On Monday, an Amnesty International report, put together with digital activist group Citizens Lab, pointed to targeted spyware attacks last year against nine human rights defenders who were helping the people arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case in Maharashtra.
The report is the latest chapter in a case in which it seems an array of forces are at work to plant evidence against 11 human rights activists and lawyers arrested in connection with violence that erupted between Marathas and Dalits in the village of Bhima Koregaon outside Pune on January 1, 2018.
This violence came a day after an event in Pune called the Elgar Parishad to commemorate the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818. In this battle, Dalit Mahar soldiers fighting for the British helped defeat the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire.
The police arrested 11 people they said were responsible for organising the Elgar Parishad, claiming that they were had links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Almost two years later, the activists remain in prison without bail, even as the National Investigation Agency, which abruptly took over the case in January following a unilateral decision by the Union Home Ministry, continues to function at snail’s pace. The NIA has ignored allegations that Hindutva supporters had sparked the 2018 violence.
The Amnesty-Citizens Lab report on the spyware attack is part of a continuing saga that points to attempts to plant violence and covert surveillance of the people trying to help the activists legally.
When the arrests began in the case in June 2018, the Pune Police, then under the control of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Maharashtra government, cited grand conspiracies to put the activists in jail. They were even said to have been involved in an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The police produced a string of letters it claim to have found in the computers and hard drives of the arrested activists to push the case that all of them were part of the conspiracy to destabilise the government.
After the NIA took over the case in January, it came to light that hard drives that the investigation agency was depending on to pin guilt on the activists were infected by malware, a kind of software that provided remote access to them. The alleged incriminating letters found in the devices themselves have been seriously disputed by security experts and lawyers, who had claimed that they had been conveniently put together to create a web of conspiracy that never existed.
The latest report by Amnesty International shows that this effort to cook up evidence and intimidate those helping the activists is a continuing operation. In October, it came to light that a spyware tool called Pegasus had been used against over a dozen Indians, including at least three connected with defending those accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
The NIA has a dubious record of going after opponents of the government. It has also been accused of helping those close to the political dispensation by demolishing cases against them painstakingly built by other agencies. This was apparent in the case related to the bomb blasts that occurred in Malegaon in Maharashtra in 2008. In the final charge sheet in 2014, the NIA gave a clean chit to several accused, including Bharatiya Janata Party MP Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, in direct contravention to findings of the Maharastra’s Anti Terrorism Squad.
There is growing evidence of illegal interference in the Bhima Koregaon case. The courts must examine these attempts quickly and end the incarceration of the 11 activists, some of whom have already spent close to two years in prison.