Bhima-Koregaon: When the Process Becomes Punishment

The fact that UAPA has a conviction rate of 1% proves it to be a fascist tool in the hand of the state to repress activists who expose the anti-people policies of the government.

Bhima-Koregaon

In recent developments, denial of the right to life and inaction of the state towards revolutionary poet Varavara Rao’s distressing health coupled with the court’s extension of another 90 days to file charge-sheet against Prof. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navalakha has further raised questions on the intention behind the entire Bhima Koregaon – Elgar Parishad case. It has been more than 2 years that 9 well-reputed rights activists are booked as accused and are languishing in jail without even a trace of trial while the other 2 accused languishing for more than 3 months without even a charge sheet being filed against them.

It was for the first time in the last two years that anti-caste activist Sudhir Dhawale and advocate Surendra Gadling- two of the eleven activists incarcerated in the Elgar Parishad case, moved the Bombay High court against ex-CM of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis, the Pune police, and two chief perpetrators of the Bhima-Koregaon violence- Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide in May accusing them of falsely implicating the rights defenders, thus, questioning the government’s intention. Their petition had also questioned the legality of the transfer of the case from Pune police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). In January this year, the NIA proceeded to take over the investigation from Pune police. After the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition assumed power last year, there were speculations regarding the formation of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) for probing into the Elgar-Parishad case. The coalition government initially objected but acceded to the takeover in February. Suggesting political vendetta, the petition further added, “The Central government, since the registration of the FIR in January 2018, did not feel it necessary to transfer the investigation to NIA till there was a change of government in Maharashtra”; the hearings are due in July.

The tiny village of Bhima-Koregaon in Pune has been the epicenter of a state-sponsored crackdown on dissenting voices. According to Pune police, inflammatory speeches given at the ‘Elgar Parishad’ event held on 31st December 2017 triggered caste violence at Bhima-Koregaon the next day. On this pretext, there was a countrywide witch-hunt with multiple raids and ultimately arrests of eleven prominent human rights defenders under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The Pune police made wildly varying accusations of them inciting the Bhima-Koregaon violence, to them being over-ground operatives of the banned CPI(Maoist) to constituting an “anti-fascist front”  to destabilize the government and assassinate PM Narendra Modi.

All these accusations have been based on digital documents in the form of letters allegedly seized from lawyer Surendra Gadling and activist Rona Wilson. The Pune police made rampant procedural violations in procuring and handling this digital evidence. There have been arbitrary mentions of numerous civil rights organizations, student outfits, student activists, opposition party members, and even Christian missionaries in these letters as alleged members of the banned party. Security experts have pointed out various discrepancies in these documents raising questions regarding their authenticity. Moreover, on close cyber-forensic scrutiny, remote access enabling malware was detected in the clone of the hard disk seized from Rona Wilson. On October 2019, it was revealed that some Indian journalists and activists including Dr. Anand Teltumbde were being snooped on via Israeli spyware named Pegasus that can be accessed only by government agencies, raising questions whether the arrested accused were also under illegal surveillance and their seized electronic devices were bugged and remotely controlled by the government.

More than two years have passed since the first round of raids, Yet the accused have been denied proper trial as well as basic rights of a political prisoner. They have constantly been denied proper phone calls, books, as well as newspapers. The situation has turned grimmer as both the central and state governments have failed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. On 23rd March the Supreme Court directed the states to decongest prisons to prevent an internal outbreak. The Maharashtra government constituted a ‘High Powered Committee’ to enlist prisoners eligible for temporary bail. The HPC has omitted prisoners charged with special acts like UAPA from availing temporary bail but has set up a special criterion for aged prisoners with co-morbid conditions.

Amidst the pandemic, on 14th April, Gautam Navlakha (68) and Anand Teltumbde (70) were forced to surrender to the NIA in Delhi and Mumbai respectively. Currently, the nine male arrestees are lodged in Taloja jail and the two female arrestees are lodged in Byculla jail. The rights activists are mostly 60+ besides being afflicted with chronic ailments making them all the more vulnerable. In the month of May alone two inmates of Taloja jail died who were found to be COVID positive upon post-mortem. The special NIA court in Mumbai has already rejected their bail applications multiple times with the NIA making callous claims like there being no circumstantial change to accusing Sudha Bharadwaj (58) of taking “undue benefit” of the pandemic, displaying court’s brazen bias. Despite poet Varavara Rao(81) being seriously ill, the NIA and the prison authorities are displaying criminal negligence. As per the account shared by Navlakha over a phone call on 20th June, he was placed in an extremely unhygienic quarantine facility along with 349 others, in a school building by Taloja jail authorities. The recent grant of a 90 days extension to NIA for filing charge sheet against Dr. Anand Teltumbde again exposes the RSS-Police-Judiciary nexus executing the strategy of delaying the process of trial.

While the law UAPA, under which all the 11 accused have been framed, has been introduced in 1967 by the Congress government and has been heavily used, the RSS-BJP government made it more repressive. After the 2019 amendment, an individual can be labeled a terrorist (earlier, only organizations could be designated as terror outfits) and their property can be seized by the NIA even before the charges framed against them have been proved in court, with no bail granted. Further, the fact that UAPA had a conviction rate of just 1%, meaning 99 out of 100 jailed people under it were innocent, proves it to be a fascist tool in the hand of the state to suppress and repress the activists and the individuals who vehemently expose the anti-people policies of the government. Historically, it has been a tool to alienate the dissenting voices from the society, torture them physically and mentally, and perpetuate an environment of fear in the society, all by legal means without even convicting the accused.

In handling the Delhi riots case the central government is following an uncannily similar rulebook. Taking advantage of the lockdown Delhi police has arrested numerous anti-NRC-CAA-NPR protesters, specifically targeting students and minorities. On the other hand, the three chief perpetrators who are BJP leaders- Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra, and Parvesh Verma are roaming free. From arresting left-oriented individuals in the Elgar Parishad case to hounding liberal activists in the Delhi riots case, the increasing fascist repression of the RSS-BJP regime is evident.

The attitude of the Pune police and the NIA has made it amply clear that their chief intention is to keep the human rights defenders behind the bars for as long as possible without proper trial simply because the evidence is so feeble that the charges would hardly sustain in court. These clampdowns serve the manifold purposes of silencing dissenters, creating a fear psychosis, and distracting the masses from the incompetency of the government. To quote Navlakha, “In this Kafkaesque domain, the process itself becomes punishment.”

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