Elgar Parishad and the the Battle of Bhima Koregaon
To mark the bi-centenary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon in 2018, more than 200 Dalit, Bahujan, Ambedkarite and other organisations came together under the banner of Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan, with former judge of Supreme Court, Justice P. B. Sawant and former Bombay High Court judge, Justice Kolse Patil as convenors. The coalition organised the hugely successful and massively attended event, ‘Elgar Parishad’, on December 31, 2017 in Shaniwarwada in Pune.
On January 1, 2018, those attending the Bhima Koregaon memorial were attacked by a Hindu mob carrying saffron flags, injuring several people. Spontaneous protests and bandhs were called across Maharashtra, following which around 3000 Dalits were arrested in the state. Despite eyewitness accounts and evidence filed by the local police against Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambaji Bhide for inciting the violence, Bhide was never taken into custody and Ekbote, who was arrested, was released soon after on bail.
On January 8, 2018 a second FIR was filed by a businessman from Pune , Tushar Damgude, known to be a close aide to the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), alleging that the violence was instigated by activists who had spoken at Elgar Parishad. This FIR then became the pretext for a cycle of persecution of human rights activists, students, and workers that was soon to follow. Sudha Bharadwaj, who was not present at the event, was later arrested based on this FIR.
Pune Police and the Initial Arrests
On April 17, on the basis of the FIR filed by Damgude, and without any search warrant, the Pune police raided the houses of Sudhir Dhawale, a dalit activist and editor of Marathi magazine Vidrohi, activist Harshali Potdar, activists Sagar Gorkhe, Dhawala Dhengle, Ramesh Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap and Rupali Jadhav, all organisers of the Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan. Raids were also conducted in the houses of Advocate Surendra Gadling and rights activist Rona Wilson, neither of whom were originally named in the FIR.
About two months later, on June 6, 2018, Pune police arrested three of those whose houses had been earlier raided – Dhawale, Adv. Gadling, and Wilson. Two more people were arrested from Nagpur, senior academic and Nagpur University professor, Dr. Shoma Sen and anti-displacement activist from Bharat Jan Andolan, Mahesh Raut, who is also a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF). Neither of their houses were raided on April 17.
The police in tandem with some mainstream media went out of its way to conduct a media trial on this issue. A total of 13 ‘letters’ were leaked to the media houses by the Police even before this evidence, on the basis of which the entire case is built, was submitted to the courts. Following the first round of arrests, the next day several TV channels broadcasted news claiming that a letter has been recovered from one of the previous arrestees, written by ‘R’ to Comrade Prakash stating a ‘plot to kill the Prime Minister’ through a ‘Rajiv Gandhi type incident’.
Two days after the arrests, on 8 June 2018, Sudha Bharadwaj addressed a Press Conference, as the Vice President of IAPL, condemning the arrest of Advocate Surendra Gadling and others. On the same day, Joint Commissioner of Police, Pune, Ravindra Kadam, conducted a press conference, and claimed that arrested persons were plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They released two letters to the media. The media discussed these letters at length. While senior retired bureaucrats publicly ridiculed the letter saying it not only doesn’t match Naxal tactics, but also carried blatant flaws. One cyber expert claimed that the letter was typed on mobile phone.
On 4 July 2018, Republic TV aired a programme in which Arnab Goswami claimed that Sudha Bharadwaj had written a letter to a Maoist identifying herself as “Comrade Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj” and stated that a violent political climate had to be created as in Kashmir. She was accused of receiving money from Maoists. It was also claimed that she stated that some well known Human Rights lawyers had Maoist links.
On 5 July 2018, Sudha Bharadwaj released a statement refuting the false allegations and defamatory statements levelled against her by Arnab Goswami, news anchor and managing director of Republic TV. In the statement, Sudha Bharadwaj firmly denied that the letter was written by her, and refuted the false allegations as defamatory and hurtful. She further stated that in her opinion the present malicious, motivated and fabricated attack on her is because she recently addressed a press conference in Delhi to condemn the arrest on 6 June of Advocate Surendra Gadling and that it is clear that by targeting such lawyers, the state is trying to silence those who stand for democratic rights, and that the State strategy is to create an atmosphere of fear, denying people equitable access to the legal system.
In light of the allegations made against her, on 16th July Bharadwaj sent a legal notice to Goswami and Republic TV for malicious and defamatory statements made against her in a programme. After receiving response from Republic TV on 7th August, Sudha Bharadwaj released a second statement on 20th August refusing Goswami’s offer to appear on his prime time program, stating “Republic TV has already conducted itself as vigilante investigators. I see no reason to give them an opportunity to act as vigilante Public Prosecutors and interrogate me publicly about a document that I have nothing to do with.”
On August 28, 2018, Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested by the Pune police from her Faridabad residence at around 7 am. Simultaneously, the Pune police also conducted a series of raids at the homes of prominent activists, lawyers and writers across the country. Activist Vernon Gonsalves and lawyer Arun Ferreira were arrested from their residences in Mumbai and Thane. Telugu poet and activist, Varavara Rao was arrested from Hyderabad. The Pune police seized all electronic equipment found from their houses as well as notebooks, papers, diaries and books. Homes of Goa based academic, Anand Teltumbde, a Jesuit priest and activist in Jharkhand, Fr. Stan Swamy, academic and activist Gautam Navlakha, ‘Namaste Telangana’ journalist Kranti Tekula, Hyderabad based ‘The Hindu’ journalist – K.V. Kurmanath, and Professor at English and Foreign Languages University K. Satyanarayana were also raided.
