On April 14, human rights activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha and scholar-activist Anand Teltumbde surrendered before India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA). The activists, both of whom are over the age of 65, were remanded to NIA custody despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Their surrender and remand mark the latest in a nearly two-year-long crackdown on activists critical of the far-right wing government of Narendra Modi.
The week before the activists surrendered, India’s Supreme Court rejected their plea for extension of the surrender date given the vulnerability of prisons to the coronavirus infection. Earlier on March 16, the court had ejected their anticipatory bail plea. The bail had been sought by the two in a 2018 case related to violence that broke out in the town of Bhima Koregaon in Pune district of the State of Maharashtra. They have also been charged with conspiring against the state.
In their final plea to the Supreme Court, the activists had said that “going to jail at the time of coronavirus is “virtually a death sentence”. But the court did not grant them any relief and asked them to surrender by April 14, which ironically is the birth anniversary of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a great scholar and politician who is celebrated for his struggles against caste oppression and for equality and freedom.
The Bhima Koregaon Case
Navlakha and Teltumbde had approached the Supreme Court after lower courts had rejected their pleas for pre-arrest bail in the case largely considered to be one of vendetta. Nine other activists are already behind bars in the case.
In 2018, the then right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State of Maharashtra had accused several activists, including Navlakha and Teltumbde, of instigating violence which occurred in the town of Bhima Koregaon.
The violence on January 1, 2018 was orchestrated by the right-wing supremacist groups in the state which attacked an annual gathering of oppressed castes and classes in celebration of the victory of a British army contingent mainly of the Mahar community against the army of the Peshwa rulers during colonial times.
The Mahars are Dalits (the former untouchable castes) and had been discriminated against and oppressed by the Brahmin (upper caste) Peshwas for centuries.
The violence in 2018 had followed mobilization by the dominant upper castes against the celebration, allegedly emboldened by the support of the BJP government. The BJP government has also used state agencies and laws to oppress all kinds of political and social movements opposed to its right-wing politics and ideology.
Meanwhile, the BJP-led government charged the people involved in organizing the annual event for conspiring against the state, among others charges, and imposed the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against them. The accused, including Navlakha and Teltumbde, are also accused of being active members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). However, Navlakha and Teltumbde, along with others arrested in the case, have denied being involved in the organizing of the event.
In June 2018, five activists – Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut – were arrested under various UAPA provisions in connection with the case. Later that year, prominent human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, poet Varavara Rao and activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalvez were also arrested.
Anand Teltumbde teaches currently at Goa Institute of Management. He has earlier taught at IIT Kharagpur. He is one of India’s most prominent Dalit intellectuals. Gautam Navlakha is a journalist and has also been a member of Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
In January this year, when the BJP lost power in the State of Maharashtra, the BJP-led central government shifted the case from the State police to the National Investigation Agency, a federal body. The new State government was not consulted on this.
Hindu Right-wing angle
Prior to his arrest, Anand Teltumbde issued an open letter in which he pointed out the role of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in his arrest. The RSS, a socio-political and paramilitary organization, is the parent of the ruling BJP.
Referring to the kind of investigation and trial, Teltumbde wrote that “this can happen literally to ANYONE. In the name of ‘nation’ such draconian legislations that denude innocent people of their liberties and all constitutional rights are constitutionally validated.”
The reference to RSS and BJP government’s role has been highlighted in several independent investigations as well. The BJP-led State government, at the time, refused to investigate the role played by Shambaji Bhide, an RSS activist and the main organizer of the crowd which started the riot in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018 despite the First Information Report (FIR) filed against him by the local police. He has never been arrested and in fact has been felicitated by the prime minister himself.
Similar is the fate of the case against another right-wing leader Milind Ekbote, founder of ultra-right-wing group called Samastha Hindu Aghadi (SHA), and believer in an aggressive form of “Hindu nationalism.” The case was never pursued seriously. When he was finally arrested after the Supreme Court’s intervention after more than two months after the 2018 violence, he was immediately granted bail unlike the other activists.
Unlike the progressive activists’ cases, those against Bhide and Ekbote are not filled under draconian UAPA. This double standard is a well calculated move to encourage pro-government individuals and groups and to intimidate and threaten the left and opposition forces.
Civil Society groups stand with Navlakha and Teltumbde
The government’s attempts to suppress the voices of dissent and threaten them with cases, however, has not stopped civil society groups, political parties and individuals from supporting the persecuted activists. Several of them have expressed their solidarity with Navlakha and Teltumbde and the others, and have criticised the government’s move to arrest them.
On April 10, several prominent activists and scholars, including well-known Marxist intellectual Prof. Prabhat Patnaik and historian Romila Thapar, wrote to the chief justice of India demanding his intervention in the matter and asking the Supreme Court to play its role as the protector of the constitution.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation issued a statement on twitter asking the withdrawal of “trumped up charges in the Bhima Koregaon case, and release of all those rights defenders who have been incarcerated under the draconian UAPA in this case.”
A large number of prominent activists, Dalit leaders and political representatives also brought out a statement condemning the arrest of Teltumbde on Ambedkar’s birthday.
The statement points out that “when even very repressive regimes around the world are releasing political prisoners in the face of the Coronavirus, great minds like Dr. Teltumbde are incarcerated.” The arrest of Teltumbde reveals “India’s deeply entrenched casteism” the statement further reads. The signatories include D Raja, Member of Parliament and Secretary of Communist Party of India.
Gautam Navlakha, in a statement released before his detention, said the “draconian provisions of UAPA are not accompanied by stricter procedures regarding evidence, especially electronic, considering the stringent punishment provided for under the Act; the procedures, which otherwise provide tighter rules regarding evidence, are instead made elastic. Under this double whammy, jail becomes the norm, and bail an exception. In this Kafkaesque domain, the process itself becomes punishment.”
Nevertheless, he expressed the hope that, “a speedy and fair trial” will follow which will enable him to clear his name, and he will be able to “walk free, having also used the time in jail to rid myself of acquired habits. Until then, “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom ‘Cause all I ever have Redemption songs Redemption songs. These songs of Freedom…… (Bob Marley)”.
Anand Teltumbde signed off his open letter saying, “I am off to NIA custody and do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes”.