Mumbai, India – On Monday, Bombay High Court granted a brief relief to Dalit scholar and activist Anand Teltumbde, who has been facing arrest for his alleged links to a banned Maoist organisation.
But Teltumbde’s troubles are not over yet. The court will decide on February 22 if he can be arrested or granted bail in a case that, critics and legal minds say, has been used by the government to target civil rights activists.
Teltumbde has been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) under which the accused can be jailed for years without bail.
The UAPA was first introduced in 1967 as an “anti-terror law”, but it has been made tougher after a number of amendments giving sweeping powers to law-enforcement agencies.
If you commit murder, you are entitled to bail. Under UAPA even if you are innocent, you lose four-five years of your life.
Police in Pune district have filed a case against at least 22 people, including Teltumbde, for allegedly having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) after violence broke out in January 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, a village about 170km southeast of Mumbai city.
Teltumbde, a professor at the Goa Institute of Management, claims the charges are “concocted” and based on “completely fabricated evidence”.
At the heart of the prosecution’s case is a tranche of letters – allegedly containing correspondence with Maoists – that the police claim were recovered from one of the accused, prison rights activist Rona Wilson.
Some of the letters mention the names of the activists, besides containing instructions for procuring arms and explosives, exhortations to “spread panic”, and a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Experts, however, have raised doubts on the authenticity of the letters.
“Even the dissenting judge in the Supreme Court judgement found the letters to be dubious, while questioning the police’s impartiality,” said Teltumbde’s lawyer Mihir Desai.
“In the letter, a Maoist claims he has arranged my trip to a women’s rights conference in Paris, meaning the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) collaborated with the American University of Paris to arrange my trip? This can be easily proven to be false,” Teltumbde told Al Jazeera.
The letter also mentioned two professors from US universities, as well as French Marxist thinker Etienne Balibar. “The conference organisers wrote a letter clarifying the facts,” he said.
In an open letter in January, Teltumbde said his “imminent arrest” was part of the “vilest post-Independence plot by the state”.
Last week, 600 scholars and faculty members from American and European universities urged the government to end what they called “witch-hunt” against Teltumbde.
Prime Minister Modi has said “urban Maoists” backed their rural counterparts, in a veiled reference to left-wing scholars and activists.
“Urban Maoists stay in cities and have luxurious lives, their children are well-educated, but they remote control the lives of adivasi (tribal) children and destroy their lives,” Modi said last November.
The case is linked to a historical event from more than 200 years ago – the Bhima Koregaon battle of January 1, 1818, when Dalits had sided with the East India Company to defeat the upper-caste Peshwa rulers.
The Maoist bogey is a favourite trope of the government when it wants to discredit protests.
A memorial built by the British to commemorate the event is visited by Dalits every year, but this year, Hindutva leaders (Hindu supremacists) opposed an event, Elgaar Parishad, held on December 31, 2017, to mark the bicentennial anniversary the next day.
Dalit activists say they came under attack on January 1, 2018, while returning from the Bhima Koregaon memorial.
They filed a police complaint against Hindutva leaders. The rival side filed a counter complaint saying inflammatory speeches made at the Parishad caused the violence.
Police action on the latter complaint was swift, whereas it appears to be dragging its feet in the former.
At least nine prominent activists, including Wilson, are already behind bars in connection with the high-profile case, that critics say, is part of Hindu nationalist government’s clampdown on democratic rights.
In June, the Pune police arrested lawyer Surendra Gadling, forest rights activist Mahesh Raut, English literature professor Shoma Sen, prison rights activist Rona Wilson, and poet-writer Sudhir Dhawale, under the UAPA.
In August, the police attempted to arrest five more persons – lawyer and civil rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj, journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha, lawyer and writer Arun Ferreira, writer and columnist Vernon Gonsalves, and poet and political worker Varavara Rao. Four activists were arrested, while Navlakha managed to secure protection from a high court.
Some of the activists have worked in areas where Maoists are active. Nihal Singh Rathod, a lawyer in the case, noted the irony of Raut being termed a Maoist, while he had persuaded villagers to participate in elections that the Maoists had boycotted.
Teesta Setalvad, a rights activist, said there has been a general attack on dissenting voices under the ruling BJP government. The BJP rules at both the federal level as well as at the Maharashtra state level where Bhima Koregaon is located.
“The proof [the police] have [offered] appears unsatisfactory,” Setalvad said adding that the “use of the draconian provisions of the UAPA is an attack on personal freedoms”.
Susan Abraham, the lawyer for one of the accused and the wife of Vernon Gonsalves, said the police had not followed the norm while seizing electronic devices.
“The entire case hinges on letters retrieved from computers, but the police till date have not provided us a copy of the material,” Abraham told Al Jazeera.
But the Joint Commissioner of Pune police, Shivaji Bodkhe, defended the police in the case.
He told Al Jazeera it was premature to comment on the veracity of the evidence. “Those questions will be dealt with once the trial commences.”
“The judges will take a call,” Bodkhe said.
But Desai contends that is the problem with UAPA, in which getting bail is extremely difficult. “If you commit murder you are entitled to bail. Under UAPA, even if you are innocent, you lose four-five years of your life.”
Three of the eight arrested – Ferreira, Gonsalves, and Dhawale – have been previously arrested under the UAPA law, and acquitted after spending three to six years in prison.
Activists have also voiced their concern at the media trial and the accused being labelled “urban Maoists” and “anti-nationals”.
This is not the first time, though. Feminist writer and Dalit activist Urmila Pawar said the “Maoist” bogey is a favourite trope of the government when it wants to discredit protests.
“When Dalits hit the streets in Maharashtra after the 2006 Khairlanji incident – wherein a Dalit family was killed by upper-caste neighbours – the government termed us Maoists,” she said.