He was imprisoned denied bail in the Bhima Koregaon case
Stan Swamy, who died around a week ago after being denied bail in the Bhima Koregaon case, was a Tamil priest who spent decades working with adivasis in Jharkhand. Before that he was director of the Indian Social Institute in Bengaluru. Why was he in jail for an event in Pune? The Bhima Koregaon case is five separate and unrelated things. The first was an event called Elgar (or Yalgar, meaning battle cry) Parishad on December 31, 2017 in Pune. The speakers there included former high court judge B.G. Kolse-Patil and P.B. Sawant, a former Supreme Court judge. Jignesh Mewani, Independent MLA from Gujarat, and JNU activist Umar Khalid also spoke. Members of Kabir Kala Manch, who are artists-activists, participated too.
The second event was next day, January 1, 2018. This was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima, a Pune suburb on Bhima river, where on January 1, 1818, the British defeated the remnants of the Maratha empire. The British side had many dalit Mahar soldiers who overpowered a larger army led by the Brahmin Peshwa.
Since 1927 when B.R. Ambedkar visited the village to speak of the victory, hundreds of thousands of dalits came to Koregaon Bhima each year to gather at the obelisk raised to mark the battle. But in 2018, there had been tension due to events in the neighbouring village of Vadhu Budruk. This had to do with who had cremated Sambhaji, Shivaji’s son, who was executed by Aurangzeb in 1689 near Koregaon Bhima. The Mahars claimed it was one of them, Gopal Govind, who cremated the Maratha in defiance of Aurangzeb’s orders. This offended the Marathas, who claimed two of their community had performed the rituals. Govind’s tomb in Vadhu Budruk was in the same village square as Sambhaji’s. On December 28, a board was placed over Govind’s tomb, claiming the feat of his cremation of Sambhaji. The next day Govind’s tomb was desecrated — the board was removed and the umbrella structure over the tomb was damaged. A complaint was filed by dalits under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act. The Koregaon Bhima panchayat asked its residents to boycott the January 1 event and called for shops to remain shut. That morning violence erupted between dalits, who said they were attacked by a group carrying saffron flags, and the local Marathas, who said they were attacked by dalits. One Maratha was killed. The violence spread to other towns in western Maharashtra and 300 dalits, including children, were held by the Mumbai police.
The third event was a police complaint, filed a few days later, by a man who said the Elgar Parishad’s agenda was “to mislead the dalit community, to convert them to Maoist thought… and adopt the path of violence”, and that “through their publications, books and speeches, they wanted to increase enmity in society”. The man who filed the complaint, Tushar Damgude, said he followed a “simple” rule for his Hindutva: “We should keep things which are helpful for Hindus; the rest should be abandoned”.
It was on the basis of this complaint that the police began arresting the activists, many of whom had nothing to do with, and weren’t present in Bhima Koregaon. The fourth event was a report produced by an RSS outfit called the Forum for Integrated National Security, whose secretary general, Seshadri Chari, was on the BJP’s national executive committee. This report said there was a Maoist strategy to lure people into joining “mass organisations” concerned about issues like caste, justice and equality, which would then help the Maoists recruit for the final armed struggle against the State. This report was released on March 9, 2018.
Another report by the same author was submitted to Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in April. In May, the UAPA law was added to the Bhima Koregaon case. On June 6, the Maharashtra police arrested five people including Dhawale of the Republican Panthers, lawyer and dalit activist Surendra Gadling, scholar Mahesh Raut, who worked on adivasi rights, assistant professor of English at Nagpur University Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson of JNU, who worked with the Committee to Release Political Prisoners. They were described by the police as the “top brass of the urban Maoists”.
The police claimed it found a letter in Wilson’s house dated July 2017 which said: “Comrade Kisan and few other senior comrades have proposed concrete steps to end Modi Raj. We are thinking along the lines of another Rajiv Gandhi-type incident.”
On the basis of this, the police arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, who studied mathematics at IIT Kanpur and gave up her US citizenship at age 18; Gautam Navlakha, who also wrote for Economic and Political Weekly; Anand Teltumbde, assistant professor at Goa Institute of Management and married to a granddaughter of Ambedkar; Arun Ferreira, a lawyer defending the accused in this case; Vernon Gonsalves, a professor of business management and economics at Ruparel College and HR College of Commerce and Economics; Varavara Rao, an author and poet who was a lecturer on Telugu literature; Hany Babu, a professor of linguistics at Delhi University. Three members of the Kabir Kala Manch — Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap and Ramesh Gaichor — were arrested, and Father Stan Swamy, 83-year-old Jesuit and theologian.
None of them had anything to do with the Bhima Koregaon violence, and weren’t even present there. The case is said to be sensitive because of the assassination plot allegation, but the trial hasn’t started.
Last year, the BBC carried a report on Stan Swamy headlined: “The oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India”.