New Delhi: Scholars at Risk Network (SRN), a prestigious international group of institutions and individuals to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, expressed its concern about the “prosecution and judicial harassment” of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, who were arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in the Bhima Koregaon case on April 14.
The SRN, which was formed in 1999 at the University of Chicago, and is currently headquartered in the New York City campus of the New York University (NYU), said that the arrest of the two public intellectuals and activists violated the “international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party”.
It expressed worry over the fact that their persecution is believed to be an “apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association”.
“State authorities are obligated to refrain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent expression and associations. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of arrests and prosecutions to punish expression and associations undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally,” the SRN said in a statement.
It said that the arrests, at a time when the world is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 2.2 million confirmed cases around the globe, means that Teltumbde and Navlakha – both of whom are older than 65 and with other comorbidities – are “at a heightened risk of infection and suffering from potentially deadly complications from COVID-19.”
The SRN also said the arrests are part of a case involving 11 other activists, lawyers, and scholars, for their both the alleged involvement in the violence that broke during the 2018 Bhima Koregaon memorial event, Elgar Parishad, to commemorate “an 1818 battle between Dalit soldiers of the British army and the upper-caste Peshwas.”
“Violent clashes, apparently provoked by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, broke out during the event, leaving one person dead,” the SRN said.
Yet, the network said, the activists were arrested under draconian acts like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, making it fairly evident that they were targeted for their dissenting “political views” and “human rights activism”.
“Teltumbde is a professor at the Goa Institute of Management, a public intellectual, and a human rights activist known for his anti-caste activism and his advocacy on behalf of Dalits (formerly the “untouchable” caste) and other vulnerable communities in India,” the SRN said.
It added that all the activists and intellectuals arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, including Teltumbde and Navlakha, have been vocal supporters of anti-caste and pro-democracy movements in India, and the case against them appears to be based on fabricated evidence.
“The case against the activists is reportedly based on purported letters collected in house raids, telephone records, a pamphlet from Elgar Parishad, and other evidence that human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and legal experts have called into question for their veracity and relevance,” the SRN.
It added that “two former High Court judges”, the primary organisers of the Elgar Parishad at Bhima Koregaon, “have publicly stated that most of the detained activists were not involved in the event” but “authorities have reportedly refused to take the judges’ statements.”
Speaking about the repeated incidents of harassment that Teltumbde has had to face, the SRN said, “While Teltumbde was not initially arrested alongside his co-defendants, he was reportedly subjected to repeat surveillance and harassment, including a police raid on his house in August 2018 and the hacking of his mobile phone, discovered in October 2019. On February 2, 2019, police in Pune attempted to arrest Teltumbde at an airport; however, a sessions court in Pune ordered his immediate release.”
Scores of civil society members and prominent citizens have already deemed the charges against the activists and scholars as “politically motivated”. However, the Supreme Court forced their arrests when, on March 16, 2020, it rejected the anticipatory bail pleas of both Teltumbde and Navlakha and ordered them to surrender by April 14.