This article is written by Shruti Yadav, from Jagran Lakecity, Bhopal. This article talks about the Bhima Koregaon case.
Dalit groups commemorated the Bhima-Koregaon battle’s bicentenary near Koregaon-Bhima in January 2018, where violence erupted. Bhima-Koregaon is a small village in the Pune district of Maharashtra, linked with a crucial facet of Maratha history. On January 1, 1818, the Peshwa army, headed by Peshwa Bajirao II, was conquered by a Dalit-dominated British Army in Koregaon. The battle won a customary stature for Dalits. The victory is considered a successful retaliation of the Mahars, a Dalit community, against the injustices and constant oppression perpetrated by the Peshwas. A pillar, called the Vijay Sthamb (victory pillar), was established by the East India Company to commemorate those who fought for them in the battle. At this site of the pillar, on January 1 every year, numerous people of Dalit descent come to pay their respect. On January 1, 2018, the celebration took a violent turn. Many people were arrested for instigating the violence and spreading communist propaganda. The mishandling of the case and chronicles of the violence that occurred on that day are mentioned further in the article.
Bhima-Koregaon battle and the case
In Maharashtra and other parts of the country, the Dalit community and other backward classes organise Mahar every year, at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 to honour 200 years of courage, bravery, and sacrifice of their predecessors. It is a place that has been appeased challenging by contending narratives of Dalit affirmation against Brahminical tyranny. The battle has since come to be perceived as a “symbol of Dalit pride”. Hence, celebrated by the Dalit every year. The battle saw the forces of Maratha ruler Peshwa Baji Rao II clash with those of the British East India Company, which included most soldiers belonging to Mahar at Bhima Koregaon. Mahar recounts this battle as an act of resilience against the oppression by Peshwa Baji Rao II based on their identity and caste when they extended their assistance to the Peshwa. The Mahars then accepted the Britisher’s offer and fought the battle on their account. The soldiers of the Peshwa were beaten, and it was the first memorable step towards making India devoid of caste and into a democracy.
What happened on January 1, 2018
The 200th year of the battle was commemorated in 2018. Therefore, there was a more extensive gathering at Bhima Koregaon in contrast to preceding years. There were violent altercations between Dalit and Maratha groups during the celebration, which led to the death of an individual and injuries and damages to many others. The start of the animosity between the groups was seen simmering on December 29, 2017, when Govind Gopal Mahar’s memorial was found destroyed. The incident was discussed in the Elgar Parishad, a major public conference organised by Dalit and Bahujan groups on December 31, 2017. Police have claimed that provocative speeches were made at the conference, which led to violence the following day.
Violence erupted when some groups bearing saffron flags joined the scene, according to reports. Police probe into the episode led to the imprisonment of several activists whom they alleged had “Maoist links”. The police asserted that they financed the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017, where provocative speeches led to violence.
An FIR filed in connection with the clash had alleged that Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) activists supposedly made provocative speeches instigating the crowd towards violence at Koregaon Bhima in the district. The complainant had attested that the “provocative” speeches and displays manifested during the entire programme elicited contempt between two groups. The Pune police had filed a case against Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote and another right-wing leader Sambhaji Bhide. Both were indicted of orchestrating the clash.
The Pune police recorded a charge sheet and another supplementary charge sheet in the case on November 15, 2018, and February 21, 2019. The arrests were made in a phased manner. Originally in June 2018, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson were arrested. Subsequently, in August 2018, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves were detained. The National Investigation Agency took over the case earlier this year in January. It went on to arrest academicians Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha on April 14, 2020. In July, another academician and anti-caste activist, Hanybabu Tarayil, associate professor in English, Delhi University, was detained. All of them have been charged under provisions of anti-terror law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections:
- 153 A (promoting enmity between groups),
- 505 (1)(b) (with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public).
- 117 (abetting commission of an offense by the public or by more than ten persons).
