A raging pandemic and nationwide lockdown this year did not stop the National Investigation Agency from making more arrests in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case of 2018.Academic Anand Teltumbde and journalist Gautam Navlakha were arrested in April, and Delhi University professor MT Hany Babu was arrested in July.

They joined nine other social activists, lawyers and academicians who have been in jail for two years under the anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, facing charges of participating in a Maoist conspiracy to overthrow the government and assassinate the prime minister. According to the police, the conspiracy extended to fomenting anti-government sentiments at the Elgar Parishad, an event organised by Dalit and human rights organisations in Pune in western Maharashtra, leading to the eruption of caste-based riots between Maratha and Dalit groups near Bhima Koregaon village on January 1, 2018.

While fresh arrests in the conspiracy case were carried out despite the risks associated with Covid-19 in overcrowded jails, the Maharashtra government has stalled the investigation into the actual incident of violence at Bhima Koregaon, because of the lockdown.

For the past five months, the state government has not renewed the tenure of the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry, a two-member judicial commission set up in February 2018 to look into the events leading to the caste-based riots. Despite requesting a six-month extension in its tenure in March, the commission has been defunct since its term expired on April 8.

This has halted the inquiry into the manner in which the violence unfolded at Bhima Koregaon and the events that triggered the riots.

Lawyers in Nagpur protest against the arrest of their colleague Surendra Gadling. Credit: PTI

Fifty more witnesses

On the morning of January 1, 2018, thousands of Dalits had gathered at Koregaon Bhima in Pune district to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, in which Dalit soldiers fighting for the British Army had defeated the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire. Later in the day, Maratha and Dalit groups broke into violent clashes in which one person was killed and several injured.

In the aftermath of the riots, 649 cases were registered with the state police, with each caste group blaming the other for triggering the violence. In February this year, after a new Shiv Sena-led coalition government came to power in Maharashtra, 348 of the Bhima Koregaon cases were withdrawn, but 301 are yet to be investigated.

Two of the cases registered with the Pune rural police have accused Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide of instigating the Bhima Koregaon violence through hate speeches in the week before the incident. However, Ekbote was arrested only briefly before being released on bail, and Bhide has neither been questioned nor detained.

When the judicial inquiry commission appointed in February 2018 had initially been given a tenure of just four months, with retired high court judge JN Patil as its chairman and Sumit Mullick, who was the chief secretary of the Maharashtra government at the time, as the second member. However, the commission received over 500 affidavits from witnesses in its first term, and has been given extensions four times since February 2018 to conduct hearings with witnesses.

“We still have 50 more witnesses to hear and need six more months to finish the work,” said VV Palnitkar, the secretary of the inquiry commission, who submitted a status report to the state government on March 24, a day before the lockdown came into effect. In the report, Palnitkar asked for a six-month extension and listed some of the witnesses it is yet to examine. Sharad Pawar, the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party, was one of the witnesses.

“But we have not heard from the government about our request for extending the term,” said Palnitkar.

In June, state home minister Anil Deshmukh claimed that the government was busy handling Covid-19, and that the commission’s tenure would be extended later. In the past two-and-a-half months, however, the state government has not moved to revive the commission.

‘Myth-making in front of our eyes’

For many human rights activists and lawyers, this disregard for the work of the inquiry commission is reflective of the contrasting ways in which the government has treated the conspiracy case and the Bhima Koregaon violence cases.

In the former case, police and government officials have repeatedly used the term “urban Naxals” and “Maoists” to describe various Dalit rights activists, lawyers, academicians and writers, who have been booked and arrested from across the country since June 2018. In the latter cases, investigations into the role of right-wing Hindutva leaders in stoking the violence have been allowed to fizzle out.

“It is very clear that the government is not serious about keeping the commission going or to give life to the inquiry,” said Susan Abraham, a lawyer whose husband, Vernon Gonsalves, is among the 12 activists arrested in the conspiracy case. “All that will remain in public memory will be the narrative that a bunch of urban Naxals were responsible for the violence, and the actual perpetrators of the violence will be forgotten. It is myth-making, happening in front of our eyes.”

While the government has cited Covid-19 as a reason for not extending the commission’s term, jail authorities neglected the health of 80-year-old Varavara Rao, another activist arrested in the conspiracy case, who had to be hospitalised in July for a variety of health complications. He was also found Covid-positive. During his stay in the hospital for over a month, he was neither granted bail nor allowed to meet his family, said Abraham.

Harshali Potdar, a Mumbai-based activist who has been named as an accused in the conspiracy case, believes that the government’s silence on extending the judicial commission’s term is not the only factor compromising the outcome of the commission.

In the days after the Bhima Koregaon incident, Potdar claims the state police conducted “combing operations” in villages around the area, detaining more than 3,000 Dalit youth. “Because of this, locals were scared and very few people turned up to give statements to the commission,” said Potdar, a member of the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement.

The composition of the commission itself was questionable, Potdar said, because its member, Sumit Mullick, was the chief secretary of the state government in 2018. “This is a conflict of interest, because a judicial commission is supposed to be independent,” said Potdar, who has already submitted her own affidavit to the commission. “But I do not have any hope from this commission.”