Over 1,000 Scientists, academics come out against NIA's probe into Bhima Koregaon violence

Published : September 10, 2020 19:28 IST

Partho Sarothi Ray, Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata. A file picture. He has been summoned by the NIA on the Bhima Koregaon incident. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

More than 1,000 scientists and academics have expressed “deep concern” over the manner in which the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is carrying out its investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence of 2018. In a statement released on September 9, they alleged that the Central agency was using the probe as a “flimsy cover to crack down on urban naxals – who in reality are only dissident intellectuals”. The signatories to the statement include some of the most eminent names in the field of science and academics in India and abroad.

According to the statement, “Instead of investigating those responsible for the actual violent clashes in Bhima-Koregaon, the NIA (and earlier, the Pune Police) has focused on the Elgar Parishad event — a large cultural and political gathering —where the main organizers were reportedly two eminent retired judges. Surprisingly, in this process, the investigating agencies have arrested several illustrious citizens — including academics, lawyers and prominent activists.”

The Elgar Parishad event took place on December 31, 2017, at Shaniwarwada fort near Pune to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The following day, on January 1, 2018, violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon between the members of the Dalit community who had gathered there for the celebrations and allegedly Hindutva forces. Subsequently, the NIA took over the case from the Pune Police.

The statement pointed out that most of the individuals who had been taken into custody were not even present at the Elgar Parishad event. “However, by using the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the government has prevented those who have been arrested from obtaining bail. As Gautam Navlakha pointed out on the eve of his arrest, under the UAPA, ‘the process itself becomes punishment’ since the accused are deemed guilty unless proven innocent,’” said the statement. The signatories called upon the government “to immediately end its crackdown on dissidents, release those whom it has arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, and instead focus on identifying and prosecuting the true perpetrators of the Bhima Koregan violence. “

Eminent virologist summoned

The statement also draws attention to the case of the eminent molecular scientist and virologist Partho Sarothi Ray, an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, being summoned by the NIA on the Bhima-Koregaon incident. Partho, who is actively involved in combating the COVID crisis in West Bengal, not just with his research work but also with the operations at the State government-run COVID testing centre in Nadia district, has maintained that he was neither present at the Elgar event, nor was he even aware of the Bhima-Koregaon violence, until he read about it later. Talking to Frontline, he said, “I have no idea [why I was summoned]. Nothing is mentioned in their notice too.”

Partho received his summon on September 4, ordering him to go to Mumbai on September 10. He requested that he be allowed to answer their questions through videoconferencing. “I have told NIA that the work I am doing is important, and hazardous, in this pandemic situation. Therefore, I am ready to answer their questions by videoconferencing. I am waiting for their response,” he said.

The statement signed by the scientists suggests that the fact that Partho has been critical of the central government’s handling of the pandemic may also have something to do with his being summoned. “But, of course, it is well known that Prof. Ray has been critical of the Central government’s response to the pandemic and we suspect that this may not be unrelated with the summons that have been issued to him. We are concerned that Prof. Ray may also be arrested on false charges,” the statement read.

Partho himself has not dismissed the possibility. “That might have played a part. It is part of the general effort to intimidate and silence any dissenting view, even if it is based on scientific reasoning and constructive in nature,” he told Frontline. Speaking of the support he has received in his time of trouble, he said, “I am thankful and enthused by the support I have got from academics, activists and the common people all over the world.”

Appeal from patients

It is not just the academic community that has expressed outrage, but also patients suffering from muscular dystrophy – a subject Partho is closely associated with. Partho is involved in the trial for a new therapy to save the lives of children suffering from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). He is a key member of the clinical trial for the treatment of DMD, applying antisense Oligoribonucleotide Exon Skipping Therapy that has recently been approved by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI). This is the first time in India such a trial is taking place.

In a separate petition asking that he be spared the harassment by the NIA, the Muscular Dystrophy Patients’ Welfare Society, formed by parents of children suffering from DMD, has written: “The Muscular Dystrophy Patients' Welfare Society (MDPWS) expresses its utter shock at the news that Dr Partho Sarothi Ray called for questioning by the NIA in a case in which he has no part… We, the unfortunate parents of these children had tried to initiate this trial since 2017 and have received the final approval for the trial just on 25th August 2020. Dr Ray, who kindly agreed to be one of the key scientists for this trial on our request, has been instrumental in obtaining the final approval.”

The petition stated that “this harassment of Dr Ray at this critical juncture” is very harmful for the children awaiting treatment. “We request the authorities, for the sake of the 50 children and their families who are waiting for the completion of his work to initiate this trial, to stop this harassment of Dr Ray and allow him to concentrate on this work which is in the cause of entire humanity. We are always with you - Dr. Ray,” the MDPWS said in its petition.