Several Dalit leaders, including MPs and MLAs, issued a statement on Monday calling the imminent arrest of activist Anand Teltumbde in the Bhima Koregaon case a “national shame”. On April 8, the Supreme Court had given a week’s time to Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha to surrender to prison authorities. The order came after the court had rejected their anticipatory bail pleas last month.

The counsel for the activists had argued that they are over 65 years old with pre-existing medical conditions, adding that they should be granted more time to surrender. “Going to jail at the time of the Covid-19 virus is virtually a death sentence,” the lawyer had said. However, the top court refused to budge.

On Monday, the Dalit leaders, which included Communist Party of India General Secretary D Raja, Independent Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Congress leader and former MP Udit Raj and Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi chief Prakash Ambedkar among others, said that Teltumbde will surrender on April 14, the birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar. They described the surrender of Teltumbde and Navlakha on the same day as “shameful for Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and minorities on many counts for all of India”.

The signatories accused the Centre of trying to “crush the spirit that kept the flame of democracy alive in our midst” and added that even extremely repressive regimes were releasing political prisoners in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The statement added that the arrest would be an “obnoxious warning of the casteist Manuvadi regime to Dalit, Adivasi, OBC and minority intellectuals not to raise their voices of protest”. They said Teltumbde’s arrest revealed India’s “entrenched casteism”.

The Dalit leaders called on the Dalit, OBC, Adivasi and minority leadership to “stand and seek justice” for Teltumbde’s freedom of expression. They asked the public to unite in the name of Ambedkar.

Violence broke out between Dalits and Marathas in the village of Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1, 2018. This came a day after an event in Pune, called the Elgar Parishad, was organised to commemorate the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818 in which the Dalit soldiers fighting for the British Army defeated the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire. One person died in violence during a bandh called by Dalit outfits on January 2.

Navlakha and Teltumbde were charged under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code following the violence at Bhima Koregaon village. The case made by the Pune Police alleged they had Maoist links, and the inquiry was later taken over by the National Investigation Agency.

Petitioners write to chief justice of India

Meanwhile, the petitioners in the Bhima Koregaon case wrote an open letter to Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, alleging that even though 18 months had passed since activists Varavara Rao, Arun Fereira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha had been arrested, the prosecution had failed to produce any new facts or evidence to support its case. “Despite this, not only have the accused been denied bail and deprived of their liberty, but two new names have been added to their ranks,” the petitioners said.

The petitioners – historian Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Devaki Jain, Maja Daruwala and Satish Deshpande reminded the Supreme Court that it had in 2018 ruled against the plea for a Special Investigation Team probe in the case, saying the inquiry was at an early stage.

“Like all fair-minded citizens, we are shocked that the prosecution has not been held accountable to the spirit of the law,” the petitioners wrote. “We are anguished that our courts have condoned the continued imprisonment of those who have dared to defend the rights of voiceless and marginalised people, and are now allowing this vindictive campaign to be expanded. This is especially inhuman and incomprehensible at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening our overcrowded jails.”

The petitioners urged the chief justice to defend the Constitution and uphold the human rights of the accused through a “positive intervention” in the matter.

Amnesty International condemns Supreme Court order

Global human rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the Supreme Court’s order directing that Teltumbde and Navlakha be arrested and imprisoned within a week, calling it “cruel and disappointing”.

“On one hand, the court acknowledges that overcrowded prisons present a serious threat and recommends the release of prisoners during the pandemic and then it directs two activists who have been critical of the government to surrender before the police and to be sent to jail,” Amnesty International India Executive Director Avinash Kumar said.

Amnesty International said Teltumbde and Navlakha have a history of working for the poor and the marginalised sections. “Amnesty India believes that the impending arrests of the two, along with the arrests of the nine activists in the Bhima Koregaon case in 2018, are politically motivated actions that are aimed at chilling peaceful dissent,” it added.

Earlier this month, more than 5,000 individuals and over 15 organisations around the world had urged the Centre to delay Teltumbde and Navlakha’s arrest.