The Supreme Court has on Friday extended protection to activist Gautam Navlakha from arrest until further order while setting October 15 as the date for the next hearing. So what is the Bhima Koregaon case for which Navlakha and other activists have been targeted by the police?
The Maharashtra police arrested five prominent citizens - writer and poet Varavara Rao, lawyer and activist Sudha Bhardwaj, academic and activist Vernon Gonsalves, and human rights activists Arun Ferreira and Gautam Navlakha - on August 28, 2018. The police said that they had links with Maoists. The police claimed that these activists had funded the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017, where inflammatory speeches were made that allegedly led to the violence had erupted the following day, January 1, 2018, at Bhima Koregaon village during a commemorative event.
Bhima Koregaon is a village in Pune district where a British army unit comprising mainly Dalits defeated the upper caste-dominated army of the Peshwa in a battle on January 1, 1818. Bhima Koregaon has, over the years, become a symbol in Maharashtra of Dalit pride. Since 2018 marked 200 years of the battle, more people expectedly attended the celebrations.
On December 29, 2018, the memorial of local hero Govind Gopal Mahar was found desecrated, leading to tension between Dalits and upper castes in the village and the neighbouring areas. The incident was mentioned in the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2018. The Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shanivarwada in Pune saw a large number of people gather to listen to Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, JNU student leader Umar Khalid, Dalit icon Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula, tribal rights activist Soni Sori and many other activists.
Police said the speeches made at Elgar Parishad triggered violence the next day during the commemorative celebration of the Bhima Koregaon battle organised by the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan.
Violence erupted when some groups carrying saffron flags entered the scene. One person, identified as 28-year-old Rahul Fatangale from Nanded, was killed and many others were injured. Opposition parties and activists blamed Hindutva outfits and the ruling BJP for inciting and indulging in violence.
Police lodged two FIRs in connection with the violence and speeches. The first one named an outfit called Kabir Kala Manch while the other accused Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid.
Before arresting these five on August 28, in June, 2018, police had arrested five other prominent activists and claimed to have recovered some documents.
They were Sudhir Dhawale, Dalit activist and editor of Marathi magazine Vidrohi; Shoma Sen, Head of the English department at Nagpur University; Surendra Gadling, prominent Dalit activist and human rights lawyer; social activist Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson, general secretary of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.
The police claimed that the documents included an e-mail about a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a "Rajiv Gandhi-type" attack. The e-mail was apparently retrieved during a raid at Rona Wilson’s place.
The e-mail was allegedly written by one "R" and addressed to a certain "Comrade Prakash". It allegedly talked about a "Rajiv Gandhi-type incident" and reportedly suggested that Modi be targeted during one of his "road shows".
The email allegedly also mentioned requirement of Rs 8 crore for procurement of an M-4 assault rifle along with four lakh rounds of ammunition.
While it is surprising that Maoists, who are known to be secretive, will actually write such a sensitive letter in such plain language, what is also interesting is that M-4 is not an assault rifle but a carbine. A carbine is not a long-range weapon usually used in targeted assassinations. To use a carbine on a target, the shooter needs to get quite close to his or her target. Considering the kind of security the Indian Prime Minister has, it is next to impossible.
Also, the police, in its 5000-pages-long chargesheet against Wilson and the other four, has devoted less than 10 pages to the alleged plot to kill the Prime Minister which is surprising.
Activists believe there is a conscious attempt by the ruling governments at the Centre and the state to slap false charges on human rights activists who speak up against the BJP misrule in both India and Maharashtra.