ANUPAMA KATAKAM : August , 2020
Hany Babu being produced in an NIA court on August 4. Photo: PTI
Varavara Rao and Sudhir Dhawale escorted by the police to a court hearing in Mumbai on February 28. Photo: PTI
Vernon Gonzalves being escorted to a court hearing in Mumbai on February 28. Photo: PTIHany Babu is the latest victim of the Bhima Koregaon case, which drags on with no end in sight for the arrestees who languish in jail without bail.
HANY BABU, Associate Professor at Delhi University, is the 13th victim of what looks like a witch-hunt against anyone fighting for Dalit rights and workers’ movements. In a method that reeks of vendetta, the establishment is using the Elgar Parishad gathering held in Pune in December 2017 to persecute, arrest and imprison highly respected academics, intellectuals and activists over the past two years. The claim is that the Elgar Parishad convention was responsible for the violence at the Bhima Koregaon site on January 2, 2018. The National Investigating Agency (NIA) took Hany Babu into custody on July 28, a move suggesting that the COVID pandemic has done nothing to slow down the witch-hunt. Meanwhile, the real perpetrators of the violence remain free.
The only crime of the 13 intellectuals and activists arrested seems to be their struggles for Dalit rights. As the months pass, their release and prospects of justice look bleak. Instead, there are murmurs that many more activists are on the NIA’s radar. Defence lawyers have repeatedly pointed out that there is not a shred of substantive evidence linking the accused to the Elgar Parishad. Barring one, they were not even present at the time of violence in Pune. No material evidence has been presented to back accusations that they are linked to banned extremist left-wing groups or that they were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. Lawyers also point out that the charge sheet does not even mention any “assassination” conspiracy.
Observers say that the Elgar Parishad gathering provided an easy pretext for the authorities to go after these activists because it was organised by Dalit groups. A well-known activist, who did not want to be named here, said: “It is common knowledge that this government feels threatened by the Dalit movement and will do everything to wipe it out. This case is a pathetic sign that democracy in this country is on its deathbed. It is clear—dissent will not be tolerated. Not a single political party is willing to stick its neck out for the arrested and the protests by unions and human rights groups seem to have little impact.”
August 28 will mark two years of the second round of Bhima Koregaon arrests. The first set of arrests were made on June 8, 2018: Sudhir Dhawale (publisher), Surendra Gadling (lawyer), Rona Wilson (social worker),
Shoma Sen (academic) and Mahesh Raut (activist) were taken into custody for their alleged links to banned Maoist groups. In August that year, the lawyer Arun Ferreira, the lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and the writer Vernon Gonzalves were arrested. The Telugu litterateur Varavara Rao and the journalist Gautam Navlakha were kept under house arrest. Varavara Rao was later arrested in November 2018. Gautam Navlakha and the Dalit rights writer Anand Teltumbde, who happens to be the grandson-in-law of B.R. Ambedkar, surrendered during the lockdown.
The activists, branded as “urban naxals”, were charged under the dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which does not permit bail. They remain locked up with no end in sight to their travails. Appeals from international agencies to the Indian government to release human rights activists and political prisoners from jail at a time when the COVID pandemic is spreading through prisons have not helped.
The case of Varavara Rao, who tested positive for COVID 19, is particularly grave. He was incoherent when his family spoke to him in early July. Following fervent pleas to the court, at media conferences, and to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Varavara Rao was finally treated in a private hospital. His family has sought bail for him on medical grounds, but the court postponed the hearing three times in July. Varavara Rao, sadly, is showing little signs of improvement. Family members say they are baffled at the court proceedings and are completely helpless as they cannot travel to Mumbai amid the pandemic. His daughter, Pavana Rao, said: “Our father did not look well at all in the last call we had.”
Pavana Rao said: “They are using the pandemic to stall [legal processes] at the court level. But the pandemic does not seem to stop them from arresting people,” says. “My father has been imprisoned several times in his lifetime, but I have never seen him in this condition. He was always positive and would tell us there was hope for justice. Now he is incoherent and lost.”
Frontline spoke to a few family members and legal representatives of those arrested. The issue has reached a point where there seems to be no way forward unless the court sanctions bail. It is a hopeless situation that reflects the control and power the current regime wields.
Process becomes the punishment
In spite of substantial legal representation, appeals by India’s intelligentsia, including the historian Romila Thapar, campaigns by several human rights organisation, including Amnesty International India, and constant media (digital and print) coverage, the Union government refuses to bend. A criminal lawyer connected to one of the activists said the government in fact appeared quite “driven to persecute and punish people whose only crime is to speak truth to power”. He added: “Sadly, the lack of political support is glaring. If there was a stronger political voice, there would be some hope. But efforts by a Left party that has little strength can do very little in this climate.”
