Background to Bhima Koregaon Event
The 1818 Battle of Koregaon is of importance for Dalits. On 1st January, 1818, 800 troops of the British Army, with large number of Mahars, Dalit Community of Maharashtra predominant among them, defeated a numerically superior force of the Peshwa Baji Rao II. A victory pillar (Vijay Sthamb) was erected in Koregaon by the British, commemorating the dead soldiers. In 1928, the Architect of Indian Constitution and Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar led the first commemoration ceremony here. Since then, on 1st January every year, Ambedkarite Dalits gather at Bhima Koregaon to celebrate their victory against the upper caste Peshwa regime of the Maratha Empire, whom they see as their oppressors.
Events as Unfolded from 1st January, 2018
It is reported that Prior to the commemoration of Vijay Diwas, about 250 Dalit and Bahujan groups got together under the banner of “Elgar Parishad” and organised a conference at Shaniwar Wada in Pune. the erstwhile seat of the Peshwas. The speakers included two retired judges and Jignesh Mevani, a newly elected member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly. It is also reported that the Elgar Parishad was organised by former Bombay HC Judge BG Kolse Patil and retired Supreme Court Judge PB Sawant.
On 1st January, 2018, 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 by calling for all shops to remain shut that day. It is reported that the equating of Hindutva with the Peshwas is said to have irked the Hindu groups. A riot broke out.
The clashes that year, which left one dead and dozens injured, are believed to have been stoked by caste-based tensions in local villages. Registered on 8th January, the FIR is based on a complaint filed by one Tushar Damgude, 37, a resident of Pune’s Katraj area who alleged that “provocative” speeches, songs, short plays and slogans at Elgaar Parishad were the possible trigger for the clashes.
In March, 2018, an 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. The report absolved the Hindu leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide from direct involvement. Instead, it blamed Maoists for instigating the Dalit activists. It also blamed the Maharashtra Police for “apathy” and overlooking evidence.
On 8th June 2018: Pune Police arrested Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut with alleged Maoist links for inciting riots.
In August, 2018, five activists, including Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha were picked up in simultaneous raids across the country, the police alleged that the activists had ties to Maoists, apart from links to the Bhima Koregaon incident. Anand Teltumbde was also arrested.
On January 22nd, 2020, the newly elected Maharashtra government ordered a probe into the matter, further considering constituting a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the investigation.
On January 25 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) , a central agency governed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Govt. of India took over the case from the Maharashtra government. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deskmukh, accused the Union Government of not taking the State’s consent before taking over the case.
In October 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) released a 10,000 page chargesheet regarding the incident with fresh names, including Stan Swamy, who it is alleged conspired to take on the Government of India by means of armed militia, along with him being connected to the banned left-wing terrorist organisation, CPI (Maoist).
The FIR by Pune Police mentions the names of six people. While one was a Dalit activist, Sudhir Dhawale, the other five belonged to Kabir Kala Manch.
The NIA FIR names 11 accused, but no mention of charges of sedition, waging war against nation. The NIA FIR doesn’t include some IPC sections invoked by Pune City Police in the draft charges filed in December against the chargsheeted accused, such as section 121 (waging war against government of India), 121A (conspiracy to commit offence under 121), 124A (sedition) and the UAPA sections 17, 18B, 38, 40. The Pune City Police has, so far, booked 23 persons in connection with the Elgaar Parishad case for their alleged links with the banned CPI-Maoist.
But the FIR of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which recently took over the case, names only 11 of the 23 accused under Indian Penal Code sections 153A (promoting enmity between groups), 505-1b (intent to cause alarm to public), 117 (commission of offence by more than 10 persons), 34 (common intention) of IPC and sections 13, 16, 18 (B), 20 and 39 of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). During hearings of the Elgaar Parishad case, the prosecution had repeatedly stressed on the allegations of waging war against the government and sedition.
In 10,000-page chargsheet, NIA names 8 accused in Elgar Parishad case. The seven accused are academic and activist Dr Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hanybabu Musaliyarveetil Tharayil, three members of Kabir Kala Manch, Jyoti Raghoba Jagtap, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, and Father Stan Swamy.
