Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Anand Teltumbde, one of the 16 accused in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case, finally walked out of prison on November 26 after his bail was upheld by the Supreme Court. Many experts opined that him having to wait two and a half years for bail was an abject failure of the judiciary. Speaking after his release, the scholar-activist said: “I am obviously happy to be released after 31 months for which I have been in prison. The sad part, however, is that we had to spend time in jail for years after being booked in a fake case…” The 73-year-old anti-caste writer had been in prison since 2020 under the Draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA. The National Investigation Agency, or NIA, tried to link his Dalit mobilisation efforts to Maoism but the Supreme Court was having none of it. Chief Justice DY Chandrachud asked: “Is Dalit mobilisation a preparatory act to proscribed (forbidden) activity?” What exactly is the Elgar Parishad case and why were the accused incarcerated without bail for so long? And what does the trajectory of this case say about our judicial system as well as the suppression of the Dalit voice in India?
Former Madras High Court Judge Justice K Chandru, who inspired the movie ‘Jai Bhim’, told The Quint: “More than a crime, it [the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case] is an ideological battle.” He went on to point out that the accused had consistently “challenged” the BJP’s attempt to establish a “one-dimensional” history.
Justice Chandru added: “It is unusual that for the first time Marxist intellectuals and Dalit activists were grouped together under a common conspiracy.” The charges, he said, were a response to the accused striving to establish a different point of view, especially a Dalit perspective.
Justice Chandru came down hard on the courts: “I was really happy that Anand got bail at last. However, the judicial system has failed miserably and it is disgusting that a person had to wait two and a half years to get bail, that too after establishing that there was no prima facie case attracting the provisions of UAPA.”
But before I proceed, let me spell out what the Elgar Parishad case is. The case was taken over from the Pune police by the NIA and is one of two ongoing investigations related to the Bhima-Koregaon violence of January 1, 2018.
The first is around an FIR filed in Pune, alleging that Naxal groups had organised the Elgar Parishad programme in Pune on December 31, 2017, the eve of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon. The battle is significant because on January 1, 1818, a Dalit-dominated British Army had defeated a Peshwa army, led by Peshwa Bajirao II, at Bhima-Koregaon village. The battle attained legendary status for Dalits, who consider it a win against the injustices of the Peshwas. A pillar, known as Vijay Sthamb, was installed by the East India Company to commemorate those who fought for them and thousands of Dalits come to pay respect there every year on January 1. The police say that the speeches made at the Elgar Parishad event in Pune were partly responsible for the violence in Bhima-Koregaon the next day.
The other investigation is into the violence itself. That is based on FIRs filed by two Dalit women, who alleged that Hindutva groups were behind the January 1, 2018, violence in which one person from the Maratha community was killed and several others were injured.
The Elgar Parishad case became big news after high-profile lawyers and activists were arrested. The initial probe focused on the organisers of the event. Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mewani and student activist Umar Khalid were among those who had spoken there. The Pune police claimed that they had material relating to the involvement of a network of Naxal groups.
In June 2018, the police arrested five activists and lawyers from Pune, Nagpur and Delhi, claiming they had links to the banned CPI (Maoist) group and played a role in organising the Elgar Parishad. In August, the police searched the homes of eight prominent activists in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Goa and Ranchi. While the courts stepped in then, the police did manage to arrest four of them three months later. These included Chhattisgarh-based lawyer-activist Sudha Bhardwaj and the Hyderabad-based poet-activist Varavara Rao. Teltumbde and the Delhi-based Gautam Navalakha were the other two.
The police claimed that they wanted to destablise the country and were even associated with a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They also claimed that the accused had “enacted provocative songs, short plays, dance, and distributed books and circulated printed Naxal literature to exploit the communal sentiments of Dalits and other classes across the state, and provoked them in the name of caste in order to create violence, instability and chaos in district Pune, at various places, including Bhima-Koregaon, and in the state of Maharashtra”.
Teltumbde, who is married to Rama, the granddaughter of Dr BR Ambedkar, is an acclaimed intellectual in India and abroad. He has written 26 books and innumerable articles. It was his international visits that were construed as an excuse for the “exchange of literature on ideology, training and work strategy of CPI (Maoist) with international communist organisations”.
Between July 11, 2016, and March 5, 2020, Teltumbde travelled at least 64 times on journeys not funded by the Goa Institute of Management, where he was a senior professor. The NIA alleged that these were Maoist-funded trips.
