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BK16 CampaignThe BK16 campaign is aimed at mobilizing international support and attention to the surveillance, persecution, framing, and arrests since June 2018 of sixteen human rights and civil liberties defenders and public intellectuals.

Introduction

The BK16 campaign is aimed at mobilizing international support and attention to the surveillance, persecution, framing, and arrests since June 2018 of sixteen human rights and civil liberties defenders and public intellectuals. These include lawyers for people’s movements for workers, Dalits (India’s most oppressed and exploited caste groups), Adivasis (India’s indigenous people),  and Muslims (India’s largest minority), teachers and university professors, writers, poets and artists, journalists, union organizers.

The one common thread uniting each of these individuals is that they are outspoken organic intellectuals and activists, many of who are Dalit, and all of who are leading critics of Hindutva (ethno-ultranationalist supremacist ideology) which is the ruling party’s ideology in India today. Collectively these sixteen individuals – Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Fr. Stan Swamy, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, and Jyoti Jagtap – have come to be known as the BK16. All have been falsely accused under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA or India’s dreaded ‘terror laws’) which have been used to incarcerate all publicly dissenting citizens of India. Their case has come to be known as the Bhima-Koregaon case.

In its essence, the campaign defends the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India of citizens – all of which including the right to liberty and the right to freedom of speech and expression are currently under assault. It is also defending the right to dissent, which is the lifeblood of any democracy.

It is testament to the deterioration of basic democratic norms in India that the government has gone after champions of people’s rights, many of who have severely compromised health conditions exacerbated by the global pandemic – such as 83-year-old Fr. Stan Swamy – a Jesuit priest whose death while in custody has outraged the world, 80-year-old poet Varavara Rao who was granted conditional bail only after a huge protests at his incarceration despite failing health, and 70-year-old professor and leading public intellectual and critic of fascism Anand Teltumbde. Despite appeals from human rights observers all over the world (the UN Special Rapporteurs, Members of the European Parliament, Amnesty, leading and respect academics and scholars from around the world) for their immediate release, the BK16 continue to remain incarcerated as the face of India’s most well-known political prisoners.

BK16 Background and Details

Rona Wilson, a long-time activist of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on June 6, 2018, in Delhi. Arrested on the same charges and on the same day (June 6, 2018) were Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, and Mahesh Raut in Nagpur and Sudhir Dhawale in Mumbai. In August 2018, a series of further arrests were made in the same case – of Sudha Bharadwaj in Delhi, Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, and Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves in Mumbai. Seven more arrests in the case were made in 2020 – of Anand Teltumbde in Goa and Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, in April, Hany Babu in Delhi in July, Jyoti Raghoba Jagtap, Sagar Tatyaram Gorkhe, and Ramesh Murlidhar Gaichor in Pune in September, and Stan Swamy in Ranchi in October. All 16 have been arrested under the UAPA.

These 16 individuals work in different parts of India. Eight of them are Dalit-Bahujans (members of India’s most oppressed and stigmatized castes), four are from minority communities. They represent some of India’s most illustrious and committed human rights defenders, with long histories of writing and working for the democratic rights of India’s poorest and most oppressed: Dalits, Adivasis, (Indigenous Peoples) and women. All of them have been outspoken critics of the ideology and politics of Hindutva, the upper-caste and patriarchal Hindu supremacist ultranationalism espoused and implemented by Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Hindutva order is in direct conflict with the Indian Constitution which enshrines a “socialist, secular republic” and guarantees equal civil and political rights to all.

 

