22, Jun 2023 | Sabah Maharaj
In June 2021, European Union parliamentarians, Nobel Laureates, renowned academics, and internationally known figures wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, the then Chief Justice of India as well as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, and other authorities in India, demanding to the release of political prisoners arrested with relation to the Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregaon incident.
Amidst contested accusations of an anti-India conspiracy, militancy, and violence, five long years have passed since the BK-16 have been imprisoned without trial. The case has thrown up loopholes in the conduct and investigations by the investigative agencies; yet the needle of justice delivery has not moved. Senior advocates, human rights defenders and journalists continue to be behind bars.
CJP stands in solidarity with the human rights defenders targeted by a vindictive state. A healthy democracy needs voices of dissent. We also need human rights defenders and social activists to work tirelessly to uphold our shared values of equality, peace and justice. Join CJP now!
In the pursuit of justice and the protection of human rights, the Bhima Koregaon case has become a symbol of injustice inflicted upon human rights activists. For the past five years, these brave individuals, known in popular parlance as the BK-16, have been entangled in a web of false accusations and an alarming lack of progress in their trials. This distressing situation not only undermines the principles of fairness and due process but also sends a chilling message to activists across the nation. The prolonged absence of a proper trial, in this case, raises serious questions about the integrity of the judicial system and the treatment of those advocating for justice and equality. It is high time to acknowledge these grave injustices and work towards a society that values and upholds the rights of human rights defenders.
Among the starkest markers over the past five years have been the eloquent pleas of family members –daughters of Shoma Sen and Sudha Bhardwaj, son of Vernon, wives and families of the others and worst moment of all, the death while in custody of octogenarian, rights defender and Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy.
What is the historical significance of Bhima Koregaon?
Bhima-Koregaon is a small village located in the Pune district of Maharashtra. It holds significant historical importance in the Maratha history. On January 1, 1818, a British Army consisting mostly of Dalit soldiers achieved a victory over the Peshwa army, led by Peshwa Bajirao II, in the town of Koregaon.
The battle has acquired the status of a heroic legend. It is viewed as a triumph of the Mahars, a Dalit community, against the injustices perpetrated by the Peshwas, who were part of the upper-caste Maratha rulers in Maharashtra at the time.
In commemoration of the battle, the East India Company erected a pillar known as the Vijay Sthamb (victory pillar). Every year on January 1, thousands of Dalits gather at this pillar to pay their respects to those who fought for the British Army. On January 1, 1927, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar visited the Bhima-Koregaon site and initiated an annual tradition to celebrate the battle’s significance. Since then, every year lakhs of Ambedkarites from Maharashtra and other parts of the country peacefully assembled near the Ranstambh (victory pillar) in Perne village, Pune district, to commemorate the anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle to honour the courage of the Mahar soldiers who fought against the Peshwa forces in the battle of 1818.
What transpired in 2017?
On December 31, 2017, commemorating the battle as well as the death anniversary of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, a public gathering called ‘Elgar Parishad’ was organised by a group of 260 non-profit organisations and it had almost 35000 people attending the event.
Image source: The Scroll. These were known to be some of main organisers of the event.
During the gathering, various cultural performances, including Marathi hip-hop, took place, and several Dalit and Adivasi leaders delivered speeches. The meet was co-hosted by former judge of the Supreme Court, PB Sawant and former judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice BG Kolse Patil.
On December 31, 2-17 this gathering of activists, former judges and political leaders proclaimed their commitment to fight the repressive policies, economic, social, and cultural of the Modi regime. The Elgar Parishad that preceded the gathering at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018 which was attacked and assaulted by some persons identified to be close to the sangh brigade. Shambhaji Bhide, along with Miling Ekbote were first accused of inciting Bhima Koregaon violence by giving inciteful and hate speeches just before the event which was the bi-centenary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. He is a controversial figure who has been active in propagating militant Hindutva ideology and building Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan. He has been rather active in the past three decades in supposedly ‘spreading awareness’ distorting facts related to the Shivaji Maharaj. He was formerly a worker with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
However, the Pune police –based on an FIR by a ‘Pune-based businessman’ subsequently alleged that the Elgaar Parishad event was part of a “Maoist conspiracy” aimed at overthrowing the Indian government. Consequently, the police conducted raids and arrested some of the organisers, accusing them of having connections with Maoist groups and using the meeting as a platform to incite public disorder. These arrests began in June 2018 and continued for a year and a quarter. However, retired judges involved in the event disagree with these claims, asserting that the gathering was intended to combat communalism and the increasing violence perpetrated by Hindutva groups, particularly those acting in the name of cow protection.
