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The Case of Bhima Koregaon

While in prison for allegedly being engaged in the Bhima Koregaon 2018 case, Dr. Varavar Rao, an 80-year-old Telugu poet, was proven positive for the COVID-19 virus. Since the pandemic was declared, there has been widespread outrage on social media about the conditions in which Rao has been held and how he is being treated in the hospital.

Furthermore, there has been much debate about the National Investigation Agency's (NIA) handling of the case, as well as the jurisdictions of the courts that can hear the bail applications of any of the defendants in the case.

The unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 2002 (UAPA) and other sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) have been utilized to charge the defendants in this case. Families and communities of these activists have been campaigning for the accused to be released and for the government to be held accountable.

History of Bhima Koregaon and the Riots

In 1818, Bhima Koregaon, a village near Pune, saw a historic battle between the Peshwars (Marathas) and the Dalits. The Dalits desired to be involved in the operations of the kingdom, but the Peshwas discriminated against them because of their low caste. Taking advantage of the conflict between the two sects of society, the East India Company declared war on the Peshawas, assembling a Dalit army, and defeating them.

The East India Company created the 'Vijay Stambh' as a tribute to all the Dalits who fought for them in the Battle. The Dalits commemorate this triumph over the Marathas every year on January 1st by paying honour to these heroes at the Vijay Stambh. The Dalits were set to commemorate the 200th anniversary of their victory in 2018, but a brawl broke out between them and other caste members, resulting in at least one death and multiple injuries.

The government has prosecuted ten human rights advocates, including Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakh, and Anand Teltumbde, with inciting people to violence through statements delivered at the Elgar Parishad Conclave on December 31, 2017. These activists were said to be affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Despite the police making such assertions, an arrest was made even before a charge sheet was filed.

The matter was initially handled by the Maharashtra State Government (the Pune Police), but it was later taken over by the Central Government, and the investigation was carried out by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) without the agreement of the state government. Following that, the Maharashtra State Government decided to form a Special Investigation Team to look into the situation.

NIA's constitutionality

However, there have been issues raised about the NIA's constitutionality. This is mostly due to a power struggle between a state's police force and the federal government's control over investigations via the NIA and CBI. In essence, the NIA can only examine instances that are specified in the NIA Act's Schedule. For cases to be probed by the CBI, the state government must get authorization for the case to be transferred. The jurisdictional component of investigation authorities for acts of terror, like as the Bhima Koregaon violence, is still a hotly debated topic. The cases could be covered by the CBI entry on the Union list, the police entry on the state list, and the criminal processes entry on the concurrent list.

Cases against Activists

Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, and Vernon Gonsalves are among the campaigners arrested for having maoist ties in relation to the Elgar Parishad Conclave. Sudhir Dhawale, a CPI (Maoist) leader, allegedly floated the 'Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan' pamphlet on the orders of the Eastern Regional Bureau (ERB) for organising the Elgar Parishad Conclave at Pune's Shaniwarwada.

These activists have also expressed reservations about the case being transferred to the NIA. Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer, and Sudhir Dhawle, a writer-activist, filed a plea in June 2020 opposing the transfer of the inquiry from the Pune police to the NIA. According to the petition, such a transfer is not permissible under the NIA Act, 2008, if the inquiry is complete and there are no compelling circumstances requiring it.

In April 2020, the NIA arrested Anand Teltumbade, a Dalit activist, writer, and ancestor of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, on charges of "getting funding from the illegal CPI (Maoist) central committee and was also part of the conspiracy concocted to sow hostility amongst caste groups." The authorities identified him as a main organiser of the Elgar Parishad Conclave, with Sudhir Dhawale.

These severe regulations are being used to torment renowned poets like Varavar Rao, who are elderly and most prone to COVID-19 infection. Even though Varavar Rao tested positive for COVID, he was not provided with the medical care that a normal, elderly person would receive. This demonstrates the government's lack of responsibility in ensuring the safety of such crucial political detainees.

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