Cover story: Bhima Koregaon

The 16 activists arrested in relation to the Bhima Koregaon case are victims of witch-hunt

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Surendra Gadling. Photo: S. Sudarshan

Sudhir Dhawale. Photo: PTI

Mahesh Raut. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Rona Wilson. Photo: No credit

Shoma Sen. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Varavara Rao. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

Sudha Bharadwaj. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

Arun Ferreira. Photo: Vibhav Birwatkar

Vernon Gonsalves. Photo: PRASHANT WAYDANDE

Gautam Navlakha. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Anand Teltumbde. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Prof. Hany Babu. Photo: no credit

Sagar Gorkhe. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Ramesh Gaichor. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Jyoti Jagtap. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The arrests and incarceration of 16 activists, known as the BK-16, on specious charges relating to the Bhima Koregaon violence case is part of the Central government’s systematic and methodical targeting of people who dissent and fight against oppression and for the causes of sections of society that a majoritarian government has no space for.

In a pan-India operation on June 6, 2018, the Pune Police arrested Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut. They would be the first of 16 activists arrested and jailed in connection with the January 2018 Bhima Koregaon incident of caste violence. On August 28, 2018, Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Gautam Navlakha were placed under house arrest. Within six months, they were arrested and brought to Mumbai’s Taloja jail. In subsequent months, Anand Teltumbde, Father Stan Swamy, Hany Babu, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap were arrested.

Charged under the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for alleged links to banned Maoist groups and for being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the accused cannot be granted bail and have been languishing in jail with little hope in sight of being freed. In October 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) filed a 10,000-page charge sheet in which they named Anand Teltumbde, Navlakha, Stan Swamy, Babu, Gorkhe, Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap and Milind Teltumbde as conspirators linked to Maoists outfits that were planning an “urban revolution”. Milind Teltumbde is Anand Teltumbde’s brother and is an alleged “naxal operative” who is in hiding. Every victim has denied the allegations, saying the case against them is completely fabricated. Over the past few months, Arsenal Consulting, a United States–based cybersecurity firm, released hard evidence proving that someone had hacked into the computers of two of the activists and planted the incriminating documents linking them to the Elgaar Parishad event in Pune in December 2017. In spite of this, their release is not even being discussed. The pandemic and the lockdown have been a major setback to the court cases and have also, sadly, taken a toll on the health of the older victims.
Also read: Terror and the UAPA law

A look at the profile of each victim clearly indicates why the current regime feels threatened by their work. A few of the activists are connected to one another. A few of the arrests may appear random. The commonality between these activists is that they all fight for the causes of Dalits, tribal people and minority religious communities, sections that a majoritarian government has no space for. The arrests are part of a systematic and methodical targeting of people who fearlessly dissent, who fight against oppression and who are inconvenient to the powerful.

Surendra Gadling, a senior labour and human rights lawyer and general secretary of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers, represents Dalits and Adivasis and is known for fighting cases pertaining to illegal killings, atrocities and police excesses in the naxal belt of eastern Maharashtra. Based in Nagpur, Gadling is a member of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights. He seems to have appeared on the establishment’s radar when he represented G.N. Saibaba, a human rights activist and academic who has been serving life imprisonment since 2017 on charges of links to banned Maoist organisations. Gadling was Ferreira’s lawyer when Ferreira was arrested for reportedly being a naxal. In a major development, on July 6, 2021, Arsenal Consulting revealed that all 14 “letters” found on Gadling’s computer, which are what reportedly led the police to suspect him of involvement in Maoist activities, were planted there. Gadling has filed several temporary bail applications so that he can conduct the last rites of his mother who passed away last year. They have been denied.

Sudhir Dhawale, a well-known Dalit rights activist, is a staunch Ambedkarite and founder of the Republican Panther Jaliantachi Chalwal (Movement for Annihilation of Caste). Arrested in 2011 on the charge of having links with naxals, he was released in 2014. The police claim that they found the incriminating “assassination letter” among the documents they recovered when they raided his home. Dhawale is the only accused to have a direct link to the Elgaar Parishad. He helped plan the gathering around the Bhima Koregaon bicentenary celebrations as he wanted it to be a platform for Dalit leaders and organisations to speak publicly, discuss and unite on issues facing the community.

Mahesh Raut, 33, is among the youngest of the 16 activists (known now as the Bhima Koregaon 16, or BK-16). A graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, he is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship. As a co-convener of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vilas Andolan, he has led campaigns against the displacement of marginalised communities in the Gadchiroli-Chandrapur region of Maharashtra. He is known for mobilising communities to fight for land and against local mining projects and played an integral role in the campaign against the Surajgarh mining project in the area. Family members’ appeals for bail for Raut have repeatedly been denied. Raut’s sister told Frontline that it took several court hearings to even get books or a blanket across to him.