On the day of the commemoration on January 1, violence erupted as Dalit and Bahujan attendees reported being attacked by individuals carrying saffron flags. resulting in the death of a 30-year-old man from the Maratha community. A video capturing these events can be viewed here. On January 2, 2018, a local resident named Anita Sawale filed a First Information Report (FIR) against Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, identified as Hindu extremist leaders. As a result of the violence that took place as many as 22 FIRs were registered in connection with the incident, with one of them implicating Mr. Dhawale and members of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) activist group.
This violence subsequently spread to other cities in western Maharashtra. In response, Dalit organisations called for a Bandh and even organised protest rallies on January 3, which resulted in a harsh crackdown by the police. In Mumbai alone, more than 300 Dalits, some as young as 14 years old, were arrested.
Who is Shambhaji Bhide?
Bhide, an influential socio-political leader known for his following in western Maharashtra, is an 84-year-old former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to him as the “most respected Bhide Guruji” during a public meeting in 2014. Ekbote, on the other hand, is a 65-year-old former municipal corporator who was allegedly involved in communal riots in Satara district in 2003. The police claim that Ekbote now leads gau rakshak groups involved in extortion and violence, although both Bhide and Ekbote deny these allegations. Bhide asserts that he was in a different district at the time when the violence occurred.
June 2018 the assault begins on HRDs
In June 2018, Pune Police apprehended several activists, including Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit activist and co-organiser of the Elgar Parishad event, and Surendra Gadling, a senior advocate, Shoma Sen, a professor at Nagpur University, and Rona Wilson, a human rights activist. Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), they were accused of being co-conspirators in the Bhima-Koregaon incident. The police alleged their involvement in arms smuggling, funding Maoist activities, and for a plot planning to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and wage war against the country. However, it is notable that most of those targeted and arrested had not attended either the Elgar Parishad or the Bhima-Koregaon commemoration.
Two months later, on August 28, 2018, the police conducted another round of simultaneous arrests across various locations, accusing activists and intellectuals Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao, and Vernon Gonsalves of having Maoist connections. This led to legal battles and disputes within the courts. Importantly, during this period, the Pune police chose to disregard their own First Information Report (FIR) against Ekbote and Bhide, dated January 2, 2018.
International Conspiracies, Spyware: An investigation run awry?
Amidst lack of evidence, allegations of forced statements, delayed trial, and bail due to no progress in the investigation, the Elgaar Parishad has traversed a bumpy ride for the authorities.
Exposes of news of spyware used against the BK-16 came to light. Researchers in the United States discovered a connection between the Pune police and a hacking campaign aimed at imprisoned activists Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, and Hany Babu, all implicated in the Bhima Koregaon (BK-16) case.
A report from Arsenal Consultancy, a digital forensic firm based in the United States, has uncovered that the evidence presented by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was deliberately planted by an unknown individual in the computers of Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, and most recently, Fr. Stan.
The report raises serious doubts about the authenticity and integrity of the evidence collected. To address these allegations of unauthorised surveillance using the Pegasus spyware, the Supreme Court formed a technical committee on October 27, 2021, to conduct an investigation.
According to Wired, security firm SentinelOne uncovered links between hackers and the same Pune police agency that arrested multiple activists based on falsified evidence. Juan Andres Guerrero-Saade, a security researcher at SentinelOne, expressed concerns about the unethical and callous nature of these findings. The researchers strive to present as much evidence as possible to assist the victims.
