Chitkara and Vikas Kumar