On 6th June 2018, in an attempt to unleash state terror and crush the voices of the marginalised, the Pune police, in collaboration with Nagpur, New Delhi and Mumbai police, arrested five activists for violence against Dalits in Bhima Koregoan case! The arrested persons are Surendra Gadling, an advocate and General Secretary of Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers (IAPL), Rona Wilson, Public Relations Secretary of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), Shoma Sen, Professor and Head of the English Department of Nagpur University and member of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), Sudhir Dhawale, a senior Dalit rights activist and editor of political magazine Vidrohi, and Mahesh Raut, an anti-displacement activist and Prime Ministers Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF). They were taken to Pune’s Vishrambag police station where an FIR was registered on 8th January 2018 against them for inciting violence and they were booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The bias of the state becomes all the more obvious as the main accused Sambhaji Bhide Guruji, the founder of Shree Shiv Pratisthan Hindustan and Milind Ekbote, the founder of Samastha Hindu Aghadi, who were named in many complaints and FIRs as instigators of the violence, still roam free.
Bhima Koregaon is a small village on the outskirts of Pune. This year was the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, in which the Dalit Mahar community fought together with the British to end the Brahmin Peshwa regime in the state. Hundreds of Dalits had gathered there on January 1 to commemorate the event. Right-wing nationalist groups, some carrying saffron flags, objected to the celebration, calling it ‘anti-national’. As the visitors entered Bhima Koregaon village, they were attacked and their vehicles were burnt. One person died in the clashes and several were injured. However, the police contend that Dhawale and Kabir Kala Manch members sang objectionable songs and made provocative speeches on 31st December 2017, allegedly inciting the violence the next day. Kabir Kala Manch is a Pune-based cultural group, largely consisting of Dalit youth, which uses music, poetry, and street plays to raise awareness about issues such as oppression on Dalits and tribal groups, social inequality, corruption, and Hindu-Muslim unity.
The police accused the activists of having Maoist links, and shortly after the arrests, the Deputy Commissioner of Police called a press conference where he explained the police investigation in minute detail. The accusation is mainly based on a letter, purportedly recovered from the accused, which discussed a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and was revealed by the police on 7th June, before the five were even presented in court. This has been done to prejudice the public’s mind and even influence judicial outcomes. This is also in blatant violation of the law. The Bombay High Court on 7th November 2014 issued directions regarding the extent to which, and how, the police could disclose case details to the media. Accordingly, on 30th October 2014, the government issued a circular that disallowed police personnel and public prosecutors from disclosing the names and other details of the investigation till the charge-sheet has been presented in court.
The police’s attempt was a ploy to misrepresent the Dalit mobilization as a Maoist plot and latest iteration to an oft-repeated claim, by Modi, that his life is in danger. This stretches all the way back to the encounter killing of Ishrat Jahan who was killed in 2004 while she was allegedly on a mission to assassinate Modi while he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Subsequent investigations indicated that she was killed in a cold-blood by the Gujarat police. The letter has also been questioned by even retired police officers with experience of handling Maoist communication. According to an Advocate in Nagpur, the letter itself, had it been genuine, would have used aliases, code words etc. and not real names. The leak of the letter to select media houses and BJP’s IT Cell has also raised question marks. Moreover, Indian courts have ruled earlier that merely possessing literature that espouses a particular philosophy does not constitute an offense. Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch have also questioned the arrests. “The police in India have frequently used counterterrorism laws to target critics of the government and social activists, particularly those acting on behalf of marginalized communities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
All the five persons were arrested as they have consistently worked for the assertion of oppressed and marginalised communities, spoken out against Brahmanical patriarchy, upheld peoples’ rights to land, life and dignity, and have strived for the release of political prisoners. In India, wherever people have asserted their rights, the state has clamped down on them with brutal force, be it in Saharanpur or Una, Bhima-Koregaon or Thoothkudi. The assault on the democratic fabric, through the abuse of the legal and judicial process, and deliberate efforts to build a climate of fear is pervasive. It has now become more crucial to fight the Brahmanical fascist regime which uses structural hierarchies to violently suppress different sections of people and communities.