What makes the case even more curious and murky was that the very first call for an alleged Maoist conspiracy related to the Elgaar Parishad did not emerge from the police but rather from a relatively obscure security think tank known as the Forum for Integrated National Security, located in Pune. Notably, Seshadri Chari, a prominent member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) National Executive Committee, serves as one of its secretaries general.
Justice delayed is justice denied
Delayed justice meant death for the 84 year old human rights defender and Jesuit priest, Fr Stan Swamy. During the hearing of his bail in the Bombay High Court (proceedings which were delayed by callous authorities leading it to be called a “death in judicial custody”), and he had been with great difficulty temporarily allowed (delayed) treatment at the Holy Family Hospital, Bandra he succumbed. His illness and death could have been avoided, wrote CJP Secretary and human rights defender Teesta Setalvad, after Fr Stan’s sad demise.
Swamy’s health had deteriorated significantly during his time in Taloja jail which prompted his lawyers to seek bail, which was consistently opposed by the state and denied by the NIA court. Eventually, following a High Court order, he was admitted to a charitable hospital in Bandra. In addition to suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he also contracted Covid-19 while in jail. The NIA, in a long list of cruelties, even denied Fr Stan a mug with a straw sipper so that he could drink water, as his Parkinsons prevented him from drinking normally. The NIA, in a callous display of carelessness, stated to the court that they do not have a straw and sipper to give to Fr Stan.
And thus, the tribal activist Fr Stan passed away on July 5 2021, at age 84, before his bail hearing. He had been on ventilator support at Holy Family Hospital in Bombay. The medical director of the hospital informed the Bombay High Court that Father Stan had suffered a cardiac arrest in the morning. The court expressed shock and grief upon hearing the news and directed that his mortal remains be handed over to the Mumbai Jesuits.
Malicious attempts leave a catastrophe for families in their wake
Families of each of the BK-16 have raised their voices against the injustice being meted out to their loved ones. They have spoken tirelessly and bravely about the losses they’ve faced and the seemingly endless targeting the state has started.
Speaking on the unjust incarceration of her mother, Prof Shoma Sen, Koel Sen states that ‘These arrests just show the true face of the state. Today anyone can be called an ‘urban naxal’. Sen also spoke about the stringent measures taken by the prison in which her mother is lodged saying that the prison authorities were not allowing letters to be delivered to the inmates (apart from those by family).
While she was imprisoned, Sudha Bhardwaj’s daughter Maaysha, wrote a heart-touching letter to her mother, “If fighting for the rights of Adivasis, fighting for the rights of workers and peasants, fighting against repression and exploitation, and giving up one’s whole life for them, is being a Naxalite, then I guess Naxalites are pretty good.”
‘One can understand that all of the prejudice that lies outside society is present in an intense form in prison’, speaks Sudha Bharadwaj to CJP after her release. She speaks about the trials and tribulations, and brutality women prisoners face in prison. Narrating about how she was shamed for having removed her dupatta in prison, Bharadwaj recalls how gender, class differences and abuse against women play out in the women’s prison.
During one height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hany Babu had contracted a deadly eye black fungal infection largely because of the poor sanitary and health conditions in prison. His wife, Dr Jenny Rowena, had to file a petition in High Court seeking medical assistance, as well as interim bail. Bail was denied despite Dr Babu being on the verge of losing his eyesight as the disease spread. Negligence by prison authorities, and callous attitude of the investigative authorities almost left him to languish.
However, while Sudha Bharadwaj may have gotten released due to a technical lapse by the NIA, Dr Anand Teltumbde is the only one among the BK-16, an exception, who has been released on bail on merits, on the basis of no evidence found that incriminated him as an ‘alleged’ terrorist as the NIA falsely claimed. The rest of the remaining of the BK-16 still lie imprisoned behind bars.
In the wake of the devastating effect the state’s attack on India’s foremost human right’s defenders, CJP asks you sign our petition to the Maharashtra CM to release all the prisoners in the BK-16 case.
Image Courtesy: thewire.in