New Delhi, India – A court in India has granted bail to prominent rights activist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, more than three years after she, along with more than a dozen others, was accused of conspiring to set off caste violence in a village in the western state of Maharashtra.
A week after the Bombay High Court granted “default bail” to Bharadwaj, a National Investigation Agency (NIA) court on Wednesday laid out the bail’s conditions, asking the 60-year-old activist to submit a bond of 50,000 rupees ($663), surrender her passport and remain in Mumbai for further investigation. The court also prevented her from talking to the media about the case.
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Bharadwaj was arrested in August 2018 in the Bhima-Koregaon case, which refers to a village by the same name in Maharashtra, located about 170km (106 miles) southeast of India’s financial capital Mumbai.
On January 1 each year, members of India’s marginalised Dalit (former “untouchables”) community gather at Bhima-Koregaon to mark a battle in 1818 in which the Dalits sided with the colonial British army to defeat Hindu upper-caste Peshwa rulers.
The commemorations in 2018, however, were marred by violence after a rally led by the Dalits was allegedly attacked by Hindus belonging to the privileged castes, who typically resent the celebration of the 200-year-old battle. At least one person was killed and many others wounded in the violence, leading to protests across Maharashtra and other parts of India.
The NIA accused 16 activists, including Bharadwaj, of delivering inflammatory speeches during the Bhima-Koregaon event and charged them under the “draconian” Unlawful Activities Prevention ACT (UAPA). They were also accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Senior lawyer Colin Gonsalves told Al Jazeera the case against Bharadwaj was a “pure and simple case of victimisation”.
“Even though I am overjoyed by the grant of statutory bail [to Bharadwaj], I must complain that three years is a shocking delay,” said Gonsalves.
Bharadwaj was born in 1961 in Boston, United States, to well-known academic parents. After finishing school, she studied mathematics at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, a premier state-run university in northern India.
As a trade union and civil rights lawyer, Bharadwaj has spent nearly 30 years working with India’s most marginalised people, mainly in the conflict-ridden state of Chhattisgarh.
Activist and author Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera Bharadwaj was that “rare citizen who decided young and then set about dedicating her entire life to securing dignity and justice to the most disadvantaged of her people”.
“To accuse her of Maoist violence is a travesty,” Mander said.
While the Bombay High Court granted bail to Bharadwaj, it denied it to eight other accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case: Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira.
With the exception of Rao, 81, a renowned Telugu poet currently out on medical bail, all the other accused are lodged in Taloja Central Jail near Mumbai.
In July this year, 84-year-old tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, also arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case, passed away at a private hospital in Mumbai on the day his interim bail plea was scheduled to be heard in a court.
Swamy was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and was repeatedly denied bail. His death caused huge public outrage, with the United Nations saying it was “deeply saddened and disturbed” by the demise.
Government ‘misusing’ UAPA
Supreme Court lawyer and activist Vrinda Grover told Al Jazeera the reason UAPA is referred to as a “draconian law” by rights groups is because “it departs from the regular norms and principles of criminal law and gives the state and its agents greater control over basic rights and freedoms”.
Grover said the trial in the Bhima-Koregaon case has not commenced and charges have not been framed even after three-and-a-half years, despite the arrest of various rights defenders.
“But the accused continue to languish in jail because offences under UAPA are alleged,” she said.
Although the UAPA had been in force since 1967, Modi’s government amended the law in 2019, allowing the authorities to tag individuals as “terrorists”. Earlier, the government could only designate organisations, and not individuals, as terrorists under the law.
Last week, India’s Junior Home Minister Nityanand Rai told the parliament that since 2016, at least 7,243 persons have been arrested under UAPA. In the same period, only 212 people – less than 3 percent of total arrests – were convicted under the legislation, according to government data.
Legal experts and activists have been demanding a repeal of UAPA, saying it has a “chilling effect” on free speech in a democracy.
“Frankly, I think the real intent of UAPA is that it’s [an] anti-free speech legislation,” lawyer Gonsalves told Al Jazeera.
“It is the only legislation that is being used to terrorise free speech and across the country, persons who are critical of the government are being booked under this Act.”
Lawyer Grover said the Bhima-Koregaon case is a “classic case study” on how UAPA makes the “process itself the punishment”.
“Stan Swamy’s death in jail exemplifies that,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The state has excessive and wide powers under UAPA and the same are abused by incarcerating persons for long periods of pre-trial detention.”
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera the UAPA is being “repeatedly misused to target” rights activists and against people who protest government policies they feel are unfair.
“This is a counterterrorism law, which suggests that the authorities appear unable to distinguish between those that want to promote human rights and those that actually abuse those rights with their indiscriminate acts of violence,” she said.
Activist Mander said it was “ironical” that India’s freedom movement against the British, led by Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders, was against laws that empowered the colonial government to indefinitely jail its critics and dissenters.
“Today, UAPA and the colonial-era sedition laws are doing the same. They are being widely used by India’s nominally democratic government to widely threaten and detain its critics – rights activists, academics and journalists,” he said.
“The wide misuse of these laws enfeebles India’s claims to be the world’s largest democracy.”