  • December 28, 2017: Desecration of shrine at Vudhu Budhruk village near Bhima-Koregaon which commemorates Govind Gaikwad, a Dalit (Mahar) icon. FIR filed against the desecrators (groups linked to the RSS and Hindutva movement. which included a named individual, Milind Eknote a well-known Hindutva leader).
  • December 29, 2017: Call for a bandh against Dalits by same groups and individuals
  • December 31, 2017: Elgaar Parishad held in Pune
  • January 1, 2018: Tens of thousands of Dalits visit Bhima-Koregaon to mark 200th anniversary of memorial to Mahar soldiers. Some clashes between Hindutva groups and some Dalits occur in which 1 person was killed. Subsequently, large protests by Dalits in Mumbai. Police crackdown and arrests of many Dalits. No arrest of any named Hindutva individual.
  • June 8, 2018: Pune police arrest Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen & Mahesh Raut under the Unlawful Acts (Prevention) Act or UAPA for their alleged participation in the Elgaar Parishad, alleged activities linked to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and an alleged assassination plot against the Prime Minister. Under the UAPA, police have 90 days to file a chargesheet.
    • September 2, 2018: 2 days before the deadline of 90 days was to expire, a special court in Pune granted an extension of another 90 days to the Pune police
    • October 24, 2018: Bombay High Court quashes the Pune special court order
    • October 29, 2018: Supreme Court Stays Bombay High Court order
    • November 15, 2018: Chargesheet filed (5000+ pages)
  • August 28, 2018: Raids by Maharashtra police on homes of Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and attempt to arrest them  under the Unlawful Acts (Prevention) Act or UAPA under which police have 90 days to file a chargesheet. The homes of two others—Anand Teltumbde and Stan Swamy—were also raided.
    • August 29, 2018: Five eminent persons (historian Romila Thapar, economist and Padma Bhushan awardee Devaki Jain, sociologist Satish Deshpande, economist Prabhat Pattnaik, and barrister and executive director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Maja Daruwala) filed a petition in the Supreme Court complaining about the highhanded action of the Maharashtra Police in raiding the homes and arresting five well known human rights activists, journalists, advocates and political worker, with a view to kill independent voices differing in ideology from the party in power and to stifle the honest voice of dissent. They complain that the five activists, namely, Gautam Navalakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves were arrested on 28th August, 2018 from their without any credible material and evidence against them justifying their arrest…This action was to silence the dissent, stop people from helping the poor and downtrodden and to instill fear in the minds of people and was a motivated action to deflect people’s attention from real issues. The petitioners have made it clear in their petition that they were seriously concerned about the erosion of democratic values and were approaching this Court “not to stop investigation into allegations” “but” to ensure independent and credible “investigation into the arrest of stated five human rights activists.” They claim that anything short of that relief will damage the fabric of the nation irreparably [Link]
    • August 29: Supreme Court—unsatisfied with the merits of the case – orders that all of five to be only placed under house arrest until September 6. It then extends house arrest until September 12, and then again until September 17 and 19.
    • September 28, 2018: Supreme Court (by a 2:1 vote) refuses to interfere with arrests and does not comprise a Special Investigation Team. Extends house arrest for four more weeks. Dissenting opinion by Justice Chandrachud: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker will burst.”
    • October 27, 2018: Pune police put Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves in police custody; Maharashtra police take Sudha Bharadwaj into police custody; Navlakha gets reprieve until November 1 as per Bombay High Court
    • November 17, 2018: Varavara Rao taken into judicial custody
    • November 23, 2018: Pune police seek extension of another 90 days to file supplementary chargesheet against five arrestees
    • December 3, 2018: Supreme Court directs Maharashtra government to show chargesheet
    • December 15, 2018: Bombay high court extended relief from arrest to Navlakha until January 16, 2019, and to Teltumbde until December 17, 2018. Stan Swamy’s petition rejected. The three had filed a petition to quash an FIR filed by Pune police naming them.
  • February 21, 2019: Supplementary charge sheet is filed against those arrested in August, specifically against IAPL, the organization Gonsalves, Ferreira, and Bharadwaj were associated with, who had successfully defended individuals against accusations of being linked to the Maoists.
    • December–January 2020: After a new government comes to power in Maharashtra, key leader of the new coalition, Sharad Pawar, calls for the case to be handed over to a Special Investigation Team. The Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh calls for a meeting on reinvestigation of the case on January 23.
    • January 24, 2020: One day after the meeting to consider reinvestigating the case, without offering any reason, the case is transferred to the National Investigation Agency, which is an agency of the Central government. This sudden shift can be seen as a naked attempt to maintain control over the case and prevent it from being exposed.
    • April 14, 2020: The NIA continues its spate of arrests. In spite of pleas regarding the risk to their health from the global pandemic, the Supreme Court dismisses the interim relief from arrest granted to Prof. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. They surrender to the NIA on April 14.
    • July 28, 2020: Prof. Hany Babu, the convenor of the defense committee for another of the BK-16, Prof. G. N. Saibaba, is also arrested in another attempt to disrupt the civil society defense of the accused.
    • September 8, 2020: Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, and Jyoti Jagtap, artist-activists who work to spread an anti-caste, pro-democracy message, are arrested by the NIA. Shortly after, they release a video statement alleging that the NIA tried to get Gorkhe and Gaichor to be witnesses in the Bhima-Koregaon case, and pressured them to falsely admit to visiting Maoist leaders in a jungle in Gadchiroli in order to fit their trumped-up narrative of the BK-16 being Maoists.
    • October 8, 2020: 83-year-old Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who has worked for tribal rights over several decades, is arrested from Ranchi.
    • October 10, 2020: A supplementary charge sheet is filed against the newly accused. Among the charges is mentioned the civil society efforts of Prof. Hany Babu to get Prof. G. N. Saibaba released.
    • November 2020–January 2021: Numerous bail applications are rejected for all the accused. Even significant humanitarian grounds of ill health are not considered sufficient. There is international outrage over the failure to provide Fr. Stan Swamy, who suffers from Parkinson’s, slippers and a cup and a straw to drink water from.
  • February 8, 2021: Arsenal Consulting from Boston, USA, releases its forensic report proving that documents were wrongfully inserted into the hard drive of Rona Wilson using malware. The American Bar Association comes out against the wrongful arrests of the BK-16.
    • February 10, 2021: The story of the forensic investigation breaks in the Washington Post. Rona Wilson‘s lawyers file a case based on the report asking the court to quash the charges and appoint a Special Investigative Team to look into the matter of planting of false evidence.
    • February 22, 2021: Varavara Rao is finally granted bail in a minor and temporary victory for human rights against state persecution.

