On September 7, the National Investigation Agency arrested two members of the Kabir Kala Manch cultural group, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor, in connection with its inquiry into the violence at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra on December 31, 2017. A day later, Jyoti Jagtap, another member of the group, had been arrested.
This latest action by the agency takes the total number of arrests in the case to 15. The dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has been invoked to keep many of them in custody.
Last month, the agency summoned Delhi University professor Hany Babu to Mumbai for questioning and then arrested him. In recent days, the agency has summoned academic Partho Sarathi Ray, scholar K Satyanarayana and journalist KV Kurmanath have been for questioning.
In May, activist Gautam Navlakha was hurriedly taken to Mumbai to effect custody before a court, even as the Delhi High Court was hearing his petitions against the agency’s attempts to incarcerate him.
The authorities have claimed that the activists are part of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), that they planned events aimed at destabilising the government and that they plotted to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Ten of the 15 people arrested, including activists like Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen, have been in jail for over two years. The courts have consistently denied them bail. The NIA has told the courts that the investigation could be jeopardised if they are released.
The NIA took over the case in January, against the wishes of the newly elected Maharashtra government under an alliance led by the Shiv Sena. Even before it took charge, the evidence in the case related to email and other electronic files that the Maharashtra police claimed had been seized from the activists. However, serious questions have been raised about the manner in which this evidence was collected. The arrested people have accused the investigative agencies of tampering with the records and failing to provide copies of the electronic gadgets they are relying on to make their case.
They also claimed that spyware attacks had been attempted against the activists to plant evidence.
On September 5, the charge that the authorities were concocting evidence was reiterated when Gorkhe and Gaichor of the Kabir Kala Manch put out a video before they were arrested claiming that the NIA was coercing them to make false statements to fix the activists already in custody. The two men said in the video that the NIA offered to let them off if they agreed to testify against the other activists.
It seems that the NIA, as it has struggles to find any credible evidence against the activists, has resorted to outright bullying. Even though it has been nine months since the NIA took over the case, it is still relying substantially on evidence collected by the Pune Police. For example, The Print reported that the contents of the NIA affidavits opposing the bail petitions of activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and Shoma Sen earlier this year was similar to the findings of the Pune Police in 2018 and 2019.
Even as the NIA has proceeded with a series of arrests during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has used the pandemic situation to stall filing chargesheets in many of these arrests. In July, it took a 90-day extension to file chargesheets against academic Anand Teltumbde and Navlakha.
Despite the clear lack of evidence from the NIA, the courts have not granted bail to the activists, some of whom have been languishing in jail for over two years. If the courts do not intervene to pull up the NIA, its strategy of intimidation will continue unabated, vitiating the entire trial.