Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad addresses Dalit visitors at Koregaon Bhima in Pune, Maharashtra. Photo: Varsha Togalkar

The Bhima-Koregaon riots case in Maharashtra has taken multiple twists and turns over the past year, from arbitrary arrests to dubious evidence and delayed investigation to a conspiracy theory about a plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But recent developments show this has become a “state versus activists” case ahead of the election this year.

Celebrations over the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon on New Year’s Day last year ended in widespread violence that led to the death of one person and hundreds being injured.

The clashes broke out after upper caste Maratha groups interfered in a large celebratory gathering by lower caste Dalits. But inquiries into the violence took a surprising turn as activists taking part in a public meeting ahead of the event were accused of inciting violence and having ties to the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist).

On Saturday February 2 at 3.45 am, Maharashtra police arrested Anand Teltumbde, a professor from Goa Institute of Management, at Mumbai airport for his alleged role in the clashes. The police action, which defied a Supreme Court order, has shocked people. Activists have accused the national government of backing “a war” against them and scholars.

“The process of Teltumbde’s arrest suggests a vendetta,” an academic said, on condition of anonymity. “The cops not only violated the Supreme Court order that had stayed the professor-writer’s arrest till February 11 to allow him to seek legal remedy, but they also took him before the local court on Friday to limit his chances of a quick appeal.”

The Pune Sessions Court, however, deflated the police attempt to put Teltumbde in jail by rejecting their bid to take him into custody so he can seek bail from the Bombay High Court. Even though the court termed his arrest ‘illegal’, Teltumbde’s fight is far from over.

Teltumbde is one of the seven prominent activists whose houses were raided in a surprise multi-city search carried out by police on August 28 last year. They were later booked for alleged involvement in a Maoist conspiracy to overthrow the Indian state and kill the prime minister.

Nawab Malik, a spokesperson for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), said: “The Maharashtra police have consistently violated established processes and ignored court orders in the case. It even delayed filing the charge-sheet beyond the stipulated time. All this at the behest of the state government led by Devendra Fadnavis, which openly supports Hindutva groups to polarize society ahead of Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and Assembly elections due this year.”

Controversial role

In the Bhima Koregaon case, the Pune police investigation has been controversial.

The case itself is complex. There are two sets of accused in this case who were arrested in three batches. First, Milind Ekbote and Sambahji Bhide — both right-wing leaders close to the ruling BJP — were accused of instigating the riots.

In the second batch, a dozen left-leaning activists were accused of allegedly giving provocative speeches a day before the riots and supposedly conspiring to kill the prime minister.

Then on March 14, they arrested Ekbote, saying they had “enough” evidence and allegations against him, but second accused Bhide was never arrested.

On June 6, the case took a complete U-turn when the same police arrested five activists in various cities — Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale, lawyer Surendra Gadling from Pune, activist Mahesh Raut, Professor Shoma Sen from Nagpur and Rona Wilson from Delhi. They were accused of instigating clashes at Bhima Koregaon.

On August 28, police booked seven activists, described as “urban naxals” by right-wingers, along with Teltumbde. Four of them – human rights lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj, activists P Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonzalves and Arun Pereira. But because they were booked much later, the Supreme Court allowed them to be put under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi managed to obtain court orders protecting him for arrest several times. He has been allowed bail till February 18.

The seventh person is Stan Swamy in Ranchi, who has not yet been arrested.

Firoze Mithoborwala, president of Bharat Bachao Andolan, said: “With the illegal arrests of big names in academics and human rights, the Modi government [in Delhi] and the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra seek to create fear among them to silence all dissenting voices and destroy the constitution. There is another hidden message — professors must limit themselves to teaching.”

Suspect ‘evidence’

In June last year, the Pune police told a sessions court that they had found a letter, dated April 18, 2017, and addressed to one “Comrade Prakash”, from the home of Delhi-based activist Rona Wilson. Five activists including Wilson were arrested for having links with the banned CPI-Maoist. The letter was signed “R” which, the police suspect, stands for “Rona Wilson”.

“Please destroy the letter after you have read it. Be careful that it should not fall in the hands of the enemy,” it said. According to police, the alleged recipient of this letter, Rona Wilson, saved it on his computer, which was later seized during a raid in June.

The police said it “recovered” several items of “evidence” from computers, pen drives and memory cards of the 10 activists arrested, including Wilson, who worked with the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.

But the Bombay High Court rapped the police for strange moves — submitting evidence in a sealed envelope in the court and officers holding press conferences in Pune, where they cited seized documents that they alleged showed a conspiracy to kill the prime minister.

The police even questioned the rationale of the court, admitting public interest litigation against the arrests, prompting the Supreme Court to warn the police about their behavior.

Advocate Abha Singh said: “This case is an open misuse of power by the government and its police, which have made Maharashtra a police state. The trial must be moved out of Maharashtra to ensure fairness and all police officials in Pune district, who openly indulge in a political vendetta, must be transferred to other regions.”

Huge charge-sheet

In a 5,000-page charge-sheet filed last November, police claimed the accused had “active links” with the banned CPI (Maoist) and had helped organized the “Elgar Parishad” a day before the riots.

Police said: “This cultural event instigated Dalit youths against the BJP and ‘Brahmin-oriented RSS’ [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent group] leading to a violent retaliation across the state with the intention of harming the democratic fabric of the country.”

Among the five arrested, only Dhawale and Sen were present at the Elgar Parishad. Police claimed that the others provided logistical support and were part of a larger conspiracy. The charge-sheet virtually absolved Hindutva leaders Ekbote and Bhide of any offense.

Madhav Bhandari, the BJP’s chief spokesman in Maharashtra and the chairperson of Relief and Rehabilitation Authority, rejected charges that activists had been framed to muzzle the dissenting voices. “From district court to the apex court, none have stopped the arrest of the accused people. They have only been granted relief for the time being. The accused can prove their innocence in the court. By levelling false charges against the government, they only seek to pressurize the judiciary,” he said.

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