Mumbai: On June 6 last year, the Pune police arrested five human rights defenders and lawyers from across the country in “a well-coordinated all-India operation”, alleging their involvement in Naxal activities. In later months, more arrests followed.
The police claimed that they have damning evidence, mostly electronic, against these rights activists for allegedly inciting mob violence on the Dalits who visited Bhima Koregaon on January 1 last year, and that these arrests were inevitable. A year later, however, the urgency in the police action seem to have fizzled out. Sixty-two hearings later, all the accused are still waiting for their bail applications to be decided upon.
Soon after the first round of arrests, the accused had moved the sessions court in Pune for bail. “These bail applications were moved even before the chargesheet was filed in the case, purely on the basis of the allegations made by the police. Since then, the applications have come up for hearing at least 60 times, but they have not been decided upon,” said defence advocate Nihalsing Rathod.
Last year saw the Maharashtra police go after human rights activists and lawyers across the country and book them under the serious Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Those arrested include Sudhir Dhawale, a writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist, Surendra Gadling, a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur, Mahesh Raut, a young activist on displacement issues from Gadchiroli, Shoma Sen, a university professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University, Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist, advocate Arun Ferreira, advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, writer Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves. While the first five were arrested on June 6, others’ arrests followed.
In November last year, the police filed its first chargesheet which ran over 5,000 pages and claimed that those arrested had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had helped organise the ‘Elgar Parishad’ of December 31, 2017, under the banner of the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan in Pune.
The police’s case is that this cultural gathering in Pune’s Shaniwarwada area, known to be a predominantly Brahmin hub, had incited Dalit youth across Maharashtra against the Bharatiya Janata Party and ‘Brahmin-oriented RSS’, leading to violent retaliation across the state. The speeches given at Elgar Parishad were allegedly inflammatory, and carried the intention of “harming the democratic fabric of the country”.
The supplementary chargesheet filed early this year accused the remaining accused of participating in the crime and in addition named fugitive Maoist leader Ganapathy as a mastermind behind the Elgar Parishad.
The police, in the chargesheet, claimed that it was relying heavily on evidence gathered from the laptops and mobile phones of the accused. While the police mentioned these allegations in their chargesheet too, a copy of the evidence has not been made available to the accused or their lawyers yet.
“These evidences, the police claimed, contained damning evidence of the accused involvement in the banned activities. But the police refused to provide these evidences to the accused even after multiple applications and requests made before the court. The court finally on May 27 ordered that a clone copy of all the electronic evidence be made available to them but for that too the police have sought time,” advocate Barun Kumar, who is assisting the arrested accused, told The Wire.
While the prosecution has maintained that they have made a major breakthrough by arresting these activists in the case and a larger network of Naxals operating in the urban spaces have been exposed, the defence lawyers have alleged that the arrests are baseless and vindictive.
Since the arrests, the police has tried every delay tactic and stonewalled the defence’s attempts to access information. Gadling and Ferreira, who have also been practising lawyers, have been appearing in person in the case. But since the police have sparingly produced the accused before the court, it has proved to be a challenge for them to defend themselves.
“At least on 40 occasions, the police have failed to get them to the court. Sometimes they have blamed scarcity of escort team and other days security reasons for not producing the accused in the court. Not producing Gadling and Ferreira has meant they can’t proceed in their arguments,” Rathod points out.
The trial court had in fact also issued warrants against the jail authorities for their failure to produce the accused. However, the problem still persists.
Not just the production, the accused have had to fight almost a legal battle to get access to law books essential to their cases. “In August last year, the court had ordered that legal commentary on the Information Technology Act be made available to the accused. Till date they have not been made available,” Rathod says.
It is a common practice that undertrial prisoners enrol themselves in some educational courses available through open universities. Gadling and Raut had tried to get enrolled in a ‘human rights diploma course’ offered by the Indira Gandhi National Open University. “This was denied under a bizarre pretext that the state would have to first study if the course also included seditious material,” one of their lawyers claimed.
And finally, when the hearing was reaching completion, the presiding judge Kishore Vadane has been transferred and a new judge took over only last month. This, the lawyers claim, will prolong the already delayed bail proceedings.
Even as the prosecution continues to drag its feet about the bail proceedings and introduce newer ways to delay their possible release, the accused have started using their time in the prison more productively. Gadling, the jail authorities say, has started a legal aid unit at Yerwada prison where he is lodged.
“He was instrumental in getting at least a dozen accused out in the past one year. Undertrials who do not have the wherewithal to fight their case have been approaching Gadling for legal advice and he has been willingly helping them draft their applications and build their arguments,” a senior jail official said.