Bhima Koregaon Arrests: Why Today’s Supreme Court Hearing Is Crucial
The court will decide whether activists including Sudha Bharadwaj should be sent to custody or freed
NEW DELHI — On 28 August, the Pune police arrested five activists — Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha — in connection with the violence that erupted at Bhima Koregaon in January. Today, the Supreme Court will hold a hearing that may decide the trajectory of the case. HuffPost India tells you what to expect.
Why is today’s Supreme Court hearing relevant?
In a hearing on 29 August, the Supreme Court passed an interim order sending all five arrested activists to house arrest. The court is expected to decide today whether to release the activists from house arrest, extend it or let the Pune Police get custody of them. The hearing is based on a petition filed by reputed academics including historian Romila Thapar and economist Prabhat Patnaik seeking the release of the activists from police arrest. It will also decide whether to make Tushar Damgude, who filed the FIR the Pune City police acted upon, a party to the case.
What is the Bhima Koregaon controversy all about?
On 31 December 2017, a large gathering of Ambedkarite and Progressive activists converged outside the historic Shaniwarwada fort in Pune city. The meeting, held on the eve of 200-year-anniversary of the battle at Bhima Koregaon, was called the ‘Elgaar Parishad’. The attendees, which included Dalit rights activist and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Maharashtrian Dalit politician Prakash Ambedkar and Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula, among others, also took a public pledge to never vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party.
On 1 January, an even larger group of people congregated at the Bhima Koregaon Memorial in rural Pune. The occasion is seen as a kind of pilgrimage by the Dalit community in Maharashtra and beyond. In 1818, a regiment predominantly comprising Mahar soldiers from the British Indian Army defeated an army of the Peshwa empire, which followed oppressive casteist practises. However, upper caste and Ambedkarite versions of this narrative over the past two centuries have often been at odds. While the former think India lost a war against the Colonial Army, the latter see it is an example of the valour of the Dalit, especially Mahar, community.
Over the past two decades and more, as identity politics grew in the country, the 1 January commemoration has become an even more important event.
This year, however, the commemoration attracted much controversy due to violence that broke out, leading to the death of one man and injuring at least four others. While Ambedkarites say that the violence was instigated by two Hindutva leaders, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, to cause polarisation between the Maratha and Dalit communities, the right-wingers hold that this was a plot by the Naxalites. The Pune City police acted upon an FIR lodged by Damgude, who has described himself as a disciple of Bhide, the right-wing leader who politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi profess to admire. Union minister Ramdas Athawale, who has accepted the police’s claim about a Maoist plot, told HuffPost India that he still backs demands for probing the role of the right-wing activists in the violence. The organisers, however, have denied that anyone associated with Elgaar Parishad has Naxalite links.
What is the status of the many investigations and probes in the case?
As the controversy surrounding the Elgaar Parishad and the violence at Bhima Koregaon has heated up, cases have piled up in three different locations across the country have piled up in connection with both the events. Pune’s city and rural police are both investigating multiple FIRs which appear to be probing contradictory angles about the two incidents. During probes conducted following these FIRs, the City police approached a sessions court in Pune after it arrested human rights activists in June, accusing them of conspiring to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi and seeking their custody. Similarly, when the five activists were arrested in August, first the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court both heard petitions filed by reputed academics seeking release of all the human rights activists. So far, the Mumbai High Court has also heard two petitions — one by activist Anita Savale seeking to probe the role of Bhide and Ekbote and another by Sanjay Gaikwad who has sought an inquiry into the matter by the National Investigation Agency. As per official statements, the police are investigating both the Hindutva as well Maoist conspiracy angles.