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April 15th, 2020.

India Civil Watch – International (ICW-I) strongly condemns the incarceration of Dr. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, two of India’s foremost public intellectuals and courageous defenders of political freedoms, human rights and civil liberties. Dr. Teltumbde is also widely respected as a leading Dalit scholar, author of thirty books, who has lectured across the world on the annihilation of caste and the Dalit struggle, neoliberal capitalist plunder, and the rise of Hindutva politics. The Supreme Court’s ruling of April 8 rejects many serious questions raised in appeals by lawyers about the lack of evidence against either Teltumbde or Navlakha, and is a gross violation of their Constitutional rights. It is also a matter of grave concern that the bench of Justice Arun Mishra which ruled on the appeal blatantly disregards  the two substantive issues brought up in the appeal concerning the context of the global pandemic of Covid-19 or the fact that Dr. Teltumbde and Mr. Navlakha are senior citizens with underlying health conditions. 

In accordance with the court order, both Teltumbde and Navlakha surrendered before the National Investigation Agency on April 14 in Mumbai and New Delhi respectively. It is indeed a painful slap in the face of Indian democracy – delivered by none less than the highest court in the land – that this date falls on the birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution, one of 20th century’s tallest democratic spirits, and a beacon of inspiration and hope for the democratic aspirations of hundreds of millions of Dalits and oppressed people in the country. 

An ICWI-I initiated international solidarity statement in support of Teltumbde and Navlakha, was signed by more than 20 organizations and 6,000 individuals, including eminent scholars, writers and artists like Professors Angela Davis, Cornel West, Jean Dreze, Sukhadeo Thorat, Zoya Hasan, Rajmohan Gandhi and Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Aparna Sen and T.M. Krishna, to name a few. Organizations endorsing  the statement included the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights (ELDH), International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), Paris, Ambedkar International Center, USA, and All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA). 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world (including Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, Germany, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Spain, Turkey, USA, etc.) are actively reducing their incarcerated populations  as jails, prisons and detention centers with their crowded and dismal conditions pose serious threats to life. Measures undertaken include the release of pre-trial detainees, those unable to afford cash bail, or individuals close to the end of their sentence, etc., while also delaying new arrests. 

Advocates of prison abolition have long raised important questions about the role of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex in reproducing social inequalities by disproportionately targeting members of already oppressed social groups. 

Such considerations seem particularly relevant to India, where, as many journalists, lawyers and human rights activists in India have documented, the justice system is replete with gross failures, including illegal detention, illegal torture of detainees, confessions extracted under duress, planting of evidence including on digital devices, pre-trial detentions of upto 10 years, etc. Crucially it has been well established that members of marginalized groups such as Dalits & Bahujans, Adivasis, Muslims, and political dissidents have been particularly vulnerable to blatant abuses of power in the justice system including violations of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights such as right to bail, right to a trial, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. 

Both Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, being over 65 years of age are amongst the population deemed especially vulnerable to Covid-19. It would have been both humane and prudent (from a public health perspective) to provide bail; instead, the Indian state – under the helm of the ultranationalist Hindutva Modi regime- has arrested these two men during an unprecedented pandemic, before they have ever had their day in court. Given that social distancing is functionally impossible inside a prison, and given data that infection rates at jails have been higher than among the general public, it is no exaggeration to say that the arrest of these two men targets their very right to life. 

We urge

  1. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to elevate the case as its highest priority and constitute an immediate inquiry into the questions of fabrication of evidence reported widely in the media.
  2. The Government of Maharashtra and the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission to immediately constitute a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to independently investigate the matter. 
  3. The United Nations Human Right Commission (UNHRC) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to attend to the UN Special Rapporteur who has clearly challenged the basis of this case.

At this time we at ICW-I reiterate our unwavering solidarity with other public intellectuals and civil liberties defenders Surendra Gadling, Arun Fereira, Vernon Gonsalves, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson & Varavara Rao, all of whom have languished in jails over the last two years – unjustly incarcerated by the Indian state and its judicial accomplices in the same fabricated Bhima-Koregaon case as Teltumbde and Navlakha, each of them targeted for their dedicated lifelong work for the rights of India’s most oppressed and marginalized. We join numerous other voices and organizations in condemning the vindictiveness of the present government, its complicit  judicial and administrative machinery, in threatening, targeting, and incarcerating activists and intellectuals, social workers and conscientious human beings – especially those questioning the regime’s policies and practices, and daring to continue fighting for the rights of the socially and economically marginalized and oppressed groups of the land. 

ICW-I unequivocally condemns and  demands an immediate end to the Modi regime’s political persecution of workers, students, intellectuals, activists, human rights and civil liberties defenders, and all ordinary people seeking basic rights and freedoms protected by the constitution. We hold that this regime, untethered from any semblance of legal or moral accountability and unembarrassed by its growing penchant for wanton cruelty, today stands naked and exposed as a malicious political project inimical to democracy and human dignity, and most importantly, inimical to the very constitution that Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar authored and built into the foundations of free India. 

As two more shining beacons of hope in this era of intensified repression are marched off to prison by the villainous actions of this regime, we salute their incredible courage and indomitable spirits. We call upon all those who cherish democracy and human dignity to stand with Dr. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, and join us in vowing to redouble our collective efforts to carry on the struggle for liberation far and wide. 

In solidarity,
Jai Bhim! Lal Salaam!

India Civil Watch

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.