On August 29 2018, five prominent citizens – historian Romila Thapar, economists Devaki Jain and Prabhat Pattnaik, academic Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala – filed an urgent Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court (SC) of India “to subserve larger public interests and to prevent stifling of honest dissent so as to protect democratic values and the democracy”. The prayer in the PIL was for a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the violence and arson attacks against those who were a part of the procession to Bhima Koregaon on January 1 and the subsequent case registered against rights activists alleging ‘Maoist conspiracy’. The majority judgement on September 28, 2018 dismissed the plea. However, Justice D. Y. Chandrachud in his dissenting judgment chided the investigating agencies for disregarding procedure and law and also recognised that there is a bone of contention regarding the authenticity of the evidence.
Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested from her residence on October 27th while Gonsalves and Ferreira were taken under police custody on October 26, 2018, Rao was arrested on November 17. Teltumbde and Navlakha secured protection from arrest in the following days.
Trial and Further Investigation by the NIA
The first chargesheet spanning 5000 pages was filed by the Pune Police on 15 November 2018 against the 6th June arrestees. On February 21, 2019, the Pune police filed a supplementary chargesheet against the 28th August arrestees. On 18th December, Pune police submitted draft charges for framing against all the accused at the Pune Sessions Court.
After the Maha Vikas Aghadi government came to power in Maharashtra in November 2019, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar wrote a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, calling for a Special Investigation Team to reinvestigate the case and had also asked for a probe against police officials for the manner in which the investigation was conducted. On January 22, Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar met the Pune police and the state intelligence officials for a review meeting on the case. Soon after the meeting, Deshmukh announced that by the next week, his department would take a decision on whether a Special Investigation Team (SIT) needs to be constituted to look into the investigation. Before a decision was taken, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) transferred the case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Initially, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh condemned the Centre’s decision but in February 2020, the state government gave consent for the same. NCP chief Sharad Pawar slammed the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government for transferring the Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon Violence case to National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Since then, NIA started a new series of interrogations and arrests in the case. Between April and October 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and country-wide lockdown, NIA arrested Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Kabir Kala Manch members – Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, and Stan Swamy. On 9th october, 2020, NIA filed over 10,000 page supplementary chargesheet against the recently arrested by the agency. As per their press release, further investigation in the case is continued.
In June 2020, a Writ Petition was filed before the High Court of Maharashtra at Bombay, challenging the transfer of the investigation for Bhima Koregaon and Elgar Parishad cases, to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) by Advocate Surendra Gadling and Sudhir Dhawale.
Nature of Evidence
During the arguments for bail hearing in 2018, before the Hon’ble Bombay High Court, Dr.Yug Mohit Chaudhary, appearing for Sudha Bharadwaj, submitted that prosecution is not relying on any documents seized from Bharadwaj since nothing incriminating was found from her laptop, pen drive, mobile phone and hard drive which were seized by the police. Further on the merits of the case, he contended that there is not a single document that is admissible in law. He contended that all the documents that are either letters or minutes, are unsigned, unauthenticated and unverified by a single statement or witness.
Commenting on the nature of evidence against Sudha, Justice Chandrachud in his dissenting judgment says:
“At this stage, it is necessary to note the submission which has been urged in regard to an undated letter of Sudha Bharadwaj to Comrade Prakash which was also allegedly distributed to the media. There is a serious bone of contention in regard to the authenticity of the letter which, besides being undated, does not contain any details including the e-mail header. A statement has been handed over the court in support of the submission that the letter is an obvious fabrication made by a Marathi speaking person because in as many as 17 places, it contains references to words scribed in Devanagari, using forms peculiar to Marathi. It has been urged that Sudha Bhardwaj who does not belong to Maharashtra and is not Marathi speaking, could not possibly have written a letter in Devanagari utilising essentially Marathi forms of grammar or address. We need not delve into these aspects at this stage, since they are matters for a fair investigation.”
Further, in a recent reportage where the Caravan investigated documents and other forensic material of the case, which the Pune Police had presented to the court and supplied to the accused persons, as true copies of the purportedly incriminating files, they found many indications that the police may have used the devices while it had them in its custody, and may have edited files on them. Further, while examining the contents of the disk of one of the accused, they found an executable file infected with a malware that can allow stealing of information such as usernames and passwords and, more importantly, allow remote access to the computer, which can then be used to plant files on a system.
Covid-19 and Continued Incarceration
Two years after the arrest, Sudha remains incarcerated without a trial. During this period her father passed away. After a Covid-19 outbreak in the prisons of Maharashtra, Sudha Bharadwaj filed bail applications in front of Sessions, High Court and Supreme Court seeking interim bail on the grounds of her suffering comorbidities such as diabetes and high blood pressure. It was contended that having a history of pulmonary tuberculosis, Sudha is at a higher risk of contracting the Corona virus in prison, and that this infection in her present medical condition with two severe comorbidities would be life threatening. During the hearings, it came to light that Sudha has developed Ischemic heart disease during her incarceration. Both the Sessions and the Hon’ble High Court however, rejected the bail applications. The Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed the petition as withdrawn after asking Ms. Bharadwaj’s lawyer as to why she is seeking bail on medical grounds when she has “such a good case on merits’.