They have also been charged under:
- Section 13 (unlawful activities),
- Section 16 (terrorist act), 18 (conspiracy),
- Section 18B (recruiting of any person or persons for the terrorist act),
- Section 20 (being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation) and
- Section 39 (offence relating to support given to terrorist organisations) of the UAPA.
Many of these imprisoned activists have been languishing in jails for about two years now without a trial. However, Milind Ekbote, president of Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Pratishthan and Sambhaji Bhide, a man affiliated with the RSS and founder of Shiv Pratishthan, who was initially charged for causing the violence, was set free without any drastic action. Initially, Ekbote was arrested. He was later released on bail. It is pertinent to note that Bhide was never arrested by the police.
Failure of investigation authorities in the case and human rights violations
Three years have passed since the violent clash at Bhima Koregaon village, Pune, where the police swiftly insisted the violence was instigated by activists and human rights lawyers, some of whom had been a part of the Elgar Parishad, a programme organised by Dalit and human rights associations in Pune a day prior to the Bhima Koregaon celebration.
The police quickly connected the programme to Maoists and detained 16 human rights defenders, lawyers and scholars. Moreover, every step of the way, they infringed the law and the accused’s rights. The injustice that occurred with various accused in the case is mentioned below.
- Unfair investigation: On March 9, 2018, investigating officer Shivaji Pawar applied to the Pune first-level magistrate for a search warrant, claiming that the defendant had documents linking them to the Koregaon Bhima frenzy and needed to be seized. He also insisted the accused would not cooperate with the police if they sent them a notice under Section 91 of the CRPC, without, of course, ever sending them such a notice. The court rejected his request on the grounds that it could not assume that the defendant would not cooperate. Almost a week prior to this, Pawar did a similar investigation but was abandoned. Although the court refused to issue a search warrant, Pune police broke into the Nagpur residence of legal professional Surendra Gadling and the residences of activists Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawle in Delhi and Mumbai on April 17, 2018, and confiscated their personal belongings. On August 28, 2018, the Pune police again raided the home of poet Varvara Rao in Hyderabad and the home of lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Vernon Gonzalvez and creator Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, again without permission or registration.
- The case of Stan Swamy: Last year, Father Stan Swamy, a tribal rights activist arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case, passed away at a private hospital in Mumbai. The 84-year-old Jesuit priest, who had been hospitalized on May 30 following the directions of the Bombay High Court, was put on ventilator support on Sunday. His lawyers had moved the Bombay High Court, seeking an urgent hearing regarding his medical bail plea. Father Stan Swamy was a Jesuit priest and a tribal rights activist based in Jharkhand. He has been working in the state for more than three decades on different Adivasi issues such as land, forest, and labor rights. The NIA had arrested Swamy from Ranchi on October 7 last year and brought him to Mumbai. The NIA did not seek his custody. Swamy was sent to judicial custody till October 23, 2020. The NIA also named Swamy in a supplementary charge sheet along with seven others. The NIA interrogated Swamy many times, including in the Jesuit house in Bagaicha. The NIA conducted searches at his home, saying that he had ties to Maoist groups. According to the charge sheet, he was a CPI (Maoist) cadre who was actively involved in the organization’s operations. He was also said to be in contact with other cadres and to have received money from them. The NIA further alleged that he was the convenor of the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC), a frontal organisation of the Communist Party of India (CPI) (Maoists). Incriminating papers, literature, and propaganda were also retrieved from him, according to the NIA.
Swamy had denied the charge, saying he was being targeted for his work related to tribespeople’ caste and land struggles in Jharkhand. He said that the NIA placed several extracts before him, claiming they were taken from his computer, implicating his connection to Maoists. “I told them all these were fabrications stealthily put into my computer, and I disowned them,” his statement said. He also denied allegations of Maoist links and said that he has never been to Bhima Koregaon in the video. “I would add that what is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals and others who stand for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits and the marginalised and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted,” he had said. Prison authorities were accused of violating human rights for denying him access to basic amenities such as a straw and sipper – a plastic drinking beaker with a spout or straw – which he needed to drink water because of hand tremors caused by Parkinson’s. In his last bail hearing in May, Swamy had predicted his death. “I would rather suffer, possibly die here very shortly if this were to go on,” he told the judges.
