by Anna Violante
When the first four of the BK16 were arrested on 6 June 2018, they were accused of conspiracy and fomenting an uprising against Prime Minister Modi’s government. Others followed on 28 August, with more to come by 2020. The charges were always the same, based on planted evidence. In February 2021, the Washington Post revealed that activist Rona Wilson’s laptop had been hacked by government spyware after it was confiscated in April 2018. Documents were found containing suspicious conversations that never took place.
BK16 alleged crime dates back to 31 December 2017 when a large public rally called Elgaar Parishad (loud assembly) was held in Bhima Koregaon, a small village near Poona, in Maharashtra to commemorate a 200-year-old battle in which historically oppressed Dalit (untouchable) soldiers serving in the British army had defeated the upper-caste Hindu army of the Peshwa governor of Maharashtra. Organised by two retired judges, the non-violent festival represented the victory of the untouchables over the caste system (officially abolished in 1955, but still in use), i.e. the victorious struggle of the poor against the rich. Clashes broke out the next day, instigated by local men linked to the pro-government far-right, but after weeks of investigating them, the police focused on anti-government protesters and the conspiracy was manufactured. Why would eminent lawyers and university professors, celebrated artists, trade unionists and even a Catholic priest plot to kill the Prime Minister and bring down his government? They didn’t in the least. But because they were all known opponents of the government, they were spied on – their equipment hacked and tampered with – and deliberately accused of terrible crimes. A criminal way to crush dissent. Modi’s jails are full of political prisoners, all detained without a fair trial.
Amnesty International’s German coordinator for India, Michael Gottlob, has been doggedly working on the BK16 case since it was taken up by the human rights organisation. I asked him a few questions.
A: When did Amnesty start campaigning for BK16?
M: After the first arrests, it became soon clear that Indian authorities had started a massive crackdown on activists, advocates and human rights defenders which has been GOING ON NOW for five years. The first mention of arrests relating to Bhima Koregaon was made in December 2018. The worldwide Amnesty campaign started with an Urgent Action after the arrest of journalist Gautam Navlakha and professor Anand Teltumbde in April 2020.
A: How many of the 16 are still in prison? And what’s Amnesty doing to help them and their families?
M: There are still 12 of the BK16 human rights defenders in prison (with one of them, Gautam Navlakha, having been shifted to house arrest). One activist has died in prison (Father Stan Swamy), and three have been granted bail: Anand Teltumbde, lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj and celebrated 82 poet Varavara Rao. Amnesty tries to raise public awareness, in India and abroad, and to keep diplomatic representations in New Delhi informed about the case. Some Amnesty supporter groups in Europe and USA have established contacts with the families of BK16 prisoners.
A: What about the current 6 June campaign?
M: On this day, 6 June 2023, Amnesty sections and structures worldwide are requested to undertake actions to keep demanding that Indian authorities drop all charges against the 16 activists
A video with BK16 history
In the cover photo: Posters with greetings to Narendra Damodardas Modi prime minister of India during celebration of his birthday in New Delhi on September 17. 2022 in India © Savvapanf Photo/Shutterstock.com