Mumbai: Exactly a year ago, on 6 June 2018, the Pune Police arrested five activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.
Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Surendra Gadling, the five activists, have now spent 365 days behind bars, trying to get copies of the allegedly incriminating letters that the police is said to have seized from them, and are still fighting for bail.
Four more activists arrested subsequently last year — Varavara Rao, Sudha Bhardwaj, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira — also find themselves in the same situation.
The prosecution had labelled the arrested activists “Urban Naxals,” a term that several BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and supporters caught on to describe not just the arrested activists, but any person speaking in their support or against the government.
In court, the prosecution said while there is no concrete definition for “Urban Naxal,” the operations of the accused, who work as poets, academicians, lawyers and human rights activists but spread the Maoist ideology under that guise, could be the right definition of the term.
Rohan Nahar, a lawyer representing some of the accused, told ThePrint, “There were a total of three applications till now — two last year and one earlier this year — to get cloned copies of the seized documents.”
Pune sessions court judge K.D. Vadane directed the police on 17 May to share the cloned copies with the accused or their counsel in the presence of a forensic officer. However, with the Pune Police still to comply, the court Tuesday set 27 June as the next date for compliance.
The ‘incriminating’ letters
The Pune Police claims to have seized material from the houses of the arrested activists that shows they were active members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and were involved in creating a front to wage war against the country and destabilise the democratically-elected government.
The police claims the 31 December 2017 Elgar Parishad event at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada that allegedly sparked the Bhima Koregaon violence on 1 January 2018 was a part of this larger plan.
At least one person died and several were injured when stones were hurled and vehicles set ablaze in villages around Koregaon Bhima in Pune district, where Dalits from across the country were making their way for the bicentenary celebrations of the 1818 Bhima Koregaon battle held annually on 1 January.
Some of the letters allegedly show that the activists were helping CPI (Maoist) procure arms, recruit and train cadre from college campuses, share details of security forces deployment in Naxal-hit areas of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh and so on.
One of the letters also suggested a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi-type” incident.
It is on the basis of these letters that the police has filed two chargesheets, one in November and another in February, under sections of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
The prosecution initially refused to share the documents saying the electronic data, which includes encrypted files, deleted data and email communication, is highly sensitive and the accused could transfer it to the outlawed CPI(Maoist).
Shivaji Pawar, assistant commissioner of police, Pune Police, said, “Now that the court has ordered us to share the cloned copies, we will comply. There are just some technicalities that need to be sorted. We were waiting for a forensic officer to be available.”
Pawar, however, said he cannot comment on the date by when the compliance will be done.
Nahar said getting hold of cloned copies as against taking copies from the court registry is important for the accused to determine if the prosecution has tampered with the data in any way.
“The cloned copies will carry some hash value. If it does not match with the hash value of the documents seized it will imply that the police have tampered with the data, and the prosecution will not be able to rely on these documents for its case,” said the lawyer.
A hash value uniquely identifies data by representing them through smaller numeric values.
The case so far
In June last year, the Pune Police arrested Dalit activist Dhawale, activist Wilson, academician Sen, former prime minister rural development fellow Raut and activist-lawyer Gadling from Mumbai, Delhi and Nagpur.
Five more lawyers and rights activists — Ferreira, Gonsalves, Rao, Gautam Navlakha, and Bhardwaj — were arrested in the case on 28 August. These activists were initially placed under house arrest after a Supreme Court reprieve.
The police formally arrested Bhardwaj, Gonsalves and Ferreira on 26 October, and Rao on 17 November, while Navlakha has escaped arrests until now with repeated judicial reprieves.
All the activists have been lodged at Pune’s Yerawada jail. All arrests so far have been on the basis of an FIR filed by one Pune-based Tushar Damgude, a week after the Bhima Koregaon violence.
The FIR, which only mentions Dhawale out of all the accused arrested, speaks about how statements, speeches and songs at the Elgaar Parishad had the potential to create social divide and instigate violence.
The Pune special court is currently hearing bail applications of Gadling, Wilson, Sen, Raut, and Dhawale.
Bhardwaj, Ferreira and Gonsalves, who were denied bail by the trial court, have approached the Bombay High Court.
Meanwhile, the families of the accused along with human rights organisation Amnesty International are launching a campaign, with social media creatives and videos, to gather support for the activists’ release and attempt to change the narrative to project them as national heroes instead of anti-nationals.
“As a counter to the smear campaign by the government and the mainstream media, Amnesty International will showcase and highlight the decades of good work done by the Bhima Koregaon 9 (accused) for some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people,” said Nazia Erum, manager, media and advocacy at Amnesty International.
“Amnesty has traveled to areas where some of the activists live and work and has captured the voices of people from communities that have directly benefited from their work,” she told ThePrint.
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