The Dalit scholar and academic Anand Teltumbde and the civil rights writer Gautam Navlakha surrendered before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on April 14 as per the orders of the Supreme Court. While Teltumbde came to the NIA office in Mumbai, Navlakha went to the agency’s premises in New Delhi.
Both Teltumbde and Navlakha will join the 10 other activists who have been jailed in Mumbai in connection with the Elgaar Parishad, a gathering held in Pune in December 2017. The police call this gathering of Dalit organisations a meeting of Maoist (a banned organisation) supporters. In spite of negligible evidence against the activists, there has been little progress on their release. All the accused have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which does not permit anticipatory or post-arrest bail. Activists across the country have said this is a witch-hunt of people whose work obviously makes the government uncomfortable.
Teltumbde and Navlakha have been booked for their alleged involvement in the Elgaar Parishad programme which, according to law enforcement authorities, incited the violence that took place on January 1, 2018, at the Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra. One person was killed and several injured when members of the Maratha community attacked Dalit pilgrims on their way to the 200th year commemorative ceremony of the Bhima Koregaon battle.
Neither Teltumbde nor Navlakha was at either location and several lawyers have pointed out there is no proof to link them to the events. In addition to this, they have been accused of being part of a conspiracy to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi in “an assassination plot akin to the killing of Rajiv Gandhi”, says the charge sheet. Both activists have repeatedly said the evidence indicting them is fabricated.
Teltumbde arrived at approximately 2.30 p.m. to the NIA. He was accompanied by his wife Rama, lawyer Mihir Desai and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi leader Prakash Ambedkar. Teltumbde is the brother- in-law of Prakash Ambedkar. In response to the arrest, activists raised a black flag outside Rajgruha, the house of B.R Ambedkar. Several Dalit leaders, including D. Raja, Communist Party of India general secretary, and Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat MLA, released a statement on April 13 condemning the Supreme Court’s order to arrest both men on Ambedkar Jayanti, a significant day for the Dalit community.
The statement referred to Teltumbde as “India’s foremost public intellectuals and the strongest legatee of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s tradition of struggling for a truly democratic India” and said, “This is both tragic and shameful for all Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and minorities, on many counts for all of India. It marks a day on which this country will celebrate the 129th birth anniversary of one of its greatest minds and hearts, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, and on which the mighty nationalist machinery seeks to crush the spirit that kept the flame of democracy alive in our midst.”
Teltumbde’s and Navlakha’s homes were raided in August 2018 in connection with the police searching for activists involved in “anti-national” activities that led to incidents such as the riot at Bhima Koregaon. Teltumbde, a professor at the Goa Institute of Management, is a highly respected Dalit intellectual who writes boldly against the present government’s Hindutva agenda. Navlakha, is an editor with the Economic and Political Weekly and has been a well-known voice on civil/human rights. Both managed to steer clear of arrests until March 16, 2020, when a Supreme Court bench said they would have to surrender within three weeks. Referring to the coronavirus scare, Navlakha who is in his 70s said “going to jail now is virtually a death sentence”.
According to Teltumbde, he has been implicated on the basis of five letters the police have recovered from various computers. He says the name Anand is mentioned in some of this “material” and that could mean anything. Navlakha did not want to comment on his situation.
Amnesty International made an appeal to the Central government. Teltumbde’s daughters wrote an open letter which was published on various websites. Yet nothing seems to have moved the courts nor the government.
A day before his arrest Teltumbde wrote “a letter to the people of India on the eve of my arrest”. He said: “The jingoist nation and nationalism have got weaponised by the political class to destroy dissent and polarise people. The mass frenzy has accomplished complete de-rationalisation and inversion of meanings where destroyers of the nation become desh bhakts and selfless servers of the people become deshdrohi s. As I see my India being ruined, it is with a feeble hope that I write to you at such a grim moment. Well, I am off to NIA custody and do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes.”