Mumbai: Observing that there is “no proof or any material” to show that 73-year-old civil liberties activist and academic Anand Teltumbde had made international visits sponsored by the banned CPI (Maoist) organisation, the Bombay high court on Friday, November 18, granted him bail.
Teltumbde, who was arrested on April 14, 2020, however, will not be released immediately.
The National Investigations Agency (NIA) soon after the order moved the court seeking time to appeal before the Supreme Court. A division bench of the Bombay high court Justices Ajey S Gadkari and Justice Milind N Jadhav reserved its verdict for a week.
Teltumbde, one of the 16 persons to be arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, is the first to be granted bail on the grounds of merit. Before him, the courts have granted bail to two other persons –academic and activist Sudha Bharadwaj, and 82- year-old Telugu poet Vara Vara Rao.
While Bharadwaj was granted a “default bail”, Rao was released on medical grounds. Both have since had to live within Mumbai jurisdiction, as laid down in the bail condition. Another accused person, 84-year-old Jharkhand-based tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, died in judicial custody on July 5, 2021, following prolonged illness and alleged state negligence in making medical care available on time.
The significance of Teltumbde’s bail order
The order in Teltumbde’s case is significant considering that it is for the first time that the courts have dealt with the merits of the allegations leveled against him and others, leading to prolonged incarceration for close to four and half years.
In the charge sheet, Pune Police and subsequently the NIA (which took over investigations in January 2020) have claimed that as many as 10 organisations are being used as frontal organisations by Maoists to “further its agenda”. Among them is the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an Andhra Pradesh-based organisation, banned in 2012, which has been named one of the frontal organisations. At the time of its ban, Rao was the president of the organisation’s central committee.
In the charge sheet, the agency accused Teltumbde of attending a meeting in 2012 where he allegedly “vehemently espoused the cause of reinvention of Dalit Militancy as well revolutionary resurgence under the flag of CPI (Maoist)”. This meeting was held before the organisation’s ban.
Besides this, there are at least nine other serious allegations leveled against Teltumbde. According to NIA, Teltumbde was one of the “nimantrak” or inviter of the Elgar Parishad event, organised in one of the Brahmin hubs of Pune, Shaniwarwada, symbolising the “end of the Brahmin dominance”.
The event, organised on the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle had many supporters, including the retired Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant and retired Bombay high court judge B.G. Kolse Patil.
Senior advocate Mihir Desai, representing Teltumbde, pointed to his client’s initial agreement to be a part of the event following a phone call from Sawant. However, on receiving the invitation, Desai argued that Teltumbde disapproved of the context in which the event was organised.
Teltumbde’s stand was published in The Wire on January 3, 2018, where he had called the struggles of Bhima Koregaon a “myth”, leading to a severe backlash within the anti-caste community. Teltumbde had travelled to Pune on December 30, but to attend a friend’s son’s wedding, Desai told the court.
Teltumbde, who has authored 26 books and innumerable articles, is a highly acclaimed intellectual both in India and internationally. His international visits, however, were construed by the investigating agency as an excuse for the “exchange of literature on ideology, training and work strategy of CPI(Maoist) with International Communist Organisations”.
Teltumbde made over 64 travels between July 11, 2016 and March 5, 2020, and these travels since were not funded by the Goa Institute of Management, where he worked as a senior professor. The NIA, in the charge sheet, has deduced them to be Maoist- funded trips. The Bombay high court, in the bail order, points out that “Teltumbde had travelled for delivery of addresses, lectures, speeches, as a resource person, etc., to renowned Institutions like the London School of Economics, Harvard University, MIT, Michigan University, Paris, Budapest and various universities and reputed institutes in India like IIT Madras, IIT Hyderabad, IIM Ahmedabad”.
The fact that Teltumbde is the elder brother of slain Maoist leader Milind Teltumbde has also been made one of the grounds for Teltimbde’s arrest by the NIA. The NIA claimed that Teltumbde was in touch with Milind when the latter was visiting “urban areas” and that Teltumbde would “share the literature of Maoist ideology collected by him during international conferences”. Desai vehemently opposed this allegation and argued that “it is far from remote to consider even such a case without any material proof against Teltumbde”.
To this, the court points out that “Teltumbde is a man of intellectual prominence in the field of Dalit ideology/movement and merely because he is the elder brother of wanted accused Milind Teltumbde who had gone underground 30 years ago to espouse the cause of CPI(M) cannot be a sole ground to indict the Appellant and link him to the activities of CPI(M).”
The NIA claimed that Teltumbde, among many international trips, had also visited the Philippines, Peru and Turkey. Teltumbde vehemently denied the charges and sought for this passport to be checked to verify the NIA’s claims.
The NIA has alleged that there were letters to show Teltumbde was in touch with his underground brother. The court, however, observed, “On reading the letter as it is we cannot presume that Appellant is an active member of CPI(M) without there being any other material to corroborate and support such a theory.”
Of the many letters that the Pune Police (and later replicated by the NIA) had claimed to have “recovered” from the computers of Teltumbde’s co-accused Rona Wilson, there was mention of the name “Comrade Anand” in a letter. The NIA while had deducted the meaning of the name as that of Teltumbde, the court observed that on reading the letter, there was nothing to suggest Teltumbde’s complicity and “this letter prima facie cannot be presumed that Appellant is actively involved in the work of the CIP(Maoist)”. The court also pointed out that the prosecution failed to show the nexus and link of the appellant (Teltumbde) with the present crime or any specific overt act.
It is important to recall that these letters were splashed across many news channels, vitiating public opinion against the human rights defenders arrested in the case. Many independent organisations have already raised questions over the credibility of these letters and have also suggested that the material evidence was allegedly planted in the laptops of Wilson and another accused and human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling.
Teltumbde’s membership of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) has also been now accused of involvement in Maoist activities by the NIA. The agency claims that CPDR too is a frontal organisation. Desai argued that attending meetings doesn’t automatically translate into active participation or closeness with a killed Maoist member. Desai argued that Teltumbde had not been in touch with his brother for over 30 years. The prosecution in the chargesheet has relied on two witnesses to justify its allegations. Desai opposed it in the arguments.
The bail, the court observed, could be executed on furnishing of Rs. 1 lakh personal bond. The court has also directed Teltumbde to not leave Mumbai and if he wished to travel anywhere in India, it could be only with the court’s permission. His passport too has to be submitted to the Special NIA court.