Please Release Them, Let Them Go: Calling for Justice for the Bhima-Koregaon-16

The country is going through dark times as every democratic institution is being systematically dismantled and destroyed. Even as the 16 accused in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy languish in jail, let us not forget that they believed in the idea of India, in the Constitution, in the rights of the excluded and the exploited. They were voices of democracy and of dissent – and because of that they are paying the price today, writes FR. CEDRIC PRAKASH


IT was the virtual “midnight knock”! The irony was that the knock took place in broad daylight, and expectedly in a blatantly unjust, uncivilised and unconstitutional manner. On June 6, 2018, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson were arrested from their residences in various parts of the country. The arrests of others then continued in a phased manner:

*On August 28, 2018, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves

*On April 14, 2020, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha

*On July 28, 2020, Hanybabu Tarayil

*On September 10, 2020, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, and (the next day) Jyoti Jagtap – all three from the Kabir Kala Manch were arrested from Pune

*Finally, on October 8, 2020, Fr Stan Swamy was arrested from Ranchi.

Three Years’ Too Long

It is three years now since the first arrests in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case were made. Today, 16 (referred to as the BK-16) of the country’s committed citizens continue to languish in jail, with bail being denied to them and with absolutely no signs of any trial beginning.

They are no ordinary men and women; they are trade unionists, human rights activists, academics, lawyers, intellectuals and artists. Their crime? To take sides with the poor and the marginalised, to be a voice for the voiceless, to fight for the rights of the Adivasis and Dalits, the women and children, the workers and farmers. 

They have fought battles in courts; helped organise people to fight for their legitimate rights; consistently exposed the nexus between politicians and their powerful rich friends and above all, been working for a society that is more just, equitable, free, fraternal, and humane. In doing so, they have also raised the hackles of the BJP, RSS, and their ilk, who obviously have not taken things lightly.

The arrests were preceded by interrogations and investigations; then came the raids! During the raids, the police seized their laptops, mobile phones, pen drives, CDs, documents and apparently whatever they could lay their hands upon (the tragedy was when they seized Fr Stan’s personal belongings – they consisted of practically nothing! With media posting those photos – the joke actually was on the fascist clowns!).

Fabricated Charges

All 16 were charged under provisions of the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and 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) and 117 (abetting commission of offence by the public or by more than 10 persons). They have also been charged under Sections 13 (unlawful activities), 16 (terrorist act), 18 (conspiracy), 18B (recruiting of any person or persons for terrorist act) 20 (being a member of a terrorist gang or organization) and 39 (offence relating to support given to terrorist organisation) of the UAPA. All were fabricated charges – without the slightest shred of evidence.

Besides, fairly recently, a US-based digital forensic analyst in a report has provided significant information of how so-called “electronic evidence” was planted in the computer of Rona Wilson, one of the 16.

All these arrests apparently have their “roots” in a mass rally of Dalits, who assemble every year on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon, a small village about 30 km north-east of Pune. The massive rally brings together lakhs of Dalits from all over the country and commemorates the historic victory of lower-caste Mahar soldiers in the British army over the Brahmin Peshwa-led Maratha Empire in 1818. And 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle.

Historical View

In the run-up to the rally, a coalition of 260 non-profit organisations held on December 31, 2017, an event called “Elgar Parishad” at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada. This was the seat of the Peshwai, the Brahmin rulers of the Maratha Empire who rigidly enforced caste discrimination. The Elgar Parishad featured several well-known personalities such as  politicians Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mewani and Dalit rights activist Radhika Vemula.

The Marathas and some of the upper castes resented the Dalit gathering and apparently, Hindutva leaders like Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, made provocative, anti-Dalit speeches a few days before the event.

Large-scale violence broke out in some parts of Maharashtra from  January 1-2, 2018.  On January 3, the police filed cases against Ekbote and Bhide for allegedly instigating the violence on Dalits. However, while Ekbote was released on bail soon after being arrested in March, Bhide has not yet been arrested, despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest. Bhide is close to several RSS leaders, including PM Narendra Modi.

Tables Turned

Strangely, the tables soon turned–very obviously with pressure from “higher-ups” and the victims became the perpetrators. 

In June 2018, five activists (as we mentioned earlier), mainly organisers of the Elgar Parishad were arrested for apparently “inciting the violence” and this was followed by the arrest of 11 others till Fr Stan’s arrest on October 8, 2020 (most of these latter are not connected with the Elgar Parishad or for that matter with Bhima-Koregaon).

During the past three years, there has been national and even international outrage at this unconstitutional and repressive act by the government and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Civil society,  including intellectuals and academics, have written statements, signed petitions, held press conferences and protest rallies in different parts of the country and the world. On June 11, 2021, hundreds of concerned citizens joined family and friends of the BK-16 in a path-breaking webinar “Campaign Against State Repression”, demanding the immediate release of those incarcerated and the repeal of UAPA.