Rona Wilson is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He fought for the release of several political prisoners. Following the struggle to release S.A.R Geelani, a Delhi University professor accused in the 2001 Parliament attack case, Wilson along with Geelani founded the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners. The organisation is known for providing legal aid to people accused in terror cases and booked under the UAPA. Wilson has also campaigned for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the UAPA. The police claim they found documents on his computer that proved his links to the Bhima Koregaon incident and to the other accused.

In February 2021, Arsenal Consulting released a report that said a hacker had controlled Wilson’s computer for 22 months through malware and planted 10 documents that led investigators to supposedly unravel a conspiracy to eliminate the Prime Minister. In May 2021, the NIA opposed the plea Wilson filed to be released on bail on the basis of Arsenal Consulting’s report and said the report could not be relied upon. Even though Mark Spencer, the head of Arsenal Consultancy, stated that the tampering was aggressive and verified by the American Bar Association, Wilson’s case has not moved forward. Informed sources say that Wilson comes from a modest background and does not have the means to keep fighting this case.

Shoma Sen is a professor and head of the English department in Nagpur University and was president of the Nagpur University Teachers’ Association. She is associated with women’s rights movements and is an active member of Stree Chetna, which works on the issues of violence against women who are harassed for dowry. She attended the Elgaar Parishad. Her husband was once in the underground Left movement, which explains why the couple’s names feature in police records. Shoma Sen has worked with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights. A senior citizen, Shoma Sen has applied for medical bail several times, but the special NIA court has rejected it at every hearing.

P. Varavara Rao, 81, a Telegu poet, Marxist ideologue and rights activist, has been charged repeatedly with attempts to destabilise and overthrow the Indian establishment even though the judicial process has never been able to establish the charges. Ever since he formed the Tirugubatu Kavulu (association of rebel poets) in 1969, Varavara Rao has been considered anti-establishment. He is also a founder of the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), or Virasam, which publishes divergent political views.

He has served at least three prison sentences, two of which were during the Emergency. Among the BK-16, Varavara Rao would possibly have the closest links to naxals; however, those connections were during a time when the movement’s ideology attracted intellectuals and activists and it was not held against them. In fact, in 2004, Varavara Rao’s expertise made him a peace emissary between banned militant Left organisations and the state. Given his age and reduced public appearances, Varavara Rao’s arrest in connection with Bhima Koregaon was shocking. The police claim his inflammatory writing influenced speeches at the Elgaar Parishad. Investigators said documents referring to an “R” were found on various computers, which they believed referred to Varavara Rao. Within months of his arrest, his health began to deteriorate. Eventually, on February 22, 2021, the court granted the poet six months’ medical bail because he seemed to be slipping into a critical condition.

Sudha Bharadwaj, 60, is a practising lawyer at the Chhattisgarh High Court and a visiting professor at the National Law University, Delhi. She is the general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Chhattisgarh and worked closely with Father Stan Swamy on the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee. Over three decades, Sudha Bharadwaj has campaigned for the rights of mineworkers, Dalits and tribal people in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and is considered an authority on land and forest rights issues. Sudha Bharadwaj has applied to the Bombay High Court for medical bail, which the NIA has opposed. Her family and friends say that she suffered from several comorbidities such as diabetes and hypertension even before she went to jail. A statement her family gave to the media says that Sudha Bharadwaj has a history of pulmonary tuberculosis. The poor living conditions in jail have worsened her health, and her condition is precarious, says a friend. She has also developed ischaemic heart disease, a serious condition. In its ruling on July 6, 2021, the Bombay High Court told the state that it would not be given any more time to produce records on Sudha Bharadwaj’s case. Her lawyers hope she will be granted bail because of this inefficiency.

Arun Ferreira, 50, is a gentle, mild-mannered social worker whose name rarely comes up in connection with the BK-16. However, family members of the other victims say that it is Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves who help senior male members of the BK-16 with their physical chores and paperwork. Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a senior Jesuit and a former principal of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, said it was Ferreira who cared for the ailing Stan Swamy in jail.

Ferreira is perhaps the original “urban naxal”. Because he grew up in Mumbai’s Bandra locality, he was dubbed “the Bandra naxal” when he was arrested in 2007 on charges of being a Maoist. Ferreira was not at the Elgaar Parishad as the police claim. His only link to the case is that he had worked with the Kabir Kala Manch, one of the main organisers of the Elgaar Parishad, on a few cases. He reportedly provided a few of the other accused such as Dhawale with legal help.

Ferreira’s case is unfortunate as he had been released from six years of imprisonment in 2014 when he was once again targeted by the law in 2018. He qualified as a lawyer while in jail and is primarily fighting his own case. He once told Frontline that prison did not break him; instead, he resolved to fight for political prisoners and raise the issue of the inhuman condition of undertrials.

The only plausible explanation for his being persecuted is that the state had to show that it was being proactive about the growing “naxalite menace”. Ferreira was an easy target as he was working with the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, an organisation in the tribal belt of Maharashtra. Additionally, Gonsalves and Ferreira were relentless in their writing about the fabrication of the Bhima Koregaon case. The police claim that their names appeared on some “letters” that were discovered on the computers seized from the other accused and are therefore culpable in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy. Both of them say that the letters are fabricated and they are paying a heavy price for speaking truth to power.

