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Exclusives - 15 April, 2020

Teltumbde, Navlakha’s arrest widely criticised

Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, surrendered before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Mumbai on Tuesday. #Teltumbde,Navlakha'sarrest...

By Samuel Mathai & Pervez Bari

Several politicians, activists, writers, leading intellectuals, economists and legal experts have condemned the arrest of Dalit activists and scholars Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde.

On the 9th April directive of the Supreme Court, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, surrendered before the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Mumbai on Tuesday.

Teltumbde and co-accused Gautam Navlakha were given interim protection by the Bombay High Court while their pre-arrest bail pleas were being heard. After the High Court rejected their applications, the two approached the Supreme Court. On March 17, the Supreme Court rejected their pleas and directed them to surrender within three weeks.

The case was handed over to the NIA earlier this year after a tussle between the centre and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. The Pune police had withheld the alleged recovered documents from the NIA in the absence of a clearance from the state government, but later did so after the Chief Minister cleared the move.

Anand Teltumbde is the grandson-in-law of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution. Ironically, Teltumbde's arrest coincided with Ambedkar's 129th birth anniversary. During his surrender, the activist was accompanied by Ambedkar's grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, who called it a "fraud case".

An engineer and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) who taught at IIT Kharagpur, Anand Teltumbde has been accused of Maoist links and of conspiring against the government. He was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA for the violence after the Elgar Parishad meet in Pune on December 31, 2017.

On the eve of his arrest, Teltumbde wrote an open letter to the people of India, in which he said, "I do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes."

Writing about Teltumbde's imminent arrest, his daughters Prachi and Rashmi wrote in the Caravan magazine, "As we look into our parents' eyes, we see only pain. Since we heard the verdict, it feels like life has come to a halt," they wrote.

I do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes, he wrote.

'My hope rests on a speedy and fair trial', says Navlakha

Before his surrender Gautam Navlakha penned down some of his thoughts on his impending incarceration. He said, “A week of freedom means a lot in my condition, even in the age of lockdown. Their order resolved the predicament I encountered in complying with the March 16 order of the apex court, which obliged me to surrender by April 6 before the NIA, Mumbai.

“The lockdown that followed prevented me from travelling. Also there was no direction from NIA (Mumbai) regarding what I should do under the circumstances. I know now that I have to surrender myself to the NIA headquarters in Delhi.

“My hope rests on a speedy and fair trial for myself and all my fellow co-accused. This alone will enable me to clear my name, and walk free, having also used the time in jail to rid myself of acquired habits,” he stated.

What is the case against them?

Tens of thousands of Dalits had gathered at a war memorial called Bhima-Koregaon to commemorate the bicentenary of the historic victory of the British colonial army, which had a substantial Dalit contingent, over the Hindu upper-caste Peshwa community. The attendees were allegedly attacked by the upper caste groups, resulting in one death while several others were wounded.

Two right-wing activists, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, were accused of inciting the violence against the gathering. Ekbote was arrested and later released on bail, but Bhide was never questioned.

The Pune police, however, turned their focus on a rally that took place a day before the violence. Two retired judges, BG Kolse Patil and PB Savant, had organised that rally, called Elgar Parishad, and attended by thousands in Pune. Police allege the Elgar Parishad rally was responsible for the January 1, 2018 violence, and that it had Maoist connections.

In June 2018, police arrested five rights activists - Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and Soma Sen - over the violence. Two months later, four more well-known activists - Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Vara Vara Rao - were also arrested.

All these activists have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which makes it virtually impossible to obtain bail. However, the law requires the police to submit their chargesheet within 90 days of the arrest, failing which, the accused are entitled to bail. But in February 2019, the Supreme Court gave police more time to file the chargesheet, which made the activists ineligible for bail.

That order was delivered by the then Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, who was nominated last month as a member of Parliament, an appointment believed to be backed by Modi's government. The Supreme Court order ensured that the arrested activists remained in jail. Teltumbde and Navlakha joined them on Tuesday.

The police claim to have recovered a letter from one of the 11 accused that discusses a plot to kill Modi in emails allegedly exchanged with fugitive Maoist leaders. One of those emails allegedly mentions a "Comrade Anand", based on which Teltumbde was charged.

Earlier, leading intellectuals, economists and legal experts had written to Chief Justice of India, Sharad Bobde, to "restore public confidence in our constitution and the civil liberties that it guarantees to all citizens" by stopping the arrests of Teltumbde and Navlakha. On Sunday last, senior journalists and writers held a video conference and called it a "witch-hunt" against the two activists.

Vengeful and wrong, Sharad Pawar

Sharad Pawar, whose party is now a part of the coalition government in Maharashtra, had called the arrests of activists "vengeful and wrong" and had promised a fair investigation.

Teltumbde's lawyer Mihir Desai called the sudden transfer of the case to the NIA "shady". "They are trying to protect the right-wing activists accused in the January 1 violence," he said and added "To me, it looks like vendetta by the union government against the accused."

Both Teltumbde and Navlakha are susceptible to a virus infection considering their age. Teltumbde, being an asthmatic, is even more vulnerable.

Human rights lawyer Nihalsing Rathod said when the government should be looking to decongest prisons, it was "hell-bent" on jailing the two.

PFI & SDPI condemn arrest of Teltumbde, Navlakha

Popular Front of India (PFI) and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) have condemned the arrest of social activists and writers Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. PFI Chairman OMA Salam in a statement has called the charges against Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha unfounded and part of political vendetta.

Salam said that it shows that instead of prioritising the prevention of public health threat posed by COVID-19, the Central government is making use of the lockdown as a convenience to intensify its cruel autocratic character. He also demanded immediate release of all political prisoners to avoid the risk of Coronavirus in the prisons, the statement stated.

Meanwhile, M.K. Faizy, national president of SDPI in a press release has said that the arrest of Teltumbde, the strong proponent of the fight for social justice that Dr. Ambedkar had envisaged, on Ambedkar's birthday is a disgrace to the nation.

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