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar did demand the release of the activists when the party came to power in Maharashtra in alliance with the Shiv Sena in May 2019. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre realised the State had the power to release them, in an overnight decision it shifted all the cases to the NIA, which is accountable only to the Central government.
Susan Abraham, lawyer and wife of Vernon Gonzalves, one of the accused, said: “There is just no light at the end of the tunnel. The process becomes the punishment. We go from one court hearing to the next. Nothing seems to move, and there appears to be no will to address the cases.” Susan Abraham, who also represents Shoma Sen and Anand Teltumbde, says the government is trying to send out a strong message that no one should dare criticise the government and that the Dalit movement must be stamped out.
Commenting on the absurdity of the arrests, Susan Abraham observed that the investigation agency claimed it did not have the time to file a charge sheet or conduct investigations, and yet people were arrested in the middle of a pandemic. At a time when the government is advised to decongest prisons in view of the COVID crisis and when even prisoners convicted of murder are being released, activists are kept in jail even though there is no evidence to link them to the Bhima Koregaon incident. Varavara Rao, who was perfectly healthy when he was arrested, is now an invalid. “What does that say about our government? Furthermore, was it not a symbolic insult to arrest Teltumbde on Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s birthday [April 14]?” Susan Abraham said.
Monali Raut, activist Mahesh Raut’s sister, said: “We are worried as the COVID situation is getting grave. The courts just do not move, so our case is stuck. They work two or three days of the week because of the pandemic, so the backlog is building up. Even for the smallest request, such as a blanket or books, we have to approach the court.”
An Amnesty International India office-bearertold Frontline that not only had the UAPA become a tool for the government to keep the accused in jail for prolonged periods, but its strict bail provisions and the slow pace of investigations made release of the accused during trial virtually impossible, creating a convenient setting for indefinite detention and torture.
According to the National Crime Record Bureau, over 93 per cent of the cases under the UAPA from 2018 were pending before the courts, whereas the conviction rate was only 27 per cent. Avinash Kumar, executive director of Amnesty International India, said: “This indicates that anti-terror trials rarely result in conviction. Arun Ferreira was arrested under the UAPA in 2007 also. He was kept in jail for five years and was acquitted of all charges in 2012.”
Asked why human rights organisations such as Amnesty were not able to exert any influence, the response was: “These are challenging times for us all, and the truth is they [the challenges] are many and daunting. Like Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’”
Hany Babu is currently in the NIA’s custody. Varavara Rao is waiting for the Bombay High Court to hear his bail application on medical grounds. A verdict was expected on August 7. The NIA has opposed Sudha Bharadwaj’s application for bail on medical grounds (she is diabetic) in the High Court. Her case will come up for hearing in August. Anand Teltumbde and Vernon Gonzalves asked for COVID-19 tests as they were in proximity to Varavara Rao. The tests were conducted, and they reportedly tested negative. Every bail application by them has been denied. Shoma Sen, who has several co-morbidities has been denied bail as well. The cases of Arun Ferriera, Mahesh Raut, Gautam Navlakha, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawale’s cases are in status quo. No charge sheet has yet been filed against Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha.
There are eyewitness accounts of Shambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, two self-styled Maratha leaders, instigating the violence at Bhima Koregaon, where thousands of Dalits had gathered to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the 1818 Bhima Koregaon war in which members of the Mahar community, fighting on the side of the British forces, defeated the ruling Peshwas. Bhide was never charged for his involvement and continues to regale supporters with hate speeches against the minorities and Dalits. Ekbote was charged but released.
According to the Pune police, fiery speeches made at the Elgar Parishad convention, which was held a couple of days before the gathering at Bhima Koregaon, sparked the violence. Hundreds of activists, judges, politicians, social workers and members from marginalised communities had attended the Elgar (loosely translated, the word means “clarion call”) Parishad convention organised by retired justices B.G Kolte-Patil and P.B Sawant, along with Dhawale’s Kabir Kala Manch. The two judges have gone on record saying it was a meeting to fight the repressive policies of the Narendra Modi regime. Justice Sawant said the organisers, of whom he was one, were responsible for the gathering and not those arrested. He observed that the authorities were not interested in taking action against the judges as the agenda was clearly different.
As evidence, the police have produced 13 letters, allegedly found in laptops and residences of the accused. The letters, they claim, link the activists to Maoist groups, who they believe were the actual organisers of the Elgar, and also have leading information about the “assassination” conspiracy. The gathering was meant to destabilise the country and the Bhima Koregaon incident was proof of the plan, investigators said. By June 2018, in a pan Indian exercise, the police went after a list of activists. Defence lawyers say none of the material collected has any connection to the Elgar and the charge sheets will prove it. “The cases are built on fabricated evidence,” says one of the lawyers.