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Supreme Court grants bail to 82-year-old activist, P Varavara Rao in the Bhima Koregaon case, overruling NIA. Contemplating his advanced age and ailments, SC rejected NIA’s opinion which stated age cannot be grounds for relief, especially for heinous crimes. Considering his two and a half years of imprisonment and taking into account that he never misused liberty on interim bail, he was granted regular bail.

Key takeaways

  • The Bhima Koregaon case(Romila Thapar vs Union Of India, 2018) dates back to 1 January 2018 when the violence broke out between Dalits and Maratha groups during the 200th year memorial celebrations.
  • Around 16 people were named as the main accused. Police alleged that Elgar Parishad instigated the violence and called them to be linked with Maoists.
  • P Varavara Rao, one of the accused was granted bail on medical grounds by Supreme Court, overruling NIA on 10 August 2022.

History of Bhima Koregaon

Koregaon Bhima is a village situated in the state of Maharashtra, India. Covering an area of 20 square kilometers, it is located on the north banks of River Bhima. It falls under the Shirur Taluka of Pune district.

On 1 January 1818, the Battle of Koregaon took place between Peshwa Baji Rao II of the Maratha Empire and the East India Company (mostly Mahars who fought on behalf of the British). Mahars offered their support in the battle to the British as an act of resilience against the Peshwadespotism. Peshwa withdrew from the war, being alarmed about the fight against an anticipated larger British force, which ultimately led to the triumph of British. The Mahars who were considered untouchable recognized victory over the upper caste Peshwas who tortured and caused injustice to the Mahars when EIC commemorated the fallen soldiers in an obelisk called the Vijay Sthamb (victory pillar). This battle was celebrated in Dalit history and to this date, people pay their respects every year on January 1 at the site.

Bhima Koregaon Carnage, 2018

The 2018 massacre in Bhima Koregaon erupted during the bicentenary memorial organized by the Dalit community, for the Bhima Koregaon battle. The battle was a remarkable accomplishment in the facets of the Dalit community for a successful retaliation against the upper-class tyranny. Every year on 1 January, descents of the Dalit community honor the sacrifice of soldiers, at the monument erected as an accolade to them. People of the Dalit community and other backward classes organize “Mahar” every year in Maharashtra and other parts of India. The battle to them is a symbol of Dalit pride against the Brahminical oppressions. Matters took a violent turn that involved various arrests and bloodshed.

The year of 2018 was the 200th year of the battle commemoration and hence people gathered in huge numbers. The pressure set in when there was a conflict between Mahars and Marathas as to who did the last rites of Maratha ruler, Sambhaji Maharaj. A mob from Vadhu Badruk attacked Dalits who were to attend the ceremony. The ceremony quickly turned into a clash between the Dalits and Marathas, causing the demise of a 16-year-old boy. Prakash Ambedkar called for a bandh on January 3 following the dreadful incident. After this Maharashtra witnessed protests everywhere resulting in hundreds being detained and injured.

Chronicles of the incidentand aftermath

The instigation for this butchery was seen on 29 December, 2017, when Govind Gopal Mahar’s memorial was found demolished. On 31 December 2017 this was discussed at a major public conference by Dalits and Bahujan, called “Elgar Parishad”. Police claim that the provocative speeches by the members simmered the hostility on the following day. They also found various groups bearing the saffron flag in the scene. Stones were pelted at people in the gathering and casteist abuses were made. Upon investigations, activists who were alleged as “Maoist links” from Nepal, were proclaimed to have funded the conference.

An FIR was filed with respect to this incident, where allegations were posed on Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) activists to have made the provocative speeches that triggered the crowd in Koregaon. The Pune police also filed a case against the Hindutva leader and president of Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Pratishthan, Milind Ekbote, and another right-wing leader affiliated with the RSS and founder of Shiv Pratishthan, Sambhaji Bhide accusing them of eliciting the clash. They recorded a charge sheet and a supplementary charge sheet with regards to the case on 15 November, 2018 and 21 February, 2019, and arrests were made in periodical intervals. In June, 2018 Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, and Rona Wilson were arrested, and later in August, 2018, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and Vernon Gonsalves were arrested. All the accused activists were said to have linked with Maoists who backed Elgar Parishad and plotted with the Dalit groups to go against the ruling party. Police asserted that there were also plans for ‘Rajiv Gandhi style assassination’ against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Dereliction of investigations by police and NIA

On 22 January, 2020 the new government constituted Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe into the matter. Union Home Ministry handed over the case to National Investigation Agency (NIA) on 24 January, 2020. It detained Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha on 14 April, 2020, and Hanybabu Tarayil in July. All of them were charged under sections 153 A, 505 (1) (b) and 117 of Indian Penal Code, and sections 13, 16, 18 B, 20 and 39 of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. All the accused people were imprisoned without any trial. While they were withering away in jail, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide were released without taking any action.

