The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, amended in 2019, bears the formal appearance of a law while contradicting every established principle of due process. When an anti-terror law subverts the very rule of law, what does it protect and against what? The “Bhima Koregaon” investigation is a case in point. The UAPA is the only reason 16 citizens with distinguished public profiles have been imprisoned without a trial for weeks, months and years together. As details emerge of the NIA’s supplementary charge sheet of October 9, we need to ask what, if anything, is established against the seven pre-trial prisoners it indicts. For one, are the charges based on a recorded crime or do they rely, like the previous two charge sheets, on a farrago of insinuations?
- The Indian Express (October 22) provides a brisk overview of the charge sheet, in terms of how many statements it records (48), how many in connection with the Elgaar Parishad event (13), how many witnesses deposed against the Parishad (three), how many of them were present at the venue and watched the event (exactly one; the other two, who couldn’t get in for the crowd, heard the proceedings on loudspeakers.)The Times of India (October 21) reports on a witness’s claim that Anand Teltumbde “had made a statement about reinventing dalit militancy as well as revolutionary resurgence”. Readers may recognise here one of the themes of Teltumbde’s groundbreaking historical study of Ambedkar and communism, as also his columns on contemporary dalit politics. The intention of the charge sheet, though, is to identify his rejection of a pacifist stance with maoist sympathies. Another witness submitted that Teltumbde used to attend international conferences in Turkey and Peru and the Philippines, from where he brought back maoist literature and videos in digital form, material later used by the CPI (M) in training its members. We are not told why they didn’t simply use the Internet instead. Yet another witness volunteered that he had “heard” Umar Khalid was an “urban party member”. (Khalid isn’t charged, not yet, but you can see where this is heading.) As for Gautam Navlakha, here’s a witness: “Navlakha has written books on maoists, he has visited the jungles along with Swedish writer (not named)… has participated in meet of Release G N Saibaba Defence Committee,” and here comes the clincher, “is a good friend of Varavara Rao.”In its review of the charge sheet, The Wire (October 20), quotes more witnesses, such as one who pointed out that Hany Babu and Rona Wilson “would insist on defending political prisoners”; another who claimed that Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe had attended a 20-day arms-training camp. Also on the charge sheet is the detail that Arun Ferreira had planned photo exhibitions on mob lynchings, to make school and college students aware of militant hindutva.There are claims of “triangular links” between student organisations in Delhi, the arrested activists and the CPI (M). Even Anand Teltumbde’s written appeal of early 2019 asking academics and activists to mount a campaign against his impending arrest is cast as a suspicious directive. A couple of depositions concern the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers, alleging that it is a CPI (M) front. The Times of India (October 22) reports one witness stating that he had gone up to Arun Ferreira after a fact-finding trip to Kashmir, and complained about non-lawyers accompanying the IAPL team; some of them, he said, were suspected maoists. At which Ferreira just smiled. “The witness claimed that this confirmed suspicions that Ferreira worked for the maoists.”
- What has any of this to do with the violence at Bhima Koregaon, and how did the case come to this? Writing in The Indian Express (October 29) Christophe Jaffrelot crisply summarises its metastasis from a straightforward FIR against hindutva leaders to a vast and unwieldy conspiracy theory about “urban naxals”. Hindutva organisations had a hand in both the deflection of the probe and supplying the key concept on which it came to rely. Jaffrelot notes that the phrase “urban naxal” was coined as early as 2014, by Arun Jaitley, who had employed it as a smear against AAP workers. It came to new life in the hands of Vivek Agnihotri and outfits with links to the RSS, such as the Pune-based Forum for Integrated National Security—that played an eager role in reshaping the narrative.Apoorva Mandhani (in The Print, October 31) underlines the supreme court’s Zahoor Watali order of April 2019 as one of the fateful turning points of this case. In 2018, the Delhi high court had granted bail to Zahoor Ahmed Shah Watali in a matter being prosecuted by the NIA. The court’s ruling was that while investigators had amassed evidence against the accused, their evidence was not admissible in trial and should not therefore be used to secure Watali’s continued detention. Shooting down this order, the supreme court held that the admissibility of evidence to be settled at trial and no earlier. This, Mandhani points out, cleared a way for the “Bhima Koregaon” investigators. They were able to ride out their shaky and legally questionable evidence—from electronic devices seized without the witness of neutral observers (panchas), without even recording their hash value (data usage) at the time of seizure—and could concentrate instead on the underhanded planting of stories in the media via selective leaks. The NIA’s charge sheet appears when the agency’s takeover of the case is legally disputed, notes Mandhani. Two separate petitions before the Bombay high court, one filed by Anand Teltumbde and Arun Ferreira, the other by Surendra Gadling and Sudhir Dhawale, challenge the transfer of the investigation from the state police to the NIA. The petitions argue that the transfer was legally unsound and betrays mala fide intent, since the BJP wanted to regain control of proceedings after losing power in Maharashtra.Despite these question marks, D E Kothalikar, special NIA judge in the case, took cognisance of the charge sheet on October 23, stating that there was prima facie evidence against the accused.
- Is this what being tried for one’s thoughts feels like, wonders Abhinay Lakshman (Millennium Post, October 24). When charges can get as vague as “provocative speeches”, when the probe is a confection of leaks and plants and fishing expeditions, and all this occurs at a time when the investigation of established crimes (such as the Delhi pogrom) is turned against the victims, what is really on trial here: political prisoners or the country’s legal system?
- “The sadness of this regime, its mediocrity, comes from arresting men and women of conscience,” writes Shiv Vishvanathan (The Telegraph, October 23). The government’s ineptitude shows in the way it has identified the qualities of conscience, courage and the quest for justice as “naxal”. “Sudha Bharadwaj cared,” he adds, “cared for the people she fought for. It is a strange regime that sentences her for caring. But then one has to realise that it is only a government that does not care that can create the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.”“The true character of a state is perhaps best exposed by its choice of enemies,” writes Harsh Mander (The Indian Express, October 23). He recounts his acquaintance with Stan Swamy, who has stood unflinchingly with adivasis in opposing land grabs and corporate bullying in Jharkhand—“a rich land comprising of very poor people,” as Swamy calls it. For this and for his work with adivasi undertrial prisoners, he was raided by the police and by the NIA, was informed one morning by newspapers that he had been plotting to assassinate the prime minister, and now finds himself in jail, an 83 year-old with shaking limbs and pronounced deafness. “But his spine—both physically and metaphorically—is upright and unbending.
- Today, November 3, is Varavara Rao’s eightieth birthday. On October 15, his wife P. Hemalatha had entered an urgent plea in the supreme court, seeking medical bail for him. On October 29, a three-judge bench headed by U U Lalit found “three dimensions” in this matter: that Rao’s detention was not per se illegal, that the question of bail was before the Bombay high court, and “So, how do we hear the case now?” The bench directed her to take her plea back to the high court and requested the court to hear it at the earliest.