Five years of Bhima Koregaon arrests: CDRO marks ‘black day’

PUDR highlights the plight of those ‘without bail, without chargesheets, without justice’

It was on this day in 2018 that five activists were first arrested by the Pune police in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad Maoist links and criminal conspiracy case. To mark this day, and by means of highlighting the plight of the arrested persons, the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation and People’s Union for Democratic Rights have issued press statements demanding the immediate release of all the persons behind bars in connection with the case.

TODAY marks the fifth anniversary of the arrest of Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. It was on this day in 2018 that the five activists were first arrested by the Pune police in the Bhima Koregaon–Elgar Parishad Maoist links and criminal conspiracy case.

In all, sixteen persons have been arrested as key accused in the case. The trial is yet to begin. The prosecution has filed a chargesheet exceeding 5,000 pages and intends to cross-examine at least 200 witnesses. Several of the accused persons have now spent almost five years in judicial custody without trial.

So far, three of the accused persons, trade unionist, activist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj; activist, poet, writer and teacher Dr P. Varavara Rao; and scholar, writer and civil rights activist Dr Anand Teltumbde have managed to secure bail. Another co-accused, tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, passed away due to COVID in custody in June 2021 after being incarcerated for over seven months.

To mark this day, and by means of highlighting the plight of the arrested persons, the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation (CDRO) and People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) have issued press statements demanding the immediate release of all the persons behind bars in connection with the case.  

Landmark event in independent India 

The CDRO’s press release expresses the organisation’s resolve to continue its struggle for the release of the accused and to repeal the UAPA and other “draconian” laws. It stresses that five years have passed and except for a few activists on bail, others are languishing in jail without charges being framed.  

While providing a background on the incidents leading to the arrest of the activists, the statement recalls that on December 31, 2017, around 200 Dalit and other organisations organised a conference near Pune, called Elgar Parishad, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the victory of the Mahar regiment of the British army over the Brahmin Peshwa-led armies. The conference was inaugurated by a retired justice of the Supreme Court, Justice P.B. Sawant, and lakhs of people attended the event, the statement adds.

The statement goes on to state that the participants were subject to “a targeted brutal attack” by “saffron armed militia” whose strength ran into thousands of individuals. It states that instead of arresting “well-known Hindutva terrorists” Sambhaji Bhinde and Milind Ektobe, who allegedly coordinated the attacks, the police arrested young Dalit participants under serious charges. 

In April 2018, as per the statement, police conducted raids on the homes of Kabir Kala Manch activists, the Republican Panthers activists Sudhir Dhawale and Harshali Potdar, as well as democratic rights activists Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling. On June 6, 2018, police arrested Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut in connection with the event.

The statement notes that the arrests were followed by “sensational stories”, released by the media and the police, to the effect that the event was funded by proscribed Maoist groups and that a letter had been recovered that allegedly spoke of a plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

The CDRO claims that police attempted to  divert the public attention away from the five accused persons’ arrests and the finding of the Central Bureau of Investigation in respect of the Hindutva organisation, Sanatan Sanstha.

In doing so, the “primary weapon of the UAPA” was used to attack democratic rights activists where the police arrested Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj and Varvara Rao; and subsequently arrested Anand Teltumbde, Father Stan Swamy, Hany Babu, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap.

Trade unionist, activist and academic, Vernon Gonsalves, filed a bail application at the Supreme Court challenging the Order of the Bombay High Court dated October 15, 2019, rejecting his bail pleas. The Supreme Court reserved its judgment on March 4. Hany Babu, an associate professor at the English Department of Delhi University and an anti-caste activist, was denied bail by a special NIA court on February 14, 2022. Subsequently, the Bombay High Court granted him a four-day bail on medical grounds

Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap are musical performers, anti-caste activists and members of the cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch. They were denied bail by a special NIA court on February 14, 2022 and are awaiting trial. On May 4 this year, the Supreme Court issued notices to the respondents in Jagtap’s bail plea.

The CDRO, in its statement, mentions that on July 5, 2021, Father Stan Swamy died in judicial custody due to the cruelty of jail authorities and the indifference of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the courts. The common thread between all the 16 persons arrested is “their resolve to work for the upliftment of the downtrodden and their determination to fight the attempted fascist takeover of the Indian state by the [Bharatiya Janata Party–Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] (BJP–RSS),” the statement emphasises. 

Weighing in on the significance of the arrests, the statement remarks that “the [Bhima Koregaon] case is a landmark event in independent India”. It is the first time that the government has arrested such a large number of well-known citizens and forced them to be in jail for five years, the statement avers. It adds that the case has exposed the Union government’s attempt at “snooping” on activists, journalists and opposition political leaders through the “malicious” software Pegasus.

Delving into the events subsequent to the arrests that mark the NIA’s success in “choking any criticism of the government”, the statement says that the government continues to use the UAPA, sedition laws and other laws in various cases, including suppressing anti-Citizen (Amendment) Act, 2019 protests and dealing with the Delhi riots among others.

