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The 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence was again highlighted in news after the Supreme Court set aside the Delhi High Court’s decision on Gautam Navlakha. On August 20, 2018, Gautam Navlakha was arrested for allegedly instigating the violence at Bhima Koregaon. After being presented before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate at Saket, Delhi, he was placed under house arrest. Later on, after a period of six weeks he was released.
On January 24, 2020, the investigation of the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (“NIA”). On April 14, 2020, he surrendered before the NIA and was once again arrested. On May 2020, he moved the Delhi High Court for interim bail on the ground of COVID-19. The Delhi High Court, on May 27 asked the NIA to produce records as why he was transferred from Delhi to Mumbai in an “unseemly haste”, while the interim bail of his was still pending in the court. Simultaneously, the State of Maharashtra moved the Supreme Court against the order of the Delhi High Court. On 10 July, 2020 the Supreme Court adjourned the appeal of the State with Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta arguing that “The High Court could not have gone into this issue.”
Facts of Incident
Nine activists were arrested by the Pune Police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (“UAPA”) for their alleged involvement in the violence that took place after the Bhima Koregaon celebrations on January 1, 2018. The event is celebrated every year to commemorate the defeat of the Peshwa Kingdom which was known for its oppressive and casteist rule. On January 1, 1818 in the village of Koregaon Bhima, a small battalion of the English Army consisting of soldiers from Dalit, Tribal, Muslim, Christian and other backward communities had defeated a much larger contingent led by Peshwa Bajirao II.
In 2018, on the 200th anniversary of the battle, lakhs of people had gathered to pay their respects at the Bhima Koregaon Vijay Stambh, 30 kms from Pune. On the way back, they were attacked by a mob comprising members of various right wing organizations. A day earlier, on December 31st, an anti-caste event called the Elgaar Parishad had been organized by two retired judges P. B. Sawant and B.G. Kolse Patil. Police suspect the speeches made and performances delivered at this event, may have provoked the attacks of next day.
A victim, Anita Sawale filed a FIR on January 2 with the Pune Rural Police naming the chief perpetrators Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide, also known as Sambhaji Bhide. On February 13, in an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Maharashtra government declared that the violence was committed as part of a pre-planned conspiracy by Ekbote and others. In April however the story took a different turn. Acting on an FIR filed by Tushar Damgude, a follower of Sambhaji Bhide, the Pune City Police raided the homes of five activists across the country.
On June 6, they were arrested under the draconian UAPA, allegedly for having links with Maoists, who the police claim organized the Elgaar Parishad event and sparked the violence. The police also produced letters supposedly written by Maoists that referred to an assassination plot against the Prime Minister. These letters have been dismissed as fabricated by anti-insurgency experts. They did however popularize the use of the term “Urban Maoist”.
On September 28, in a minority dissenting opinion, in the Supreme Court, speaking through J. DY Chandrachud questioned the Maharashtra Police’s ability to conduct an impartial investigation. The Court also questioned the authenticity of a letter allegedly written by accused Sudha Bharadwaj which contains words and phrases used only by a Marathi speaking person. Justice Chandrachud while taking the view that the Special Investigating Team should be appointed to prove the case also expressed concern at the way the police had selectively leaked information to the media. Recently, on January 24, 2020 the case has been transferred to the NIA, which opened grounds for criticism.
Legal Provisions Involved
The FIR filed under this case against the 9 activists on the ground of their connection with various anti-national groups (like Maoists and also with some other terrorist organizations). They have been booked under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. This act authorizes the government to ban unlawful organizations and terrorist organizations. The UAPA is so arbitrary that the basic ingredient for the satisfaction of an offence, “Mens Rea” (implying the intent to commit the offence) is missing. Therefore any innocent act can make you liable to imprisonment.
They have also been booked under Section 120-B of Indian Penal Code which states that whoever is a party to a criminal conspiracy, is punishable with death, imprisonment for life or rigorous imprisonment for a period of two years or above.
Bhima Koregaon violence has always been the center of controversy since the incident took place in 2018. The nature of investigation that the police did has always been a disputed one. It has always been assumed that the political parties have tried to shield the actual perpetrators of the violence. This has become more evident by the fact that the two major suspects, Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide have never been arrested. The entire case has been shifted onto nine activists who are alleged to have links with Maoists. The left organizations of the country never accept the fact that their activists have been behind the violence.
Moreover in recent times the transfer of the case to the National Investigation Agency has led to a lot of controversy on the role of Central Government. It is consistently doubted that the BJP government has been trying to mold the case to their benefit. The State Government led by Udhav Thakre had offered a lot of resistance to this.
We can conclusively agree that nobody knows the reality behind the violence. The controversy has been blown out of proportion on account of the involvement of political players and their political motives. There have also been a lot of disputes over the nature of police investigation time and again. But we must retain the faith in the judicial authorities, that they will adjudicate upon the dispute in a purely legal manner, without any political or other motivation or influence.
Author: Nikita Singh from Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India