More than 15 social rights organisation and over 5,000 individuals across the world have signed a statement in solidarity with activists Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, urging the Centre to delay their arrest in the Bhima Koregaon violence case in view of the coronavirus outbreak.

The statement, initiated by India Civil Watch-International – a civil rights advocacy group – was signed by well-known public figures such as Noam Chomsky, Jean Dreze, Arundhati Roy and Aparna Sen, among others.

Teltumbde and Navlakha are expecting to be arrested by April 6 after the Supreme Court on March 16 rejected their anticipatory bail petitions. The civil rights activists were charged under provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code following the violence at Bhima Koregaon village near Pune on January 1, 2018. Navlakha, who is accused of having links with Maoists, was one of the 10 activists arrested in 2018.

The statement said that the activists were more vulnerable to the coronavirus because of their age and pre-existing medical conditions. They fall in the high-risk group as it has been found that older people with underlying medical conditions are more susceptible to getting infected, it added.

“Incarceration at such a time will most definitely endanger their lives and health,” the statement said. “At the very least, we urge the judicial authorities to delay their arrest order, to after the global health crisis is fully subsided and there is no danger to their health and life.”

Citing prison reform advocates and health experts, the statement said prisons are amplifiers of infectious disease, especially for individuals with underlying health conditions. “In India, with latest projections estimating that the pandemic could affect at least tens or even hundreds of millions of people, prisons are already in the process of releasing thousands of prisoners to forestall the spread of the virus in the population as a whole,” it added.

The group also said that the arrest of Teltumbde and Navlakha marks “another escalation in ongoing efforts to target dissent” in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Last month, the Supreme Court asked all states and Union Territories to set up high-level committees to consider releasing prisoners or undertrials on parole or interim bail if they are accused of offences entailing up to seven years in prison. This was to be done to initiate decongestion of prisons in the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak.

A special court in Mumbai on Tuesday rejected the temporary bail plea of activists Varavara Rao and Shoma Sen accused in the Elgar Parishad case. They had sought to be released from jail in view of the coronavirus pandemic. In their bail plea, the activists said they were suffering from multiple ailments and that they fall in the high-risk group because of their age and medical history.

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Bhima Koregaon and Elgar Parishad cases

On January 1, 2018, violence erupted between Dalits and Marathas near the village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra’s Pune district, where lakhs of Dalits had converged to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon. Dalit Mahar soldiers fighting for the British Army defeated the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire in the battle in 1818. This happened a day after an event in Pune called the Elgar Parishad was organised to commemorate the battle. One person died in violence during a bandh called by Dalit outfits on January 2.

The Pune police conducted raids on several activists in April 2018, followed by two rounds of arrests that targeted 10 activists. On June 6, 2018, they arrested Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut from Nagpur, Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, and Rona Wilson from Delhi. On August 28, 2018, the police arrested five more activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha.

By this time, the accusations against the activists had grown from inciting the violence in Bhima Koregaon to alleged involvement in a nationwide “Maoist” conspiracy to destabilise democracy, overthrow the government by setting up an “anti-fascist front” and plotting to assassinate Narendra Modi. All of the activists were labelled as “urban Naxalites” and accused of being members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

The two cases were so far being investigated by the Pune Police, but earlier this year, the Centre transferred the Elgar Parishad inquiry to the National Investigation Agency.