With the arrest of Fr. Stan Samy, 16 persons have been arrested so far in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Names and ages of those arrested in Bhima Koregaon
- Stan Samy 83
- .Varavara Rao 80
- Gautam Navlakha 70
- Vernon Gonsalves 63
- Shoma Sen 62
- Anand Teltumbde 70
- Sudha Bharadwaj 58
- Hany Babu 54
- Sudhir Dhawale 52
- Surendra Gadling 52
- Rona Wilson 50
- 12.Arun Ferreira 47
- Ramesh Gaichor 36
- Mahesh Raut 33
- Sagar Gorkhe 33
- Jyoti Jagtap 30
Writing on this issue, the Scroll on 14.10.2020 stated, “Struggling to find evidence in Bhima Koregaon case, NIA is now resorting to outright bullying”. It also cautioned the family and the friends that if the courts do not intervene to pull up the agency, its strategy of intimidation will continue unabated, vitiating the entire trial. It further said, it seems that the NIA, as it has struggles to find any credible evidence against the activists, has resorted to outright bullying. Even though it has been nine months since the NIA took over the case, it is still relying substantially on evidence collected by the Pune Police. For example, The Print reported that the contents of the NIA affidavits opposing the bail petitions of activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and Shoma Sen earlier this year was similar to the findings of the Pune Police in 2018 and 2019.
According to police, all the arrested activists had links with the Maoists, who backed Elgaar Parishad event held in Pune. The police claimed that Elgar Parishad led to the violence at Koregaon Bhima war memorial on 1 January 2018 when thousands of people gathered here to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. From the reports and records it is clear that among those who organised this event, no one is from those who are accused and arrested and languishing in jail now. Hence, the intention of the police under the erstwhile Maharashtra government and now INA is very clear. To falsely accuse these persons of having ‘master minded’ the caste riot and try to find evidence to silence them.
The police also claimed that the 1st January, 2020 event was organised as per a plan by the banned Communist Party of India [CPI(Maoist)], to mobilise Dalit groups and other organisations against the ruling establishment. It said that inciting speeches at the event provoked the masses and aggravated violence in Bhima Koregaon. According to the police document, all these who are named and arrested are active members of CPI (Maoist).
Going further, the investigating agency shamelessly claimed that there was also a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi. It was also reported in the media that the Pune police also said at the time that they were investigating a letter intercepted during the arrests that suggested an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi by targeting his road shows. The letter, which was leaked to media outlets, did not name the PM directly, but mentioned a “Rajiv Gandhi-type incident”. It was put forth before a Pune court soon after the arrest, but subsequently not submitted to the court as evidence.
This is following the age old tradition of tyrants who first name and blame you of having got ready to carry out some crime and detain you. In this case too, those who are threatened by the life and works of the activists, academics, civil society members are following the path of naming, shaming, blaming and punishing. But the Prime Minister of India is hale and hearty and these days is busy with electioneering in Bihar. This accusation too like all the other accusations does not stand legal ground.
In contrast to the INA, those who knew these people and their families bear testimony to this fact that these are ordinary human beings; peace loving people; people who read, write and voice their concerns whenever and wherever rights of fellow citizens are violated; these are people of intellectual calibre and use this gift for the betterment of Indian society. Most of them have never been to Bhima Koregaon and had nothing to do with the caste violence that took place on 1st January, 2018.
Aloka Kujur, a tribal activist, poet and human right defender of Jharkhand who worked very closely with Stan was in tears as she spoke and stated that Stan who fought to defend the rights of the Adivasis is himself denied of his rights by this unjust government. Stan worked for the release of all the under trails in Jharkhand prisons. She was in tears when she said that if Stan is not there, the Adivasis of Jharkhand would be finished. But now he is an undertrial at the age of 83. Aloka Kujur stated forcefully that the government of India wants to dislodge and displace the Adivasis from their original habitats full of rich resources. To succeed in this it is arresting those who are opposing this move and imposing NIA in the name of national security. She called upon all present to network together for the release of Stan and all the others.
Pinaravi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala said the arrest of Swamy, who has been supporting tribal agitations for land and their rights inside the forest, was a move to muzzle the dissenting voices. He went on to state, “It’s unfortunate that tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Fr Stan Swamy was arrested and jailed. He has been working among the tribals for decades. It’s against the principles of Indian Constitution to arrest those who raise their voice against the butchering of democratic rights of the tribals”.
