New Delhi: Eminent writers, commentators, and political leaders came together on Saturday to condemn the impending arrest of social activists and intellectuals Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Among those who addressed the media through a video conference were poet Meena Kandasamy, senior journalists Nikhil Wagle and Kumar Ketkar, chief of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) Prakash Ambedkar, economist and Rajya Sabha member Bhalchandra Mungekar, and advocate Mihir Desai, who has been representing Teltumbde in the courts.
They demanded a reinvestigation of the case, which they thought was a brazen “witch-hunt” by the BJP-led Centre. They alleged that the Pune police fabricated evidence to indict them falsely in the violence during the Bhima Koregaon protest by Dalit organisations on the 200th anniversary of the battle against the Peshwas at Bhima-Koregaon near Pune in 2018 violence. They added that the police had overlooked a simple fact that none of the two attended the event.
The Supreme Court, recently, had rejected the bail applications of Teltumbde and Navlakha who were booked under the strict Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA for allegedly fomenting violence during during the protest event. The top court gave both of them three weeks to surrender. Several sections of civil society have since then condemned the judgment as they felt there was not an iota of evidence against both the intellectuals.
Kandasamy said that the case reeks of “political vendetta”. “You clearly see instances of political manoeuvring,” she said, while pointing out that the Centre’s National Investigation Agency took over the case immediately after the newly-elected Maha Vikash Aghadi government started thinking about a reinvestigation.
She said that the BJP-led Centre had an abysmal track record in dealing with dissenters. While activists like Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh were killed under this regime, many others like Teltumbde and Varavara Rao became the victims of the politically-motivated very criminal justice system, she said.
“The use of the criminal justice system to criminalise Dalit and Muslim dissent is rampant,” she said, adding that the police also used intimidation tactics if they could not arrest dissented, pointing out the polcie raids at the houses of university professors like K. Satyanarayana and Hany Babu in the same case.
“Rona Wilson was arrested in the case without a shred of evidence. He was running a campaign for release of political prisoners. And now he himself has been put in jail,” she said.
Nikhi Wagle said that it is ironical that Teltumbde, a Dalit intellectual, will be arrested on April 14, the 129th birth anniversary of Dalit movement’s icon B.R. Ambedkar. “Today when I spoke to him, he told me that he is going to surrender on April 14.
“Not only his arrest, but the vindictive role of Devendra Fadnavis government, Union home minister Amit Shah, and Pune police should also be condemned,” the senior journalist said.
He added that the lack of evidence against the two intellectuals can be deduced from Justice D.Y.Chandrachud’s dissenting judgement in the bail hearings. “He criticised the role of Pune police, and wanted a re-investigation. But Fadnavis overlooked it and allowed action against them.”
“One may remember that the whole Bhima Koregaon case was projected as a plot to assassinate prime minister Narendra Modi. However, the police at the court did not mention it even once. The way these intellectuals have been hounded in this fabricated case is a big blow to civil rights of citizens of India. The government of India is totally anti-democratic,” he said.
VBA chief Prakash Ambedkar said that Courts did not take a “lenient” view in the case against Teltumbde and Navlakha, despite evidence that the Pune police “fabricated documents” against them.
He said the very fact that no action has been taken against the first accused in the case, Sambhaji Bhide, who is associated with the Sangh parivar, shows that the Bhima Koregaon case is politically motivated.
“Social freedom was made the main plank of the Bhima Koregaon event. It came as an uniting force for all marginalised, depressed classes at a time when BJP’s politics was clearly to divide the society, and rule,” Ambedkar said, adding that if people do not make enough noise about the arrest of these intellectuals, “democracy will be at stake”.
Mungekar echoed Ambedkar’s view and said it will be a sad day when the two intellectuals will surrender. “Teltumbde is one among the top intellectuals of the country who stood by marginalised, depressed sections of society. He has been fighting the war for social justice by making logical, rational arguments.”
“Elgar Parishad (the event at Bhima Koregaon) was not against any specific section of society. It was against an unequal society,” the Rajya Sabha MP said.
Pointing out the lack of evidence against Teltumbde and Navlakha, he said that Fadnavis sat on the case for nearly two years and didn’t allow proper investigation. “Although Bhide is the prime accused, Fadnavis unilaterally declared that he was innocent. He has not been incriminated, not questioned at all. But the person who has spent all his life speaking for the depressed sections is now being called an ‘urban Naxal’,” he said.
Mungekar added that the SC judgement was “absolutely inconsistent with the canons of justice” as there was no evidence against the two intellectuals. “The Pune police hatched a conspiracy claiming that these people were involved in an assassination plot against the Prime Minister, while they did not utter it even once in the courts. This is a clear fascist technique – to create discontent among people, and gain their sympathy,” he said.
Ketkar was also forthcoming in his critique of the Union government. “If you see the context in which this case was filed, one can see that there was rising discontent against the Modi government. So, these people were implicated in a conspiracy. The idea was clearly to create a situation of fear, and create more fear. It is a straightforward politically-motivated case to snub dissent.”
He recalled that even in the 1960s and 1970s, many young men and women were arrested for their alleged involvement in the Naxal rebellion just because books on Mao Tse-Tung were found in their houses. “They were eventually released but this government appears to be much more vindictive. All cases against the activists are a part of a larger conspiracy to snub protest movements,” the former Rajya Sabha member and senior journalist said.
Speaking about political vendetta, Ketkar said, “The NIA acted on its own in the case. It took a suo motu notice of the case. It is not surprising since a new government came to power in Maharashtra. Earlier, the Union home ministry and the state government were acting in tandem. It is clear that anyone who will challenge the government’s narrative will be arrested.”
All speakers, including Teltumbde’s daughter Prachi, spoke about their concerns about the health risks that both intellectuals would face in prison at a time when the country is fighting hard to stave off COVID-19 pandemic. Prachi said that the SC did not factor in this aspect, and both Teltumbde and Navlakha are elderly persons who carry more risks of infection.
They also said that it was surprising that at a time when the Centre had decided to release many prisoners to avoid overcrowding in jails, the SC has asked the intellectuals to surrender.
They expected the Uddhav Thackeray-led government to take a lenient view and at least postpone their surrender. Ketkar demanded that the state’s home minister Anil Deshmukh should immediately intervene in the matter to stop the arrests.
Several social forums, activists, and leaders, including Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad, have also come out in support of Teltumbde and Navlakha.
Additionally, Member of Parliament (MP) and founder of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi Thol. Thirumavalavan, Rajya Sabha MP and Communist Party of India general secretary D. Raja and former MP and senior Congress leader Udit Raj have issued a statement in support of Teltumbde.
Calling Teltumbde’s imminent arrest on April 14, which is also Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, “national shame”, the signatories have called upon Bahujan leaders to stand up and demand justice for Teltumbde.
“Let us unite in the name of Ambedkar,” the leaders said in their statement.
Teltumbde is currently a senior professor and chair of Big Data Analytics at Goa Institute of Management (GIM) and a professor at IIT Kharagpur. A renowned scholar of information technology, education and caste system, he has also been severely critical of some of the Narendra Modi-led union government’s policies and political practice. Navlakha, too, has been a critical anti-establishment democratic activist and a noted public intellectual for several years.