A year after the arrests of several activists and human rights lawyer in connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident, the Bombay High Court on August 27 began daily hearings of the bail pleas filed by lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, who were arrested on August 28, 2018 along with Telugu poet Varavara Rao and activist Gautam Navlakha.
An event is organised every year on January 1 at Bhima Koregaon in Pune to mark the the Battle of Bhima Koregaon victory, in which Mahar (leather workers) community soldiers, as part of the British Army, had defeated a numerically superior force of the Peshwa Baji Rao II in 1818.
The three accused had approached the High Court after the sessions court rejected their bail application. Senior Advocate Mihir Desai and Advocate Yug Mohit Chaudhary – both representing Bharadwaj and Gonsalves, told Justice Sarang Kotwal, that the bail applications of their clients have been filed on different grounds despite the fact the reasons cited for arrest were similar.
The lawyers argued that the three accused deserve to be released as the Pune police failed to produce any direct evidence against them. They further submitted that the arrests have been made on flimsy grounds.
Also read: Bhima Koregaon Violence: A Year Later, A Sense of Fear is Palpable
The arrests were made following a country-wide raid after an Elgar Parishad meeting (an event held on December 31, 2017, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon) that allegedly provoked violence at the Koregaon-Bhima village in Pune the next day.
An FIR was filed against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote on January 2, 2018, for instigating violence on dalits. The arrests of activists were made to allegedly save the two Hindu-right wing leaders.
The Pune police on June 8, 2018, arrested Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut with alleged Maoist links for inciting riots. The police carried out searches of nine rights activists, and arrested five of them August 28, 2018. Those arrested include Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves. The Supreme Court ordered them to be place under house arrest. The apex court extended the house arrest until September 17, 2018. The house arrest was further extended by another four weeks by the court, which declined the plea to appoint a special investigation team (SIT).
The investigators have dubbed them as ‘Urban Naxals’.
The Pune police, last month, made a controversial claim that Gautam Navlakha was in touch with banned organisation Hizbul Mujahideen and Kashmiri separatists. The High Court on July 26 reserved its order on Navlakha’s plea to quash the FIR filed against him by the police.
The original FIR (first information report) registered in connection with the violence was filed by a dalit woman, who was witness to the violence at Bhima Koregaon following the Elgar Parishad event. A belated FIR was then registered following a complaint by one Tushar Damgude. The arrests of the activists were carried after the complaint filed by Damgude turned into an FIR.
The only evidence against the five accused – as argued by senior lawyers Abhishek Singhvi, Rajiv Dhawan, Ashwini Kumar, and others in a petition filed in the Supreme Court in September last year is purported “letters” leaked by the police to the media. The petition was filed by historian Romila Thapar and others seeking an independent probe into the police crackdown and subsequent arrests of five rights activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence. The lawyers representing the accused argue that the “letters” are prima facie “fabricated” and “cannot be relied upon”.
Also watch: Arrest of 5 Activists Using UAPA Another Attempt to Silence Dissidents?
The letters, according to the additional director general (law and order) of the Maharashtra police, are not verified or authenticated. “All the letters are purportedly either from or to a ‘Comrade Prakash’. It is the State of Maharashtra’s own case that ‘Comrade Prakash’ is the pseudonym of Professor Saibaba, who has been incarcerated since March 2017 (in Nagpur Central Jail), while the letters are written after this date. It means he is sending and receiving letters from jail. [There is] no forensic verification of these letters. And based on this, the Pune Police says the PM (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) is in danger of Rajiv Gandhi-like incident.”
Further, the alleged letters – argued the lawyers before the SC – were not earlier placed before any court, and they were not even mentioned in the remand application filed by the police which is supposed to mention what the evidence against the accused is. Experts in counter terrorism like Ajai Sahni have categorically stated that these letters are fabricated.
Interestingly, the letters that disclosed a conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister were recovered, but no FIR was registered.
They had said a cloak of criminality is being cast upon the arrested activists whereas, in fact, the record shows that they have been systematically targeted by being implicated in “false cases”. Lawyers allege that the activists are being targeted for standing up against the violation of human rights and specifically because they criticised the arrest of the other five persons (Advocate Surendra Gadling, Professor Shoma Sen and activists Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson) in June.
Varavara Rao, a renowned poet, has been implicated in 25 criminal cases, and acquitted in all. Arun Ferreira has been implicated and acquitted in 11 cases, Vernon Gonsalves has been acquitted in 17 out of 19 cases, the other two are pending.
The “mala fide” of the police is evident from the fact that all legal procedures have been flouted. While letters were leaked as having been recovered from the accused, the process of search, seizure, and arrest were replete with illegalities. In gross violation of the law, witnesses – who are supposed to be independent persons form the locality – are in fact Pune Municipal Corporation workers brought with the police from Pune.
All the laws were allegedly put to the winds. No procedure – as alleged – was complied with. No authorisation was allegedly taken from designated officer to conduct raids or make arrests under UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act]. The police only showed a letter from one ACP to another.
Also read: Arrests of Activists: Why Pune Police Is Aggressively Pursuing Tushar Damgude’s FIR
The arrests were made despite (Ex-Justice) Kolse Patil and (Ex-Justice) P B Sawant accepting that they were organisers of the event in question, and have been repeating it again and again.
THE BHIMA-KOREGAON INCIDENT
Around 250 dalit and Bahujan groups, prior to the commemoration, got together under the banner of Elgar Parishad and organised a conference at Shaniwar Wada in Pune, the erstwhile seat of the Peshwas, last year. The speakers included the two retired judges and Gujarat’s Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani.
A meeting was organised to combat communalism and the rise in violence by Hindutva groups, particularly in the name of cow protection. The equating of Hindutva with the Peshwas is said to have irked the Hindu right-wing groups.
On January 1, like every year, lakhs of dalits poured into Bhima Koregaon. The commemoration has a record of being conducted peacefully and the village’s residents have a history of social harmony. But this year, tensions had begun to build in a neighbouring village over the question of which community had conducted the last rites of Maratha ruler Sambhaji – the Mahars or the Marathas. The panchayat of Bhima Koregaon issued a notice asking residents to boycott the event and called for all shops to remain shut that day. As the commemoration began, it resulted in wide scale violence.
Dalit rights groups staged road blocks and protest demonstrations across Maharashtra. In several parts of Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad and Ahmednagar, stone pelting was reported. A 16-year-old dalit boy, Yogesh Prahlad Jadhav, was killed during the protest, allegedly due to injuries sustained by police caning.
An FIR was filed against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote on January 2, 2018 for instigating violence on dalits.
The Supreme Court criticised the state government and probe agencies for the slow progress in their probe against Milind Ekbote, questioning the agencies’ claims that he was allegedly ‘untraceable’.
The District Rural Police of Pune arrested Milind Ekbote on March 14, 2018. The apex court cancelled his interim bail plea after he did not cooperate with the investigating agencies, refusing to hand over his mobile phone despite five summons for interrogation.
Puja Sakat, a 19-year-old dalit witness, whose house was burnt in the violence, was found dead in a well on April 22, 2018. Her family alleged that she was under intense pressure to withdraw her statement. Her brother, Jaideep, also a witness, had been arrested by Pune Rural Police on charges of attempt to murder.
Also read: The Incarceration of Mahesh Raut
A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-backed think tank called Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS), mainly consisting of retired Army officers, released a report on the Bhima Koregaon riots in March 2018. The report absolved the Hindu leaders Ekbote and Bhide from direct involvement. Instead, it blamed the Maoists (ultra left-wing organisations) for instigating the dalit activists. It also blamed the Maharashtra Police for “apathy” and overlooking evidence.