Ten accused in the Bhima Koregaon case on Wednesday went on a day-long hunger strike to protest against the “institutional murder” of tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, reported PTI. They also demanded a judicial inquiry into the activist’s death.
Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe observed the strike in Navi Mumbai’s Taloja Jail.
Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and also contracted the coronavirus infection while in prison in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence case, died in a Mumbai hospital on Monday. He was repeatedly denied bail despite his deteriorating health condition. Swamy was the oldest of a dozen people, most of them academics and human rights activists, jailed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in the case without any reliable evidence.
The jailed activists and academicians were accused of making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which the authorities claim triggered the violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial on the next day. One person was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
Swamy’s co-accused who observed the hunger strike had conveyed their decision to their family members, who released a statement blaming the National Investigation Agency and Taloja Jail’s Former Superintendent Kaustubh Kurlekar for the death of the tribal rights activist.
The statement alleged that the NIA and Kurlekar did not miss any opportunity to “harass” Swamy while he was in custody. This includes “shifting him back to the prison from the hospital despite his critical health condition, giving him substandard treatment in the prison, or even denying something as basic as a straw and sipper,” said the statement, according to Bar and Bench.
“It is these that have caused the death of Stan Swamy and therefore, for this institutional murder, NIA officials and Kurlekar should be tried under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code,” the statement added.
The accused said they will submit their demands to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray through the Taloja Jail administration.
The accused are lodged in different barracks of the jail but met on Tuesday to share their memories about Swamy. They also observed a two-minute silence for him. Their family members said that the new superintendent of Taloja prison also joined them, reported The Hindu.
Several politicians, activists and human rights organisations have blamed the Modi government for Swamy’s death. The family and friends of the 16 arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case also called the tribal rights activist’s death an “institutional murder”.
On Tuesday, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had urged the Indian government to release persons detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those held simply for expressing dissenting views, in view of the coronavirus pandemic. On the same day, 10 Opposition leaders wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind demanding action against those responsible for foisting false cases on the activist.
The Centre, however, refuted the charges, saying that Swamy was arrested and detained by the National Investigation Agency under due process of law. “Because of the specific nature of charges against him, his bail applications were rejected by the courts,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi. “Authorities in India act against violations of law and not against legitimate exercise of rights. All such actions are strictly in accordance with the law.”
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The Bhima Koregaon case
The first chargesheet in the case was filed by the Pune Police in November 2018, which ran to over 5,000 pages. It named Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling and Shoma Sen, all of whom were arrested in June 2018. The police claimed that they had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and accused the activists of plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A supplementary chargesheet was filed later in February 2019, against lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj, poet Varavara Rao, activists Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves and banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader Ganapathy. The accused were charged with “waging war against the nation” and spreading the ideology of the CPI (Maoist), besides creating caste conflicts and hatred in the society.
The Centre transferred the case to the National Investigation Agency in January 2020 after the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra, led by Devendra Fadnavis, was defeated.
The activists’ continued detention in overcrowded prisons amid the Covid-19 crisis has triggered outrage from several quarters.
Only Rao was granted bail on medical grounds for six months in February by the Bombay High Court.