Writing a powerful op-ed in The Indian Express (June 10, 2021) under the title “When Justice is Incarcerated”, well-known human rights worker and author Harsh Mander said: “Three years later, the trial against them has still not commenced. The state has succeeded in misusing the law — with the complicity of all institutions of criminal justice — to confine behind bars the BK-16 accused, without any opportunity for either bail or to prove their innocence. The flimsy evidence marshalled against the accused rests on some alleged emails, but independent agencies contest that these are malign insertions through malware.

“The experience of the BK-16 accused reveals the ease with which it is possible for the executive to smear reputations, and imprison indefinitely without bail or trial, people who dissent and organise struggles against state policies. During the pandemic, when governments globally have decongested prisons, the state has been steadfast in its opposition to bail for these pre-trial political prisoners, even after they displayed worrying signs of life-threatening illness.”

Mander not only voices the plain truth, but also the concerns of millions of Indians and others. He also exposes the brutality and lack of humanity that is clearly the DNA of a fascist regime that brooks no dissent.

Illegal Act

Already in 2018, noted historian Ramachandra Guha lashed out at the government over the arrests of activists, calling it a “brutal, authoritarian, oppressive, arbitrary, illegal act by the Maharashtra police”. Guha categorically stated that “corporate cronies of the ruling government were bent on grabbing tribal land, forest and mineral resources. This is absolutely chilling. This is being done to not only intimidate and silence those detained but also those who could potentially come to their legal rescue. The courts must intervene to stop this persecution and harassment of independent voices. Sudha Bharadwaj is as far from violence and illegality as Amit Shah is close to those things. As a biographer of Gandhi, I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too”.

Going further, he said, (those arrested) “are people who represent the country’s disenfranchised and the dispossessed. What is happening in the Adivasi heartland of India… it is murder, rape, physical, natural, social… and these were the lawyers representing the tribals…  and their arrest leaves those dispossessed unrepresented in court”.

International Plea

In a letter dated June 10, 2021, and addressed to the prime minister, the chief justice of India and others, as many as 57 top international personalities, including Nobel laureates, academics, human rights defenders, lawyers, cultural personalities and MPs of European countries urged them to ensure immediate release of human rights defenders in India “into safe conditions”. Signatories to the letter include Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (Nobel Prize for Literature 2018) and Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka (Nobel Prize for Literature 1986), former president of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention José Antonio Guevara-Bermúdez and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

These eminent personalities have clearly stated in their letter that the Indian government and authorities should show compassion and responsibility in the current Covid-19 emergency and release them given the spread of the pandemic in Indian prisons.

Their constitutional right to live and die in dignity needs to be guaranteed under the present circumstances, given that legal recourse takes a long time and all of the arrested are under pre-trial detention, they add.

This appeal follows an initiative of the International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India (Insaf India), a collective of diasporic Indian academics and professionals from around the world, as well as numerous prominent lawyers and MPs from Germany, the UK, Spain, Ireland, and other countries.

The open letter said that “among the thousands in India arrested for political offences is a group known as the Bhima-Koregaon (BK)-16: four academics, three lawyers, two independent journalists, a union organizer and social activist, a poet, three performing artists, and a Jesuit priest. A majority of them are senior citizens, some of whom have comorbidities that render them particularly vulnerable. All are human rights defenders with a record of writing, speaking and organizing for the rights of workers, minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis through peaceful and constitutional means”. Their letter ends by saying that “with this letter, we call on the Indian authorities to take urgent and prompt action:

  • Release the BK-16 from overcrowded and unsafe prisons immediately.
  • Allow them to be cared for by their kin.
  • Show compassion and responsibility in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.
  • Ensure them their constitutional right to live and die in dignity”.

Dark Times

The country is going through dark times: every single democratic institution is being systematically dismantled and even destroyed. Constitutional and other independent authorities, which were well known for their objectivity and impartiality in the past, have now become caged parrots; this is so obvious, be it the case of the CBI, the NIA and for that matter, the Election Commission.

The less said about mainstream media the better: they have lost their morality and become wholly lapdogs. The ruling regime has thrown all propriety to the wind with its brazen corrupt, communal, insensitive anti-national, and unconstitutional ways.

But thank God for the BK-16. The system that has incarcerated them is brutal, rotten and unjust. They suffer today in jail because they believed in the idea of India, in the Constitution, in the “We the People”, in the rights of the excluded and the exploited. They were voices of democracy and of dissent – and because of that, they are paying the price today.

We all need to be eternally grateful for these heroes, these real freedom fighters of today’s India. We, who are not yet in prison, are called to be more visible and vocal: to keep the torch which they have given us, burning. The struggle for their immediate freedom, for justice for all, and for the complete repeal of the UAPA must continue relentlessly. We cannot be complacent or think that what has happened to the BK-16 does not concern us. Our engagement today may guarantee a more liveable India for future generations. Deep down we know that we will overcome: because JUSTICE and TRUTH always triumph – till then, the struggle will continue.

(Fr. Cedric Prakash is a human rights and peace activist and writer. The views expressed are personal.)

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