Vernon Gonsalves is an academic and writer by profession. However, he is better known for his activism and social work. He is married to Susan Abraham, the well-known civil rights and labour lawyer, and the couple are always taking the lead in demonstrations and protests in Mumbai. Gonsalves was incarcerated in 2007 on charges of holding “numerous accounts” with huge funds that were purported to be used towards “anti-national” attacks. He maintained that he was completely innocent and that the accusations and evidence against him were fabricated. In 2013, Gonsalves walked out of jail as the prosecution failed to prove the charge that he had abetted war against the nation or the government. Just like Ferreira, he says his ordeal in prison only made him more determined to expose the rot in the system, and he has since fearlessly taken on the establishment. Susan Abraham says the process is the punishment in this case. She believes Gonsalves and the other have been held for their pro-Dalit and anti–right wing stand.

Gautam Navlakha, an author, a journalist and an activist, works with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and writes for Economic & Political Weekly. Based in Delhi, Navlakha is so removed from the Elgaar Parishad that his arrest in this connection appears absurd.

Activists and lawyers whom Frontline spoke to say Navlakha became inconvenient for the present regime because of his writings on Kashmir. The Bhima Koregaon incident was just an excuse. A highly respected civil liberties and human rights activist, Navlakha has been deeply involved in the Jammu and Kashmir issue for three decades. He has worked with the International People’s Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir to compile a report titled “Alleged perpetrators: Stories of impunity in Jammu and Kashmir”. The tribunal published explosive data on human rights abuses and “hypermilitarisation” in Kashmir, including facts on extrajudicial killings and the involvement of armed forces personnel in rights violations. He is also part of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

In November 2020, the jail authorities denied him a parcel that contained a new pair of spectacles as his were stolen. It took the intervention of the Bombay High Court to ensure that he finally got them. According to Navlakha’s family, his health is rapidly declining and he has been filing applications for bail.

Anand Teltumbde, 70, is the most high-profile person of the BK-16. Married to B.R. Ambedkar’s granddaughter, Rama, Teltumbde is an eminent Dalit scholar and public intellectual. He is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and has held several senior corporate positions. He was a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and at the Goa Institute of Management. Teltumbde has been critical of the current right-wing regime and the anti-Dalit mood it has created. He has written and spoken extensively on the supremist ways of the parties in power. He did not attend the Elgaar Parishad, and associates say there is nothing to link him to it. However, the Pune Police booked him on the charges of instigating the Bhima Koregaon violence and the assassination conspiracy against the Prime Minister. In spite of international pressure and a massive campaign to save him from arrest, led by Romila Thapar among others, the Supreme Court did not grant him anticipatory bail and asked Teltumbde to surrender. In the middle of a nationwide lockdown, Teltumbde surrendered before a special NIA court in Mumbai in April 2020. In an open letter Teltumbde wrote before he surrendered, he said that “the case against me was a ‘criminal fabrication’”.

Hany Babu Musaliyarveettil Tharayil, an associate professor at Delhi University, was the 13th victim of the Bhima Koregaon witch-hunt. The NIA searched his home in November 2019 looking for incriminating material, he told The Caravan magazine. The NIA arrested him 10 months later on charges that he was propagating naxal activities and Maoist ideology.

A specialist in language ideology, politics and policy, linguistic identity, marginalised languages and social justice, Babu has published several papers on the issues of caste. In an interview to The Caravan, the academic felt his work on caste could have played a role in the police seeing him as a suspect in the Elgaar Parishad case. He was also on the committee that was formed in defence of G.N. Saibaba. Babu’s health took a turn for the worse when he tested positive for COVID-19 and he began to lose vision in one eye. The court allowed him treatment at a private hospital at his own expense.

The activists Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap are an integral part of the Kabir Kala Manch. The NIA arrested Gorkhe and Gaichor on September 7, 2020. Jyoti Jagtap was taken in the next day.

The trio write revolutionary plays and songs and perform their work across the State. Gaichor has maintained that they never violated any rule nor instigated trouble; every performance of theirs is peaceful and that they have the right to do this work. Gorkhe is the bard of the group. His songs and singing are popular, especially among the youth. Jyoti Jagtap is a fiery activist who is able to hold an audience spellbound with her speeches. In 2013, during a spate of arrests of people connected to naxals, Gaichor and Gorkhe were imprisoned for alleged links with Maoist groups. They were released in 2017.
Also read: Letter by the BK-16 on Stan Swamy's death

Gorkhe and Gaichor, who are active members of the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Prerna Abhiyaan, the umbrella body that organised the Elgaar Parishad, released a video two days before their arrest in which they stated tthe NIA had called them in for questioning a month and a half ago. The police threatened to arrest them if they did not provide information about the 13 activists who were already imprisoned. The duo said they refused to submit to the police, who wanted them to make confessions that would implicate those accused and jailed. The NIA also accuses them of being in touch with Milind Teltumbde.

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