The Bombay High Court, in the bail order upheld by the Supreme Court, pointed out: “Teltumbde had travelled for delivery of addresses, lectures, speeches, as a resource person, etc, to renowned Institutions like the London School of Economics, Harvard University, MIT, Michigan University, Paris, Budapest and various universities and reputed institutes in India like IIT-Madras, IIT-Hyderabad, IIM-Ahmedabad.”
The NIA has made much of the fact that Teltumbde is the elder brother of slain Maoist leader Milind Teltumbde. The NIA claimed Teltumbde was in touch with Milind and would “share the literature of Maoist ideology collected by him during international conferences”. The court correctly countered that “Teltumbde is a man of intellectual prominence in the field of Dalit ideology/movement and merely because he is the elder brother of wanted accused Milind Teltumbde who had gone underground 30 years ago to espouse the cause of CPI (M) cannot be a sole ground to indict the appellant and link him to the activities of CPI (M)”.
The NIA said there were letters to show Teltumbde was in touch with Milind. The court, however, observed: “On reading the letter as it is we cannot presume that appellant is an active member of CPI (M) without there being any other material to corroborate and support such a theory.”
In the letters that the Pune Police – and later replicated by the NIA – claimed to have recovered from the computers of co-accused Rona Wilson, there was mention of a “Comrade Anand”. The NIA deduced that he was Teltumbde. The court observed that there was nothing to suggest Teltumbde’s complicity and “this letter prima facie cannot be presumed that appellant is actively involved in the work of the CPI (Maoist)”. The court added that the NIA had failed to show a link between Teltumbde and the crime.
Many organisations suggested that the letters had been planted on the laptops of Wilson and another accused, human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling.
Meanwhile, Teltumbde’s membership of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, or CPDR, was also made to be sinister. The NIA claimed CPDR was a front for Maoists but this, too, didn’t work.
Bail for Teltumbde is significant because a 2019 Supreme Court judgement makes it nearly impossible for courts to grant bail in UAPA cases because the government can oppose bail even if the documents it produces as evidence are inadmissible.
Advocate Sanjay Hegde was quoted in the media as saying: “The courts are supposed to be the guardians of the liberties of the citizens. The prosecution’s intention in this case (like in other UAPA cases) is to never let the case get to the trial stage and it is time the courts stepped in.”
Understandably, civil rights activists are reacting with caution to Teltumbde’s bail ruling. That’s because it’s taken well over two years. It’s a relief but a high price was paid and it does not necessarily mean that the door to bail is now open for all the accused. Justice Chandru says the order is a “good precedent” but lawyers say each case will have to be decided on its own merits.
So, it would seem, that the only crime of those arrested was their struggle for Dalit rights. In fact, barring one, they were not even present in Pune when the violence broke out. Many believe that the Elgar Parishad event gave the authorities an excuse to go after the activists because it was organised by Dalit groups. And it’s no secret that being a Dalit is getting to be increasingly tough in India.
So, the strategy is to make the process the punishment. The activists were fortunate that they had substantial legal representation, there were appeals in their favour by prominent citizens, campaigns by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and constant media coverage. Yet, the Union Government kept them behind bars. It seemed determined to punish the activists for opposing it.
Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar also demanded the release of the activists when his party came to power in Maharashtra in alliance with the Shiv Sena in May 2019. This was when the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre swung quickly into action. It understood that the state government had the power to release the accused, so, in a lightning-quick decision, it shifted the cases to the NIA, which is controlled by the Centre.
Susan Abraham, lawyer and wife of Vernon Gonzalves, one of the accused, said: “There is just no light at the end of the tunnel. The process becomes the punishment. We go from one court hearing to the next. Nothing seems to move, and there appears to be no will to address the cases.” Abraham, who also represents Teltumbde, said the government was trying to send out a strong message that no one should dare criticise it and that the Dalit movement must be stamped out.
Look at the desperation of the Centre. The investigation agency said it did not have the time to file a chargesheet or conduct investigations, yet people were arrested in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Varavara Rao, who was healthy when arrested, is now virtually an invalid.
It is not lost on anyone that this government is threatened by the Dalit movement, and so we have this crackdown. It’s message is clear: dissent will not be tolerated. What does it say about the state of democracy in India?
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.