To avoid the overcrowding in prisons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court had directed all states and union territories to set up high-level committees to determine the class of prisoners who could be released on parole for four to six weeks.
On the other hand, the Apex Court directed activists Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde to surrender in the Bhima Koregaon violence case on the 14th of April, 2020. Dr Anand Teltumbde happens to be the husband of the great grand-daughter of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, whose birth anniversary is also celebrated on the same day.
The SC order is also at odds with the court’s ruling with regards to decongesting the country’s overcrowded prisons to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, thereby posing a risk to the health of the two activists. Additionally, the UN Human Rights Council has urged the nations to release prisoners, especially political prisoners who have been kept in detention centres, in order to avoid the spread of the virus.
It must be noted that the accused are aged 65+ and have health ailments and their being under detention poses a great threat to their health and puts them at risk.
The case relates to a peaceful meeting that was organised by the Elgar Parishad on 31st December, 2017 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Last Anglo-Maratha battle, which took place at Bhima-Koregaon, Maharashtra, India, where a large number of Dalit soldiers fighting for the British Army were martyred. Riots took place on the 1st of January, 2018 and engulfed parts of Pune, with one fatality and several injured. It was alleged that the event was used as a means of instigating people, thereby causing damage to public order and communal disharmony.
A retired judge of the Supreme Court, and ex-judge of the Bombay High Court, were co-organizers of this event.
In point of fact, Dr. Teltumbde was not even present at the event, however, he was one of the organisers of the event. (paragraph 19- Anand Teltumbde vs The State Of Maharashtra And Ors – Manupatra).
Anand Teltumbde is an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, former faculty at equally reputed IIT Kharagpur and the CEO of a successful holding company. He has been a voice of the marginalised and is an author of over 26 books.
The acclaimed academician civil rights activist found himself in the middle of the Koregaon muddle in August 2018. The evidence on the basis of which he was arrested was a letter that was written by one Prakash to one Anand referring to Anand’s visit to Paris for Human Rights Convention to be held on 9th and 10th April 2018 and lectures on Dalit issue in order to give traction to Domestic Chaos. During this period domestic chaos related to Dalit issues was the Bhima-Koregaon incident. The letter was not found in the house of Dr. Anand and was seized from the hard disk of another co-accused.
He was soon charged with the UAPA and named as an accused in the Koregaon case.
Following it, several allegedly fabricated letters addressed to a “Comrade Anand” were released by the Pune police as ‘evidence’ for the justification for his arrest. Each of the so-called charges by the Pune police has been refuted with documentary proof by Dr. Teltumbde (paragraph 23 – Anand Teltumbde vs The State Of Maharashtra And Ors –Manupatra).
Under the UAPA law, a mere collection of letters or a documentary proof with little suspicion is enough to charge people for alleged conspiracies, as in the case of Dr Anand.
When the entire country and world is struggling with the Coronavirus outbreak, the Dalit scholar’s surrendered himself to the NIA on Sunday. All his appeals for anticipatory bail stand rejected.
At a time when the Home department in the newly formed Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra had announced a review of the case, setting up of a Special Investigating Team (SIT) and dropping of the false cases against the activists, the Union Home ministry suddenly got the case transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and thus brought the case under its control. This was done in January 2020, more than a year after the charge-sheets were filed by the Pune police.
The case also involved the names of Sambhaji Bhide, better known as Bhide Guruji, and Milind Ekbote both of whom wield considerable political clout have been accused of desecrating the samadhi of a Mahar named Govind Gaikwad who is known for performing the last rites of Shivaji Maharaj’s son Sambhajiraje Bhosale when nobody else would touch the body, fearing Mughal wrath.
The incident took place on 29th December 2017, just two days before the centenary celebrations organised by the Elgar Parishad to mark the 200th year of the victory of the British Army over the Peshwas.
The sudden transfer of the case to NIA without letting the state government set up an SIT point out towards certain discrepancies in the case.
The surrendering of the said accused in the case is at a critical time. The entire country is under a nationwide lockdown and people are not allowed to gather in public. Any protest against the said decision or raising the need to re-investigate the case cannot be organised. This seems to be clear zone for the state to curb dissenting voices in society.
This is also a time when the media is majorly covering the updates with regards to Coronavirus in India and across the globe. There was no mention of the surrender on any news channel. Social media erupted with the hashtag #JusticeforDrAnand just a day prior to the surrender. Additionally, Dr Anand’s open letter also made people aware of the other side of the story.
On Ambedkar Jayanti, Dr Anand Teltumbde, one of India’s foremost public intellectuals complied with the Supreme Court’s order to surrender to the jail authorities. When even very repressive regimes around the world are releasing political prisoners in the face of the Coronavirus, great minds like Dr Teltumbde are incarcerated.
This raises two major concerns: 1.) Will every dissenting voice in the country be curbed under the garb of laws like the NSA and the UAPA? 2.) Is every anti-government public intellectual an ‘urban-naxal’ or ‘terrorist’? We need to ask. We need to decide. Otherwise, the largest democracy in the world will soon have no space for the three things that gave it independence and make it what it is; dissent, protest and deliberation.