Anand Teltumbde, an Indian Dalit scholar and activist, is fighting to stay out of jail for his alleged links to the Communist Party of India (CPI), a banned Maoist organization. He was arrested on the morning of 2 February and granted temporary relief twelve hours later by the Bombay High Court. Teltumbde has been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), allowing him to be jailed without bail. The court will decide whether he will be arrested or granted bail on 22 February.
Police in the Pune district are prosecuting Teltumbde for his implication in the caste violence that broke out on 1 January, 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, a village in the state of Maharashtra. Their case is based on a chain of letters allegedly recovered from Rona Wilson, another activist accused of being connected to this case. These letters mention the names of various activists, contain instructions for obtaining weapons, encourage the spread of panic, and outline a plot to assassinate current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, according to Al Jazeera, Teltumbde claimed that these charges were “concocted” and based on “completely fabricated evidence.” Many, including independent security experts and civil rights activists, have questioned the authenticity of the alleged letters. Feminist writer and Dalit activist Urmila Pawar noted that the label of “Maoist” is commonly used by the Hindu government to discredit protests. In addition, more than 600 scholars from top United States and European universities have issued a collective statement urging the Indian government to stop the “witch-hunt” against Teltumbde.
Teltumbde’s sustained charges under the UAPA reveal an obstruction of democratic rights in India. Although first introduced in 1967 as an “anti-terror law,” the vague provisions of this act allow the Hindu nationalist government to target authors, lawyers, activists, and other individuals, according to The Hindu. Teltumbde’s lawyer, Mihir Desai, stated to Al Jazeera that being granted bail under this law is extremely difficult. The government’s power to incarcerate individuals in this way oversteps citizens’ civil liberties such as freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial, impeding democracy and rule of law in India.
Elgar Parishad was an event on 31 December, 2017 to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of when the Dalits, members of the lowest level in the traditional Indian caste system, sided with the East India Company to defeat the upper-caste Peshwa rulers in the Bhima Koregaon battle of 1 January, 1818. Hindutva leaders (Hindu supremacists) opposed this event, and Dalit activists claim that they came under attack while returning from the Bhima Koregaon memorial built in the victory’s honor. The activists filed a complaint against the Hindutva leaders, which was met with a counter complaint claiming that “inflammatory speeches” during Elgar Parishad incited the violence, according to Al Jazeera.
At least nine activists are already imprisoned under the UAPA for their connections to this case. In June, the Pune police arrested lawyer Surendra Gadling, forest rights activist Mahesh Raut, English literature professor Shoma Sen, prison rights activist Rona Wilson, and poet-writer Sudhir Dhawale. Lawyer and civil rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj, lawyer and writer Arun Ferreira, writer and columnist Vernon Gonsalves, and poet and political worker Varavara Rao were also arrested on 28 August, 2018 in a multi-city crackdown during which Teltumbde was out of the country.
On 21 December, 2018, the Bombay High Court denied cancellation of the Pune Police’s First Information Report (FIR) filed against Teltumbde for his alleged role in the caste violence at Bhima Koregaon, according to India Today. Earlier this year on 14 January, the Supreme Court also dismissed Teltumbde’s petition seeking cancellation of the FIR. The Pune sessions court rejected Teltumbde’s anticipatory bail application on 1 February.
Teltumbde and other targeted activists have all been involved in advocacy work for marginalized low-caste individuals in India, which reveals a deeper conflict in India regarding the traditional caste system. However, rather than confronting these problems of historical hierarchy, the government’s pursuit of individuals under the UAPA suggests a desire to silence voices instead. On 22 February, the court will decide whether or not Teltumbde will join the other accused in imprisonment without bail. Its final decision could set a precedent for future cases in which the Hindu nationalist government pursues activists and political dissidents under the UAPA.
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