Human Rights

Elgar Parishad arrests: Decimation drive

Print edition : October 09, 2020

People gather at the “Vijay stambha” at Koregaon Bhima village in Pune district on January 1, 2020, to commemorate the 202nd anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. Fifteen people are now in custody facing trial for their alleged involvement with banned extreme left-wing groups that apparently organised the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, here. Photo: Jignesh Mistry

The recent arrest of three Dalit rights activists in connection with the Elgar Parishad is seen as an attempt to stifle dissent.

MEMBERS of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a Pune-based cultural activist group, knew it was only a matter of time before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) reached their doorstep. The NIA arrested 12 people in connection with the Elgar Parishad, and as one of the primary organisers of the meeting that hosted 250 Dalit organisations, the KKM was definitely on the radar.

After a few weeks of questioning and reportedly threatening KKM members Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, the NIA came for them on September 7 and 8. All three were arrested in Pune under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Fifteen people are now in custody facing trial for their alleged involvement with banned extreme left-wing groups that apparently organised the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. Law enforcement authorities claim the meeting set off caste violence at the Bhima Koregaon site on January 1, 2018.

Excuse for arrest

The growing number of arrests indicates that the authorities are on a mission to take down any voice that is a thorn in the government’s side. The Elgar Parishad/Bhima Koregaon incident is a convenient excuse to arrest whoever they want, say defence lawyers of the accused. One aspect that connects the arrested persons is that they are in some capacity Dalit rights activists. The three KKM members who were taken into custody are also anti-caste activists. If a conclusion is to be drawn from the recurring arrests, it could be that the present regime is determined to squash every pro-Dalit movement.

There have been murmurs that the government has created a list of names of activists, writers, academics and social workers, and that the law enforcement authorities have been given carte blanche to go after the targets, who have been labelled “anti-nationals”. Activists say that the latest arrests indicate that the so-called list must be real. Further, the message that thoughts or actions of dissent would be curbed is getting stronger. Six arrests took place during the nation-wide lockdown. It shows the priority given to what is seemingly an obvious witch-hunt, they say.

Anand Patwardhan, the documentary filmmaker who has made films on the anti-Dalit movement and the rise of Hindutva since the 1980s, told Frontline: “They are criminalising all dissent. Umar Khalid and Bhima Koregaon are examples. Shaheen Bagh had become an international peaceful protest. Despite a United Nations body criticising the anti-minority Citizenship Amendment Act, peaceful Muslims were demonised by BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leaders and then attacked in the Delhi ‘riots’. But both at Bhima Koregaon and Delhi, the police never named the upper caste-Hindutva instigators. This is a systematic dismantling of democracy.”

In the wake of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, cultural activists came together to protest against the anti-minority and anti-Dalit attacks perpetuated by right-wing organisations. They banded together and set up the KKM, a small non-governmental organisation, in Pune. Gorkhe is its founding member. Gaichor joined in 2004 and Jagtap in 2007. The KKM uses traditional forms of theatre, music and poetry to speak about the ill-effects of caste and communal issues.

Dalit activists say this is the most effective form of creating awareness. No rally is without Bhim geet (songs on Ambedkar and his work). The KKM’s performances included specific topics such as communal riots, farmers’ suicide, social and economic inequalities, importance of education, child marriage, and female infanticide. “The topics resonate with the audience. When you have a largely poor and illiterate crowd, using song and drama is an effective technique,” said a KKM member.

Revolutionary Bards

Gaichor, Gorkhe and Jagtap are an integral part of the KKM. They write plays, sing and perform. This is the second time Gaichor and Gorkhe have been arrested. 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. Gaichor has maintained that they never violated rules nor instigated trouble; every performance of theirs is peaceful and that they have the right to do this work. Gorkhe is truly the bard of the group. His songs and singing are popular, especially among the youths. Jagtap is a fiery activist who is able to hold an audience spellbound with her speeches. She also performs with the group and works for the uplift of the downtrodden and marginalised, says the member.

Gorkhe and Gaichor, who are active members of the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Prerna Abhiyaan, the umbrella body that organised the Elgar, released a video two days before their arrest in which they stated the 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. The police wanted them to make confessions that would implicate those accused and jailed.

Gaichor says in the video: “We aren’t progenies of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar but are children of B.R. Ambedkar. If you ask us to give false statements against people who have surrendered, we refuse. Today they have called us to Pune, where there are chances that they will arrest us.”

“Ever since the arrests in 2013, the establishment has been out to get us. The Bhima Koregaon incident was a trigger and it gave them an opportunity to go after us,” says the member. Unfortunately for the KKM, two of their erstwhile members have gone underground owing to police persecution. “But this does not give them the right to make us seem like outlaws. We have a purpose and we do our work within the jurisdiction of the law,” he says.

In a statement released to the media, the NIA states: “The accused are members of Kabir Kala Manch, a frontal organisation of banned terrorist organisation CPI (Maoist). Also, it is established that during their visits (of members) in the jungle, they underwent weapon and explosive training and awareness programme on various topics related to the Maoist movement.”

The NIA also accuses them of being in touch with Milind Teltumbde, an alleged “naxal operative” who is in hiding. Teltumbde is the brother of Anand Teltumbde, theanti-caste activist and academic who was arrested in April in connection with the Elgar Parishad. Anand Teltumbde is the grandson-in-law of Ambedkar. A political observer said: “If Anand Teltumbde can be arrested, what chance do Gaichor and Gorkhe, who belong to lower income backgrounds, have?”

Travesty of justice

Some of the accused in the Elgar Parishad case have been in jail for two years, though there is no evidence linking them to the Bhima Koregaon violence or to various conspiracies. “The so-called evidence is miserable and cannot be held up in court. The charge sheets have fabrications in them. We try to fight this but the cases are stuck and hearings are constantly postponed,” said a lawyer for a few of the accused. “Very often we are in court just to ask for extra books or a blanket. It is shameful to treat highly respected and elderly people in this manner.”

In Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha’s cases a few case charge sheets are yet to be filed. Bail is not an option under the UAPA. Even during COVID times, when the U.N. has asked countries to release undertrials, the Elgar accused are not given any concessions. The most unfortunate part of the Elgar accused is that most of them have no influence, little support from mainstream political parties or human rights bodies and negligible resources to get legal help.

Those arrested so far are: Arun Feirera (lawyer), Sudhir Dhawale (publisher), Surendra Gadling (lawyer), Rona Wilson (social worker), Shoma Sen (academic), Mahesh Raut (activist), Sudha Bharadwaj (lawyer), Vernon Gonzalves (writer), Varavara Rao (Telugu litterateur), Gautam Navlakha (journalist), Anand Teltumbde and Hany Babu (professor).

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