India’s draconian ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act’ (UAPA) is a piece of security legislation that allows the government to arrest citizens for crimes they might possibly commit in the future. UAPA facilitates the government’s bypassing of various constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, and fundamental rights and freedoms that protect citizens from abuses of state power.

The draconian ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act’ (UAPA) is India’s foremost “anti-terror” law. Enacted in 1967, it was amended in 2004 to incorporate elements of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) which was repealed in response to widespread public opposition. Further amendments were made in 2008, 2012, and 2019 to make the UAPA even more repressive. The law allows the government to arrest citizens for crimes they might possibly commit in the future. Those arrested under the UAPA can be incarcerated for up to 180 days without charges being filed.

The UAPA prescribes seven years imprisonment for “advocating, abetting, advising or inciting the commission of any unlawful activity.” Unlawful activity is defined vaguely in the law as any action, whether by an individual or an association, which “disclaims, questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India” or “causes or is intended to cause disaffection against India.”

UAPA criminalizes the holding of particular opinions, or even the mere possession of literature that might possibly cause “disaffection” with the state. UAPA also criminalizes various forms of non-violent political activity, including political protest. UAPA’s definition of “terrorist activity” is so broad as to be vague and includes activities that are legitimate and essential to the work of human rights defenders. The UAPA thus repackages the holding of ideas as crime

Until 2019, the police needed to establish that those arrested in UAPA cases were members of banned organizations to secure a conviction in a court of law. But an amendment made in July that year has enabled the government to designate any individual as a “terrorist,” bypassing the need to establish membership or association with banned groups.

The UAPA allows the government to bypass constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties and fundamental rights that protect citizens from abuses of state power, such as the presumption of innocence, provision of bail or anticipatory bail, protection from warrantless search, seizure and arrest of individuals, time limits on detention by the police, requirements that the state must file a charge sheet within a specified time, etc. Accounts by those incarcerated under UAPA reveal that neglect, mistreatment, and torture are common, including the use of solitary confinement even during pre-trial police custody.

UAPA authorizes the creation of special courts with the ability to use secret witnesses and to hold closed-door hearings. A Supreme Court judgement in April 2019 further tightened UAPA by making it impossible to apply for bail on grounds of the inadmissibility of the evidence. It ruled that the courts could not examine what is admissible and what isn’t at the stage of granting bail. That can only be done at the stage of trial. Thus the quality of the evidence is of no consequence until the trial itself, and anyone arrested under the UAPA can be held indefinitely until the trial. This explains how the state has kept the BK16 in jail for so long. 

International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have argued that UAPA violates international human rights treaties and have raised alarm bells over its “sweeping definitions of ‘membership’ of organizations,” specifically referring to the 2012 amendment to UAPA’s Section 2 which criminalizes the right to form associations by expanding the definition of person to include “an association of persons or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not.” Human Rights Watch has issued multiple reports about the politically motivated use of UAPA and its use to crack down on dissent.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament), there has been a 72% increase in the number of arrests made under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in 2019 in relation to those made in 2015. The MHA revealed that as many as 1,948 persons were arrested under the UAPA in 1,226 cases that were registered across the country in 2019. Between the years 2015 and 2018, 897, 922, 901 and 1,182 cases were registered and 1,128, 999, 1,554 and 1,421 people were arrested, Union minister of state for home G. Kishan Reddy said in a written reply. In a letter addressed to the Indian government on December 22, 2020 a team of Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations criticized the misuse of the law against human rights defenders and journalists in Kashmir. The letter said the government action was “aimed at discrediting their work.”

An earlier reply by the government in the Lok Sabha had revealed that only 2.2% of cases registered under the UAPA between 2016 and 2019 resulted in convictions.

