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Irony of Sharad Pawar's support for Bhima Koregaon accused

That Pawar has done nothing is a testimony to the clout wielded in Maharashtra politics by 'Bhide Guruji'
Last Updated : 13 May 2022, 10:03 IST
Last Updated : 13 May 2022, 10:03 IST

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It took Delhi-based writer-activist Gautam Navlakha 75 days to get court permission to walk in the open in Taloja Jail and get the fresh air he's deprived of in the high-security anda cell he's been consigned to since October. Seventy-year-old Navlakha, one of 16 intellectuals arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, has been denied a chair despite developing back pain during his two-year-long incarceration. Last month, the Bombay High Court rejected his plea for house arrest and instead directed the Taloja Jail authorities to provide him with whatever medical care he needed.

The court's direction was baffling, considering that Taloja's jailors have consistently denied basic health care to the Bhima Koregaon accused, leading to the death in custody of the oldest among them, Jesuit priest Fr Stan Swamy. The 84-year-old died in a private hospital, where he was admitted on court orders, but his health had rapidly deteriorated after being treated with Ayurvedic medicines for Covid. In violation of jail rules, only three Ayurvedic doctors comprise the medical staff at Taloja Jail.

Yet, the jailors refused to give advocate Surendra Gadling, another of the 16 accused, the Ayurvedic medicines his son had brought for him from Nagpur, which were needed to treat his syncope. The court had allowed these medicines, but the jailors declared that the only orders they recognised were those issued by their superintendent. Earlier, Navlakha was denied the pair of spectacles sent for him from Delhi after his were stolen. Eighty-two-year-old Telugu poet Varavara Rao, in perfect mental health when he was arrested, was deprived of his regular medicines and developed dementia soon after.

Jails come under the state government and Maharashtra's home minister is from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a post the party has never let go of. It is inconceivable that the party's head, the astute Sharad Pawar, would be unaware of the way the Bhima Koregaon accused are being treated in jail. He was the one politician who criticised the Pune police for their "misuse of power" in arresting these intellectuals. His efforts in setting up an SIT to reinvestigate the case soon after the MVA government was formed frightened the Centre into ordering the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to take it over in January 2020.

However, the NIA cannot dictate the way prisoners are treated in jail. The NIA cannot prevent them from communicating with their families and lawyers. Nor can it dictate terms to the state government counsel. Yet, there hasn't been a single occasion that the Maharashtra government counsel has taken a stand different from the NIA in the Bhima Koregaon case. And the NIA counsel's stand has been to dismiss all pleas by the accused, whether medical or on merits. More than once, the NIA counsel has accused them of trying to "use Covid" to get out of jail. Responding to Gautam Navlakha's plea for house arrest, the NIA counsel said overcrowding was a reality in India; 70-year-old inmates were aplenty, and hypertension was no big deal.

But even the NIA could not match the words used by the superintendent of Byculla Jail, who described accused Sudha Bharadwaj as a "big complainer... she is, anyway, over 60 years old. She is bound to have some aches and pains."

All of this has been reported widely, which makes the inaction by Pawar more glaring. Just last week, deposing before the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry, he gave a virtual clean chit to the accused. But what use is that if the accused must remain dependent on hostile jailers?

There's a lot that Pawar could have done, apart from ensuring that jailors give the Bhima Koregaon accused the basic health care and access to communication that prisoners are entitled to. The selection of public prosecutors and the instructions given to them on dealing with important cases are also the state government's responsibility.

Even after the NIA took over, a state government-appointed SIT could have exposed how these 16 were allegedly framed and put the spotlight back on the original accused: the two Hindutva leaders, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, named in the very first FIR filed after the January 1, 2018 violence. Eyewitnesses have described before the Bhima Koregaon Commission how Dalits on their way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the historical battle of Bhima Koregaon were attacked by mobs carrying saffron flags.

That Pawar has done nothing is a testimony not only to his indifference to human rights, but also to the clout wielded in Maharashtra politics by 'Bhide Guruji', the man PM Narendra Modi eulogised in his 2014 Maharashtra Assembly campaign. After all, it was Bhide who first suggested that "Naxal links" to the Bhima Koregaon violence be probed.

(Jyoti Punwani is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 09 May 2022, 08:46 IST

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