By Prarthana Mitra
The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the five activists embroiled in the Bhima-Koregaon violence be placed under four more weeks of house arrest, in the absence of concrete evidence.
The bench was hearing on the plea moved by JNU emeritus and historian Romila Thapar, challenging the arrests and demanding their immediate release. A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra had reserved the judgement on September 20, reprimanding the Maharashtra police for not following due process while investigating the claims they brought forward.
On August 28, the Pune police carried out simultaneous raids across Delhi, Faridabad, Mumbai, Ranchi, Goa and Hyderabad, arresting lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Arun Ferreira, activists Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves, and poet Varavara Rao for their complicity in the Bhima-Koregaon violence near Pune on New Year’s Day.
Advocate Susan Abraham, the wife of activist Vernon Gonsalves, expressed relief at the Supreme Court’s verdict, saying, “We’ve been given 4 weeks protection to approach lower courts. So, obviously, we will be reaching lower court shortly.” The top court, however, turned down the petitioners’ request to set up a special investigating team (SIT). Justice Khanwilkar who read the verdict said that it was not a case of arrest because of dissent.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on Friday said, “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision. On the basis of investigation conducted and evidence collected by the Pune Police, it has been considered valid and the court has said it’ll not interfere in the investigation,” clarifying that the arrests are not politically motivated. “We have sufficient material to convict them,” he confirmed, even as the bench declared that there is no basis to link the activists with the allegations brought forward against them.
Why were they arrested?
The arrests were made based on names that emerged during the investigation of five other activists arrested in June in connection with the celebratory Elgar Parishad meeting organised by Dalits and Dalit rights organisations, and an alleged assassination plot aimed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Those arrested on June 6 and still languishing in jail include lawyer Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen and activist Mahesh Raut from Nagpur, Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai and activist Rona Wilson from Delhi. The arrest of the five activists in August provoked mass outrage for the unconstitutional manner in which they were manhandled and treated, and according to them, “framed” with having Maoist links.
Thapar moved court along with five other prominent members of civil society, challenging the arrests under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, calling it an “exercise to silence dissent, stop people from helping the downtrodden and marginalised people across the nation and to instil fear in minds of people”.
The Delhi High Court which initially grilled Pune police officers regarding Navlakha’s arrest found their responses deeply unsatisfactory and inadequate, staying Navlakha’s transit remand and placing him on house arrest immediately. The Supreme Court bench then took over, asking all five activists to be placed under house arrest, as an interim order till further notice. Since then the hearings have proven inconclusive as the police failed to produce concrete evidence, save two letters which they claim to have recovered from Bhardwaj’s residence.
What happened at Bhima-Koregaon?
On January 1, thousands of Dalit citizens congregate at Bhima-Koregaon near Pune to commemorate the historic victory of lower-caste soldiers against the Peshwas in 1818. This year, on the 200th anniversary of the battle, around 260 NGOs organised Elgar Parishad, which was graced by speakers like Jignesh Mevani and Radhika Vemula. The gathering soon devolved into violence, with eyewitness accounts mentioning stone pelters clad in saffron, and Dalit activists blaming Hindutva groups for inflammatory anti-Dalit speeches a week before.
According to Scroll.in, the Pune police filed cases against Hindutva group leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide for inciting violence but Ekbote was released on bail in March, while Bhide roams scot-free despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest.
By April, the police were convinced that Rona Wilson and other organisers were responsible for the violence, and the speeches made by the activists were to blame. Pune police joint commissioner, Ravindra Kadam, even claimed that the Elgar Parishad was funded by Maoist organisations.
The alleged Modi assassination plot
Within a day of Wilson’s arrest in June, the Pune police leaked two letters to certain media organisations, which they allegedly recovered from Wilson’s residence wherein the aforementioned assassination plot is being hatched by Maoists. The authenticity of the letters has not yet been verified, but sharing these alleged pieces of evidence with the media before presenting them in court is a gross violation of the law.
On Friday as well, Justice Chandrachud said that the police’s selective disclosure casts a considerable doubt on a fair probe. He also said that dissent is a symbol of vibrant democracy, echoing his observation from the previous hearing, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow dissent, the pressure valve of democracy will burst.”. At a previous hearing, the bench had warned the police against using the media to cast aspersions against the activists.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.