UAPA criminalizes the holding of particular opinions, or even the mere possession of literature that might possibly cause others (one’s friends/ members of a group/ one’s students/ one’s readers/ one’s community) to have thoughts that are in disagreement with the state, i.e. cause “disaffection” with the state. In other words, crimes are no longer understood as acts of commission or omission but as thoughts that might influence others’ thoughts. UAPA also criminalizes various forms of non-violent political activity, including political protest. UAPA’s definition of “terrorist activity” is so broad as to be vague and concerns activities that are legitimate and essential for any people’s rights activist. UAPA is thus an assault on citizens’ rights to expression, assembly and association which are guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian constitution. It is also important to note that freedom of expression is not an individual right but a collective right of groups, unions and political parties to disseminate their views and mobilize people. UAPA specifically targets this right.

UAPA can and has been used to bypass fundamental legal rights and procedures such as the presumption of innocence, provision of bail or anticipatory bail, protection from warrantless search, seizure and arrest of individuals, time limits on detention by the police, requirements that the state must file a charge sheet, etc. (those arrested under the auspices of the UAPA can be incarcerated upto to 180 days without a chargesheet being filed). UAPA thus directly violates Article 21 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees an individual’s right to life and liberty.

UAPA confers broad discretionary powers on the government and authorizes the creation of special courts with the ability to use secret witnesses and to hold closed-door hearings. UAPA was amended in 2008 and 2012 making it more repressive and regressive, and remains India’s foremost “anti-terror” law. It has inspired other state-level laws such as the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978; Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act, 1992; Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999; and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005. These local laws are sometimes even more draconian than the UAPA and are used by the state prosecution agencies in addition to the UAPA. The CSPSA, for example, prohibits the media from reporting on any activities that can be seen as ‘unlawful’ activities, which in effect bans the public’s knowledge of the government’s decisions and its ability to debate them.

Accounts by those incarcerated under UAPA reveal that neglect, mistreatment and torture are common, including the use of solitary confinement even during pre-trial police custody. In one of the more recent examples of such ill-treatment, Prof. G.N. Saibaba, a professor of English from Delhi University who is 90% disabled and is confined to a wheelchair is being held in cells without ramps or toilets although they are legally mandated for disabled inmates. Dr. Saibaba suffers from poor cardiac health and chronic back pain but has been denied medical care. In another example, Dr. Binayak Sen, a physician who worked for over 30 years with underserved indigenous and poor populations in the rural districts of Chhattisgarh was detained for two years without a trial under the UAPA. Dr. Sen was granted bail in 2011 after an international campaign protested his incarceration, but is yet to go through a trial as of November 2018. In practice, UAPA is used to squelch the expression of dissent through the intimidation, harassment and persecution of dissenters. It threatens the very existence of public debate and the freedom of the press and raises fundamental questions about citizens’ constitutional right to dissent in a democracy, and the state’s obligation to respond to such challenges.

Those arrested under the UAPA are writers, poets, teachers, lawyers, activists, trade unionists, physicians, and ordinary  citizens, targeted for defending the rights of India’s beleaguered minority communities, such as Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis (India’s indigenous communities), and for voicing  public concern about state repression, including extra-judicial killings. In effect, UAPA operates by criminalizing the very performance of civil liberties activities.

Civil liberties and Democratic rights organizations in India such as the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), People’s Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR), etc. have documented the excesses of UAPA and have called for repealing the law.

International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have argued that UAPA violates international human rights treaties and have raised alarm bells over its “sweeping definitions of ‘membership’ of organizations”, specifically referring to the 2012 amendment to UAPA’s Section 2 which criminalises the right to form associations by expanding the definition of person to include “an association of persons or body of individuals, whether incorporated or not”. Human Rights Watch has issued multiple reports  about the politically motivated use of UAPA and its use to crackdown on dissent.

The Bhima Koregaon Case: Charges, Irregularities and Planted Evidence (Arsenal Report)

Who Are the BK16?

Timeline of the BK16 Case

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and why it is Problematic

BK16 and the Spate of UAPA Arrests

How the UAPA Repackages Ideas As Crimes

Solidarity Statements from Around the World

American Bar Association Report (October 2019) on BK Case procedural irregularities, abuse of process, and violations of fundamental human rights.

Urgent call by American Bar Association demanding release of “arbitrarily detailed human rights defenders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

130 Lawyers appeal for prisoner release under COVID

Indian Civil Watch International (ICWI) is a non-sectarian left diasporic membership-based organization that represents the diversity of India’s people and anchors a transnational network to building radical democracy in India.