Facts that Need Consideration
In a webinar held on 25th October, 2020, the participants reiterated these facts:
1)Bhima Koregaon struggle is an historical struggle for the assertion of the rights of the Dalits;
2)What happened on January 1st, 2018 in Pune was a caste and communal clash, spearheaded by the upper castes against the Dalits;
3) Even before this incident, many of the activists and academics and human rights defenders were taken on custody in the name of being ‘Urban Maoists’ and in extension accused of causing security threat to the nation;
4)Following from that and just after January 1st, 2018, many more activists and academics and human rights defenders were falsely accused and arrested;
5) Proper procedure was not followed while the accusation was made, when the arrest was made and when the charge sheet was filed;
6) Some of these people are languishing in jail from August 2018. Some of them were ill-treated and were not given proper food and other basic facilities;
7) All these were directly overseen by the BJP lead Maharashtra government under the direction of Home Ministry of Government of India which has the track record of being communal, casteist, corrupt, autocratic, authoritarian and undemocratic;
8)As soon as a new dispensation came into power under the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Bhima Koregaon case without any consultation with the government of Maharashtra was shifted to National Investigation Agency (NIA);
9)From then more arrests are undertaken without any proper investigation, filing of charge sheet, hearing of those accused and arrested, etc.;
10)It is reported that earlier over 5,000 page charge sheet was prepared and now it has gone up to 10,000 pages and how many thousand pages it would take to close this case is a million dollar question;
11)All the speakers highlighted this fact that all the arrested are people of repute and have been socially committed to the cause of the poor and are academically and intellectually of high caliber;
12) An 83 year old, catholic priest who is suffering with Parkinson disease who had dedicated over 40 years of his life for the protection of the rights of the Adivasis of Jharkhand is now struggling to defend his own rights as a human being, a citizen, a senior citizen and a person with ailments. But all reiterated the fact that his spirit is very high and said that he identifies himself with all those who have been falsely accused and arrested by the vested interests of the country;
13) Similarly, many Dalit, Adivasi, Minority youth all over the country are languishing in the jails after being named ‘Maoists’ and ‘Terrorists’. Many youth due to the caste exploitation are accused of having stolen from an upper caste landlords house or farm and are also treated as undertrials even after 10 to 15 years. The participants demanded the release of all these undertrials too.
Demands of the Civil and Human Rights Activist
1) Demand is arising from all over the country for immediate and unconditional release of Stan and all the accused in this case;
2)Instead of fabricating false cases and trying to keep these in the prison, the government should proceed with legal regulations and since they are not guilty should release them;
3)Till that time provide adequate safety and security, food and health care facilities in this pandemic time;
4) In extension, it is also demanded that special courts be constituted to examine and release all the undertrials in the jails of the country.
- No Indian can afford to be complacent and say that I am not affected and let anything happen. Challenging this attitude, we invite all the Indians to come to the streets and oppose the sinister moves of the present regime;
- It is time that the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Christians and all the common and concerned citizens of India join together in one struggle against this fascist and divisive forces. This protest should take the form of a massive tsunami;
- All religions teach us Indians that in times of crisis stand united and all religions teach us to oppose all those who are spreading hate and division among humanity;
- We will work with all the social, cultural, political and secular individuals and organisations to oppose the agenda of the present regime and uphold the constitutional values.
In conclusion it can be stated that the intent of this regime is very clear. It wants to throttle the freedom of all those who oppose its sinister plans. Since in the last 6 years, all the national institutions have been decimated and made to fall line, there is no sane voice to speak for these falsely accused and arrested. This fact gets strengthened by this report that despite the clear lack of evidence from the NIA, the courts have not granted bail to the activists, some of whom have been languishing in jail for over two years. If the courts do not intervene to pull up the NIA, its strategy of intimidation will continue unabated, vitiating the entire trial. This also means all these innocent citizens of the country will be forced to languishing in jail in this crisis bound pandemic time. While the police, the judiciary and the administration bend backward to please its masters in the case of these accused, those who robbed this country of its resources, robbed the banks are enabled to fly to foreign countries. Rule of law and justice seems to be thrown to the winds in this country for the benefit of the ruling regime and its coterie. Is Indian on the path to an undemocratic, autocratic, authoritarian and even barbaric regime and age is the question that haunts all the common masses and the concerned citizens.
Prakash Louis is Founder of Indian Christians for Democracy