Three years since the violence, in 2021, police indicted that the activists and human rights lawyers who have been part of “Elgar Parishad” were the reason for the conflict in Bhima Koregaon. They rapidly linked this to the Maoists and apprehended 16 human rights lawyers and scholars infringing their rights. Many alleged that there were unfair investigations. Shivaji Pawar, investigating officer applied to first-level magistrate of Pune for a search warrant to seize documents relating to the case in March, 2018. He also further claimed that the accused did not comply with the notice, without even sending any notice in the first place. The court rejected it stating that such assumptions cannot be made. Despite the court’s refusal, Pune police broke into legal professional Surendra Gadling’s house and that of activists Rona Wilson and Sudhir Dhawle, and confiscated their belongings. These incidents took place on 17 April, 2018.On 28 August, 2018, Pune police raided the residence of poet Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, creator Gautam Navlakha, and residences of lawyers Sudha Bharadwaj and Vernon Gonzalvez without prior permission.

Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest and a tribal rights activist from Jharkhand, was also arrested by NIA and named him with seven others in the supplementary charge sheet. Neither did NIA seek custody of him nor was sent to judicial custody until October, 2020. NIA interrogated him several times and conducted searches at his home based on the allegations that he was connected with the Maoists. As per the reports of NIA, incriminating evidences were retrieved from him. Swamy denied all the allegations and stated that he was being targeted for rendering work to the tribal people, and that all evidences were fabricated against him. He also denied his Maoist links. He accused the prison authorities of denying basic human rights. Many others who were arrested also supported this claim. Swamy passed away in July 2021, shortly after being hospitalized following directions of Bombay High Court.Swamy’s death was seen as a reflection of injustice as they were imprisoned without a trial. All cases of UAPA are to be heard in special court. Inspite of Pune having a special NIA court, the case was adjudged by the sessions court.

Likewise, Surendra Gadling also suffered from a heart condition during his custody and was hospitalized in Pune, but the police did not let his wife reach him. She could only see him from afar and paid all the bills, which were to be paid by the State. She was denied Surendra’s medical records despite her RTI request as the hospital denied disclosing other people’s medical records.

Varavara Rao’s health conditions were never really good and needed careful attention. Once he was admitted to the hospital and back to prison before his medical examination was completed. He also later tested positive for Covid. He was in Nanavati hospital National Human Rights Commission intervened but was sent to prison without any notice. After two months of legal battle, he was admitted to the hospital again.

Supreme Court overruling NIA

The 82 year old poet, Varavara Rao who was one of the main accused in Bhima Koregaon case was granted bail by Supreme Court on Medical grounds, on 10 August, 2022. NIA opposed against this stating such grounds cannot be taken when Rao was involved in “serious anti-national activities”. Rao was arrested in August, 2018, on the FIR lodged by Pune police in January of the same year under the UAPA. He spent around two and a half years in custody.

The Supreme Court Bench was headed by Justice U. U Lalit and comprised of Justice Aniruddha Bose and Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia,who considered the totality Rao’s medical condition of early Parkinson and his advanced age to grant bail. Rao was on interim bail on medical grounds and since his condition has not improved, it was difficult to withdraw the bail. He suffered from cataract in both eyes, early Parkinson, lacunar infarcts in six major lobes of brain, as per the petition.

NIA was represented by SV Raju, Additional Solicitor General who argued that Rao was not an ordinary criminal and age cannot be taken as a factor for granting bail on cases that are of national concern. He stated that Rao is stable and had misused his liberty during bail. He quoted section 43D (5) of the UAPA and said that age cannot be a factor to grant bail if offence is deemed serious. Ravi said it would cause prejudice if a criminal like Rao who is the potential of causing “anti-national activities”, is released on bail. They listed 24 criminal cases registered against Rao and his pertinent involvement in unlawful activities. He was filed for grave charges under UAPA and IPC.

The bench noted that though a charge sheet has been filed, the accused have not been apprehended yet and there is no charge framed against the accused appearing before the court.Raju was further asked to reason for the delay in a takeover by NIA. The charges were also not framed, said Rao’s advocate Anand Grover. Rao in his plea has stated that his advancing age and deteriorating health are a fatal combination for him. Anand asked the prosecution whether Rao should end up dying in jail like Swamy amidst his fight for bail on medical grounds, even before the trial could start. Applications by the accused seeking discharge are still in consideration.

The bench has further added that Rao is entitled to relief of bail on medical grounds. It also disregarded the order of Bombay High Court granting limited period bail to Rao for only 6 months on his medical condition. The Bombay High Court had rejected his plea for permanent bail on medical grounds during April 2022. NIA relying on this judgement and the reports from Nanavati hospital, and denied extension of bail. The apex court said that Rao shall not misuse his liberty, get in touch with any witness or influence investigation. Rao shall not leave Greater Mumbai without obtaining express permission from trial court.

The bench consisting of eminent justices had also said that Rao shall receive any medical attention of his choice but needs to update the authorities regarding the same. The bench clearly stated that the bail is purely on medical conditions and it cannot be taken on rival contentions advanced by parties or on the merits of the case.

Conclusion

The Bhima Koregaon incident took place in 2018 when a clash was instigated between the Dalits and Marathas following the Elgar Parishad conference. Several were arrested and Varavara Rao was one among the main accused. There were alleged links with the banned organisation. On 10 August, 2022 Rao was granted bail by Supreme Court considering his deteriorating health on medical grounds though NIA contested that Rao had a direct threat on security and sovereignty of the country. The 83 year old was granted bail subject to conditions and that he shall not misuse his liberty.


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