The statement points out that the activists and lawyers arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, particularly Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Surendra Gadling, represent and are vocal for the rights of the most marginalised sections of the society, including tribals, unorganised sector workers, Muslims and farmers. It declares, “Their arrests, therefore, open the door for the imperialists and Indian corporates to loot and plunder natural resources and the labouring masses who do not have any means of legal resistance.”

In conclusion, the CDRO urges people to observe June 6 as a ‘black day’ to mark their protest against the arrest of the activist in the Bhima Koregaon case. Further, it raises three demands— firstly, the immediate release of all prisoners arrested in the case; secondly, the disbanding of the NIA for being a threat to the federal structure of the country; thirdly, the repeal of “archaic, draconian laws” such as the UAPA and Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code; and fourthly, release of thousands of undertrial political prisoners lodged in various jails across the country. 

‘Without bail, without charges being framed, without justice’

The PUDR’s statement calls for the release of all 15 surviving accused in the Bhima Koregaon case who are “without bail, without charges being framed, without justice”. Describing the five activists, the statement notes Mahesh Raut to be an anti-displacement campaigner; Rona Wilson as a political prisoners’ campaigner; Shoma Sen as a feminist activist and professor; Sudhir Dhawale as a Dalit rights activist; and Surendra Gadling as a pro bono lawyer for people’s rights.

The statement lists serious violations in arresting the accused persons in the Bhima Koregaon case, as follows:

  • Unbridled powers: The police did not have a proper court Order,  it failed to observe the necessary protocols before conducting raids in April 2018, and it held a press conference on August 31, 2018 (after the second round of arrests) despite the matter being subjudice.
  • Curtailment of rights of the accused: Despite the significance of digital evidence, 60 percent of the clone copies have not been shared with all the accused.
  • Denial of bail: Under the UAPA, bail is an impossibility as has been underlined by a recent ruling of the Supreme Court. All five activists continue to remain behind bars, it says.
  • Untold harassment: Bail applications are often caught up in judicial delays, multiple chargesheets and diverse prosecuting agencies. For instance, in January 2023, Shoma Sen’s bail application was rejected by the Bombay High Court since it showed no cognisance of the fact that the investigation had been transferred to the NIA and that the latter had shown new evidence in its chargesheet. The high court told her to go back to the NIA court, which Sen has challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds that the case had been transferred while her bail application awaited hearing in the high court and that no fresh allegations have been made against her.   
  • Punished without trial: Charges are yet to be framed in the Bhima Koregaon case. In August 2021, the NIA told the Bombay High Court that charges won’t be framed till August 2025. In August 2022, the Supreme Court told the NIA to decide on the framing of charges within three months. In November 2022, the NIA told the Supreme Court that it would take another year to decide on the framing of charges.
  • Denial of prisoner rights: The issue of denial of basic health rights in prison has been shocking and the institutional murder of Father Stan Swamy has exposed the criminal negligence of the prison authorities. The arbitrary and discriminatory attitude of the prison authorities is evident from the fact that the incarcerated activists have had to repeatedly approach the courts for basic facilities.      

Further, the PUDR statement asserts that the arrests of the accused persons in the Bhima Koregaon case highlight the setting up of a false case, as:

  • Firstly, the accused were arrested allegedly because of their provocative role in the caste violence which happened the day following the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017. While only one or two of the accused were present at the meeting, none of them had anything to do with the caste violence, a point clarified by a police official who has testified before the Bhima Koregaon Commission that the Elgar Parishad had nothing to do with caste violence. Even the chargesheet remains unclear about the perpetrators and victims of Bhima Koregaon violence, it notes. 
  • Secondly, the initial hype surrounding the case was the assassination plot, where the purported letter was shared by the Maharashtra police with the media in June 2018, and on August 31, 2018, after the second round of arrests, the police again showed the letter during its press conference. However, in the 17 draft charges submitted by the NIA in the Bombay High Court, the assassination plot finds no mention.
  • Thirdly, between February and July 2021, three Arsenal reports were published alleging the planting of evidence through malware in the electronic devices of the accused. According to the PUDR, since the prosecution has rejected the published findings, it casts doubts on the evidence gathered.
  • And fourthly, in August 2022, Surendra Gadling questioned the timing of the Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) plea to summon him in a money laundering case, which was filed the previous year against the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Gadling said that despite being behind bars for over four years, the ED sought the plea only after the Arsenal reports were published, and alleged that it was ED’s design to detain him further.

In conclusion, the PUDR raises three demands— firstly, the unconditional release of all 15 surviving activists; secondly, the withdrawal of the “trumped up” cases lodged against reputed activists; and thirdly, the immediate revocation of the UAPA and all other “draconian” legislation that impinge on the democratic rights of people.

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