- The case of Gadling: Gadling developed a heart condition while in custody and spent 34 days in Nayar Hospital in Pune. However, the police did not allow his wife to reach him. She sat outside the room every day as she was only allowed to look at her husband from a distance. Gadling’s treatment costs are borne by his wife, although this is the responsibility of the state. The police also refused to disclose Gadling’s medical records to his wife. When she tried to get them through the RTI request, the hospital strangely told her that they could not give other people’s medical records.
- Lack of following due procedure: According to the regulation, in a case wherein the Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act is applied, it ought to be heard through a special court. If a specific court isn’t available, then it may be heard through a regular court. In this case, the case went to a sessions court, and the charge sheet was filed in spite of Pune having a special NIA court. The law additionally states that the charge sheet needs to be filed directly in a sessions court, however, the Pune police did. Technically, the charge sheet is incomplete even after a long duration due to the fact that the police have nevertheless not provided the replicated images of the accused’s hard drives and other devices.
- The case of Varvara Rao: Varvara Rao’s family and lawyers had to do their best to treat him with urinary tract infections and dementia. Rao’s health began to deteriorate in May. The police admitted him to Jinjiang Hospital and quickly returned to prison before they completed his medical examinations. His family did not receive his medical report. When his condition worsened in July, he was sent to the hospital again. It was later discovered that he was positive for Covid, and he was taken to St. George Hospital. When the National Human Rights Commission intervened, he was admitted to the Nanavati Hospital. However, in August, the state sent him back to prison without notifying the court or his family. After two months of legal battles, he was sent back to Nanavati Hospital.
- Unfair treatment by prison authorities: The family members of Anand Teltumbde, Surendra Gadling and Sudhir Dhawale have approached the Bombay High Court to challenge the permission granted by a special NIA court to transfer the three from Taloja Jail in Mumbai to any other “unspecified prison” in Maharashtra. The jail authorities recently applied to transfer the male defendants in the case to other facilities. The defendants claim that the NIA court heard this application without them being aware of it. In their petition, the accused’s family members claim that they were not informed of the ruling. They claimed they were neither provided with notice nor allowed to be heard in the case. The petitioners claimed that the prison administrator sought to segregate the defendants by transferring them to different jails. Their plea further states that the former superintendent’s action was “an act of victimization for having demanded their rights as prisoners”. The petition highlighted occurrences of violation of their rights by the prison officials, especially taking advantage of the pandemic.
With one gone, there still remain 15 other citizens on whose imprisoned nature this diabolical malice will be continued. Stan Swamy’s death is a reflection of that injustice. The judiciary must see it as a reminder that there are 15 others, some with frail bodies or perhaps some with broken spirits, imprisoned and adjudicated without a trial. The proper investigation has not yet been conducted and trials are still going on delaying justice to the innocents persecuted and failing to catch the real perpetrators behind the violence. Since June 2018, 16 citizens of this country have been detained and indicted under numerous sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror legislation that excludes the fundamental constitutional rights of those incarcerated.
This arbitrary “trial-without-a-trial” objective is no more extended justice, where the guilty are executed, and the innocent are liberated. It transforms the law into a tool of continued annihilation of citizens who are thinking, challenging and a little more dissenting than what the state is compliant to endure. “Trial by process” is the political and organisational reasoning of the UAPA. The present customary deployment of UAPA, collectively with other exceptional laws, is intended to indicate the ability of the Indian state. It is meant to “educate” those who talk back, oppose or challenge the workings of the country, just how frail the structure of their constitutional rights is and just how socially disposable their enfranchised lives are. This exceptional law may have been normalised or deemed “legal”, but it is not lawful. Exceeding the statute books and judicial declarations is the basis of the law, which still begs for a response. The right way to mourn Stan Swamy’s death is to persist in asking that question.
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