On October 20, People’s Union of Civil Liberties brought together a whole host of activists and political leaders from Opposition parties in a n online press conference to unequivocally condemn the misuse of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in order to arrest and harass activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Hemant Soren, chief minister of Jharkhand, the state where Fr. Stan Swamy lived and worked for over 50 years, condemned the regime’s attempts at crushing dissent, democracy and constitutional values. “Today the country is at a crossroads where its unity and democracy as well as its constitution are under attack. The regime is suppressing voices of Dalits and backward classes. Attempts are being made to turn farmers into bonded labourers,” he said. He also lamented how the BJP led government at the centre was targeting non-BJP states. “Recently the centre syphoned away all the money Jharkhand state had for welfare schemes in an account that the state has with the RBI,” he alleged.
Advocate Mihir Desai who is fighting the cases of many of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case said, “I have looked at the chargesheet. The evidence is flimsy. They have a few witnesses, but nobody knows who they are or if they even exist.” He further said that there was no reason to arrest Fr. Stan Swamy given how he had hidden nothing and cooperated fully with the investigation. Advocate Desai the went on to deconstruct the flimsy premise of clubbing all dissenters as co-conspirators sayimg, “If it is a Muslim, they say ‘jihadi’. If it is a Christian, they accuse him of forced conversion. Then they allege links with Maoists. It is well known that Maoists are atheists. To suggest that Maoists are promoting religious conversion is ridiculous!” Advocate Desai said, “Though the accused will be acquitted eventually, the process is becoming a form of punishment and therefore the UAPA must be repealed to prevent its further misuse.”
Echoing the same sentiment, CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “The UAPA has been grossly misused. Arrests of octogenarians like Fr. Stan Swamy and Varavara Rao and the subsequent denial of bail is inhuman. They are even other accused who are over the age of sixty are vulnerable to Covid.”
DMK’s Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi also condemned how the regime was systematically targeting activists and dissenters. “False allegations have been levelled against people implicated in this case,” she said adding, “Th egovernment is using Covid as an excuse to take away federal rights, as well as rights of farmers, workers and oppressed people across the country.”
NCP MP Supriya Sule too shared how the centre was using heavy-handed tactics to prevent state governments from conducting proper investigations into the Bhima Koregaon case given how ‘Law and order’ is a state subject. Sule said, “The Bhima Koregaon case was previously being investigated by the Maharashtra Police who were doing a good job before the National Intelligence Agency swooped in and took over.”
It is noteworthy that the initial FIRs in the attack on Dalits at Bhima Koregaon were against Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide, two men with strong affiliations to right-wing supremacist organisations affiliated to the ruling party at the center. The case against activists and speakers at the Elgaar Parishad was built later and many of the people arrested subsequently had neither attended, nor organised the Elgaar Parishad program at Shaniwar Wada in Pune!
CPI leader D Raja to drove home the point about the central government being influenced by right-wing supremacist forces. “BJP is in power, but it is controlled by the RSS that follows a communal, fascist ideology.” He warned, “Rightwing extremists want to turn a secular democracy into a theocratic state.” D Raja also reminded everyone of Professor Saibaba, who despite suffering from over 90 percent disability and being highly vulnerable to Covid, still remains a political prisoner at the Nagpur jail.
Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) cultural activist Ruali Jadhav also reminded how some KKM members were pressured to give false testimony to implicate arrested activists. “Three of our cultural activists were arrested and told that if they say that they were given training by Maoists and that arrested activists like advocate Sudhir Gadling were Naxal sympathisers, they would be allowed to go. But our activists refused.”
Forest and tribal rights activist Dayamani Barla too demanded a repeal of UAPA and said, “Today, any dissenter is dubbed as a terrorist. Meanwhile the centre is busy signing MoUs with crony capitalists allowing them to plunder mineral wealth and destroy nature.”
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the Auxiliary Bishop of Ranchi asked, “Why is the government afraid of an 80-year-old man? Why was he arrested at night?” Bishop Mascarenhas felt it was Fr. Stan’s work with tribals in helping them assert their right to land that shook the government.
Fr. Marianus Kujur from Ranchi said, “Fr. Stan’s arrest and subsequent treatment in custody is unfortunate, inhuman and barbaric. He has been working to empower oppressed Dalit and tribal communities for over 0 years. He is a voice of the voiceless, who was helping them fight for their rights to the forest, water and land of the region. That is why he was targeted.”
Activist Jean Dreze agreed saying, “I have worked closely with Fr.Stan for several years. He was at the forefront for the people’s movements for their right to ‘Jal-jungle-jameen’. We have also worked closely with the Right to Food program as well as anti-CAA-NRC protests. This is why the centre is using a draconian law like UAPA to silence him.”
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor dubbed the charges against the recently arrested Fr. Stan Swamy as “preposterous” and said that, “Those who still have a conscience want to see him succeed in his noble, yet often thankless endeavour to empower the most oppressed and marginalised people.” He added that the “inhuman conditions” under which Fr. Stan was being held for “an unconscionable period of time” must be condemned in the strongest terms.