Book review: Bhima Koregaon and the prisoners of democracy

A mural of B.R. Ambedkar in Tirupati district, Andhra Pradesh. (AFP)
A mural of B.R. Ambedkar in Tirupati district, Andhra Pradesh. (AFP)


Alpa Shah’s detailed study records the systematic cruelty inflicted on the 16 activists accused of the Bhima Koregaon violence in 2018

In the early years of the 19th century, it was a big deal for untouchables to be inducted into an army and treated no differently from caste Hindu soldiers. What came as an even greater honour was that the untouchables killed in action were commemorated by their names, alongside the soldiers who had no such social or religious stigma attached to their identity. It was, therefore, natural for B.R. Ambedkar to turn the colonial memorial of a brief but far-reaching battle that had taken place at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on 1 January 1818 into an annual pilgrimage for Dalits.

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon emerged as a symbol of Dalit emancipation because the army that had fled in the face of their valour was of the Peshwa regime, the Brahmin rulers who had acquired notoriety for enforcing barbaric forms of untouchability. The Dalit celebration, however, offended Hindu nationalists who mourned the same battle as the demise of the last Hindu empire. The Incarcerations: Bhima Koregaon and the Search for Democracy in India records some of the unimaginable ways in which this pent-up fury burst in collusion with the state in the wake of the 200th anniversary of the battle on 1 January 2018.

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Running to over 550 pages, the book, written by Britain-based anthropologist Alpa Shah, reveals the lengths to which the state has gone to frame a group of academics, lawyers, journalists, activists and poets for their alleged role in the 2018 collision. The sordid drama of trumped-up proceedings unfolded over the years under the cover of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Worse, it all began as a desperate attempt to divert attention from a case booked against local Hindutva leaders under the Prevention of Atrocities Act for orchestrating the violence to disrupt the grander than usual Dalit celebration at the Bhima Koregaon monument in 2018.

The Dalits could be denied justice for the violence suffered by them but, mercifully, given the general political compulsion of genuflecting to Ambedkar, they could not themselves be scapegoated for it. Instead, the state foisted terror charges on a low hanging fruit that has come to be branded as “Urban Naxals"—code word for those championing the interests of marginalised communities in the face of crony capitalism.

This is the first detailed book on the prolonged pre-trial incarcerations of the BK-16, or the 16 activists implicated in batches, on the basis of the belated UAPA case claiming that the riots that erupted at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018 were due to provocative speeches delivered the previous day at a rally in Pune called the Elgar Parishad. Though this cross-caste rally against the growing Hindutva hegemony had been organised by a former Supreme Court judge (now deceased P.B. Sawant) and a former Bombay high court judge (B.G. Kolse Patil), the twist of facts peddled by the official machinery alleged that Maoists, or left extremists, were behind the Elgar Parishad, and that they were also culpable for the riots the next morning 35km away.

'The Incarcerations: Bhima Koregaon and the Search for Democracy', by Alpa Shah. HarperCollins India, 672 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
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'The Incarcerations: Bhima Koregaon and the Search for Democracy', by Alpa Shah. HarperCollins India, 672 pages, 699

In an elaborate bid to obfuscate the original case of the violence targeting Dalits, the allegations made in the subsequent case morphed into a Maoist conspiracy to overthrow the state and assassinate the Prime Minister. The logic evidently being that the more fantastic the charges flung at the left, the less the likelihood of the attack on Dalits by the right being remembered.

The book brings out this travesty of investigation with telling effect. It is at once scary and inspiring—scary for driving home the repercussions of democratic backsliding, and inspiring for its empathy in conveying the fortitude displayed by each of the BK-16. One takeaway from the book is its meticulous research demonstrating that Hindutva as a state practice is Brahmanism camouflaged as nationalism. This is exemplified by the brazenness with which the political hue of the violence was converted from saffron to red, specially to shield a Hindutva “guruji" named in the original case, Sambhaji Bhide.

Another highlight of the book is its chilling account of the evidence that was found to have been fabricated and remotely planted as letters in the computers of some of the BK-16. This discovery was made, thanks to the reports of an American digital forensic laboratory, which were highlighted by media outlets in India and abroad. In the case of prisoners’ rights activist Rona Wilson, for instance, the letters incriminating him and some of the other BK-16 were found to have been planted in his computer in Delhi over two years, even before the Elgar Parishad was held. The laptop of Father Stan Swamy, the octogenarian who died after his bail pleas on health grounds were repeatedly rejected, was found to have been subjected to a “malware campaign" for nearly five years.

Such complex manipulations of the legal system are presented in the book in a lucid and accessible manner. The author excels in telling the back stories of each of the BK-16. Particularly stirring is her portrayal of Sudha Bharadwaj, an IIT-graduate turned lawyer who gave up her US citizenship to fight for the poor in Chattisgarh. But the narrative device of constantly interweaving the front and backstories does affect the book’s pace. Given the humongous amount of legwork she had put in, Shah could well have presented these profiles separately after she was done with all the front stories of subversion and complicity.

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One of the speakers at the Elgar Parishad, Jignesh Mewani, proved to be prescient for characterising New India as “Nai Peshwai". The book raises serious questions about the integrity and quality of the two law-enforcement agencies that handled the case in succession: the Maharashtra police and the National Investigation Agency. It draws attention to the scathing observations made against the police by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in September 2018 on the arrest of Bharadwaj, along with four others of the BK-16. Holding on the basis of material on record that the terror allegation against them was “taking liberties with the truth", Chandrachud castigated two senior police officers for “casting aspersions in the public media against persons whose conduct is still under investigation".

Chandrachud’s direction to place the entire matter under a Supreme Court-monitored investigation did not, however, prevail as he was in the minority on the bench. His judgement still put the evidence against Bharadwaj in perspective. It noted that though she did not know Marathi, a letter ascribed to Bharadwaj was “an obvious fabrication" as it repeatedly used “Marathi forms of grammar or address". The book could have explored more such legal dimensions.

If a Delhi high court bench headed by Justice S. Muralidhar stopped the Pune police around the same time from whisking away human-rights activist Gautam Navlakha, it was because the police were so cavalier that they did not bother to arrive with an English translation of the relevant Marathi documents. All the book says is that his lawyers “somehow managed to get protection from the court to prevent Gautam’s imprisonment" for a while. Such cursory treatment, despite the allegations of bias against Muralidhar from right wing voices and the consequent contempt proceedings against some of them.

The book refers to the varying fates of the BK-16 on the contentious issue of bail. But it makes no attempt to deal with those inconsistencies, apparent or real. But such deficiencies don’t take away from the immense contribution The Incarcerations makes to the literature on democracy and human rights.

Manoj Mitta is an author, most recently of Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India.

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