The 80 year old Dr. Varavar Rao, a Telugu poet, while in prison for allegedly being involved in the Bhima Koregaon 2018 case, has been confirmed positive of the COVID-19 virus. There has been massive uproar on the social media regarding the conditions in which Rao has been kept, since the pandemic was declared, and how he is being treated in the hospital.
Further, there has been high controversy regarding the handling of the case by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the jurisdictions of the Courts who can hear bail pleas of any of the accused in the matter.
The accused in this case have been charged under the unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2002 (UAPA) and other sections of the IPC. The families and communities of these activists have been fighting to release the accused and demanding justice from the government.
The Bhima Koregaon History and Riots
Bhima Koregaon is a village near Pune which witnessed a historic war between the Peshwars (Marathas) and the Dalits, in 1818. The Dalits wanted to participate in the Kingdom’s affairs however the Peshwas discriminated against them on the basis of their low caste. The East India Company, taking advantage of this tussle between the two sects of the society, declared a war against the Peshawas, by forming a Dalit army, and won against them.
A pillar, the ‘Vijaya Sthamb’ was erected by the East India Company, as a memorial for all the Dalits who fought for them in the Battle. January 01, every year, is celebrated by the Dalits to commemorate this victory against the Marathas, by paying homage to these warriors, at the VijayaStambh. In 2018, the Dalits were to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this victory, however, a tussle broke out between the Dalits and the other caste people, resulting in atleast one death and several being injured. The Government charged 10 human rights activists including Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakh, Anand Teltumbade, for inciting people for violence, through their speeches at the Elgar Parishad Conclave, held on 31 December 2017. It was claimed that these activists were associated to the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Though, such claims were made by the police, the arrest was made, even before a chargesheet was filed.
The case was primarily handled by the Maharashtra State Government(the Pune Police), however, it was later taken over by the Central Government and the investigation was carried out by the NIA, without the state government’s consent. Thereafter, the Maharashtra State Government decided to constitute a Special Investigation Team, to carry out investigations in the matter.
Constitutionality of NIA
However, there have been concerns with respect to the constitutionality of the NIA. This is majorly because of the power struggle between a state’s police force and the Centre’s control over investigations through the NIA and CBI. Essentially, only those cases which are listed under the Schedule of the NIA Act can be investigated by the NIA. For cases to be investigated by the CBI, permission for transfer of the case from the state government must be obtained. With respect to the investigative powers for cases of terror, such as the Bhima Koregaon violence, the jurisdictional aspect is still a highly contended issue. The cases may be covered under the Union list entry on the CBI, the state list entry on police , and the Concurrent list entry on criminal procedures.
Cases against Activists
The activists who have been arrested for having maoist links, with respect to the Elgar Parishad Conclave include Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen and Vernon Gonsalves. Allegedly, on the directions of the Eastern Regional Bureau (ERB) arrested CPI (Maoist), activist Sudhir Dhawale had floated the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan’ pamphlet, for organising the Elgar Parishad Conclave at Pune’s Shaniwarvada.
These Activists have also raised concerns regarding the transfer of the case to the NIA. In June 2020, Human Rights Lawyer Surendra Gadling and writer-activist Sudhir Dhawle, filed a petition challenging the transfer of the investigation from the Pune police to the NIA. The petition claimed that such a transfer is not permitted under the NIA Act, 2008, if the investigation has been completed and there are no compelling circumstances necessitating such a transfer.
The NIA had arrested the Dalit Activist, writer, and ancestor of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Anand Teltumbade in April 2020, on account of “receiving funds from the central committee of the banned CPI (Maoist) and was also part of the conspiracy hatched to promote enmity between caste groups”. He was recognised by the police as a key organiser, along with Sudhir Dhawale, of the Elgar Parishad Conclave.
These draconian laws are being used to torture highly acclaimed poets such as Varavar Rao, who are old and most vulnerable towards getting infected with COVID-19. Even when Varavar Rao was tested positive of COVID, he was not given the required medical facilities as would be given to a normal, old person. This shows a lack of responsibility by the Government, to ensure such important political prisoners’ safety.