It’s been exactly a year since the Pune police, in a coordinated “joint operation” with the Nagpur, Delhi, and Mumbai police, arrested social activists from across the country on charges of instigating caste-based violence in the panchayat village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. The authorities have claimed a variety of things ever since their arrest, ranging from allegations that they were behind the violence that disrupted the annual celebrations at the Bhima Koregaon memorial, that they were supporting and funding Naxals, and finally, that they were plotting a “Rajiv Gandhi style” assassination of PM Modi.
The police first arrested five activists last June: lawyer Surendra Gadling, retired English professor Shoma Sen, poet and publisher Sudhir Dhawale, and human rights activists Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson. Subsequently, four more activists, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, and Varavara Rao, were arrested. All nine are serving as undertrials in Pune’s Yerawada jail.
On the one-year anniversary of their arrests, human rights organisation Amnesty India has launched a campaign to challenge the dominant narrative that terms these activists as “anti-nationals”. The campaign, #FreeBK9, which goes live on June 7, will be a sort of “counter to the smear campaign by the government and the mainstream media”, and will comprise testimonial videos from people on the ground in the villages where these activists hail from, as well as a social media campaign consisting of old-school style posters hailing these activists as heroes.O
Family members of the #BK9 will also share their experiences and views about how difficult the past year has been for them. Simultaneously, Amnesty India will launch an online petition to build public pressure for the release of the nine activists.
“Each of the nine people arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, are eminent human rights activists in their own right,” said Abhirr Velandy Palat, senior campaigner with Amnesty India. “For decades, they have worked for some of India’s most vulnerable people and communities. Their work changes lives for the better, which is the fundamental yardstick for what is considered to be in the nation’s best interest. Yet the government has arrested them and further embarked on a vicious smear campaign, calling them ‘anti-nationals’ who are working against the country. In the charge-sheets filed against them in the court, the police alleged that these nine human rights defenders and activists had incited Dalits at a large public rally on December 31, 2017, which lead to violent clashes the next day.”
Abhirr believes the arrests are politically motivated and says the nine accused are hailed as brave activists in the communities where they work. “Far from being anti-national, the ‘Bhima Koregaon 9’ are, for many, national heroes.”
According to him, when looked at from a larger human rights perspective, the nationwide clampdown on activists, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers since 2014 has been concerning. “Several repressive and draconian laws are regularly used to arrest anyone who holds opposing views—much like the ‘Bhima Koregaon 9’.”
Speaking with Newslaundry over the phone from Mumbai, Koel Sen—daughter of Shoma Sen—says their family has gone through turmoil in the past year. “The last year has been very traumatic—both financially as well as emotionally—for my family … It’s very unjust that this is happening to somebody like my mother, who has worked all her life for women’s rights as well as for the rights of Dalits. She has been a dedicated professor for 28 years, and for this kind of defamation and creation of a false narrative around her persona—right at the end of her career—is a terrible thing to have happened. The manner in which her image has been defamed by the media in the city of Nagpur has been a source of tremendous pressure for our family.”
Amnesty India’s poster for Shoma Sen.
Sen says: “Recently, on June 4, which was the date of the last court hearing, we found out that the judge—who has been listening to all the bail applications up till now—has been transferred. All of a sudden, he went on summer vacation and now there is a new judge that has been appointed. All arguments will have to begin from scratch once again. This is not just shameful but extended torture for everyone.”
Sen visits her mother in jail every 15 days. Shoma likes to read and write, and that’s how she’s been spending her time. The family is allowed to give her books. “The conversations we have are limited to 15 minutes and only once a week,” her daughter says. “Most of the time is spent in talking about daily logistics and the problems that the family are facing—from not receiving a pension to bank accounts being blocked.”
Sen says her mother has been through ups and downs in the past year and that health issues have cropped up. “She developed corns on her feet because of walking barefoot and needs surgery. She used to be on the floor all the time as she was not given a cot or a chair. It has been tough—but she is a tough woman. Even with all of this going on, she smiles and keeps her spirits high.”
Sudha Bharadwaj’s 22-year-old daughter Maaysha, who is currently pursuing her BA in psychology in Delhi, agrees that the past year has been tough. She and her mother are the only ones in their family. “ I am trying to cope with it but it is very difficult since I am all alone here. I think I am a kid trying to be a boss lady in my house and cope with everything that is going on.”
She last visited her mother in jail on Maaysha’s birthday, February 21. “I went to meet her and she was very happy to see me. She gave me a letter in which she wrote ‘Happy Birthday and Hugs’ because we were not able to physically touch each other…”
Amnesty India’s poster for Sudha Bharadwaj
Speaking of the trial, she said: “It is not fair because they (government) don’t have any proof till now. Even when my mother was under house arrest, they were not here to ask her some questions. I think it is very unfair to me since I am an only child and my mother is all I have. Now, you’ve taken her away too…”
Amnesty India’s Abhirr Velandy Palat says the arrest, harassment and launch of smear campaigns against people working for a good cause makes India “look weak in the eyes of the world”. He says: “If India is to be truly considered a global power, the new Indian government must work to ensure that dissent and calls for accountability and justice are not punished. India’s new government must renew the country’s commitment to upholding human rights. It must immediately release innocent activists unlawfully arrested, repeal repressive laws like the UAPA, and stop the clampdown on civil society, activists and rights organisations.”
He adds: “Attacks against activists, rights organisations and voices of dissent are seriously undermining India’s reputation as a global power in the eyes of the world. A global power like India should be able to handle calls for accountability and justice.”