by Anna Violante

On 6 June, on the sixth anniversary of the arbitrary arrest of 16 defenders of the rights of the casteless and marginalised, Amnesty International took to Twitter and Instagram to once again call on the Indian government to drop all charges against them and to immediately release the eight activists still in prison. None of the 16 have even started their trial. A trial that, according to the Indian Supreme Court, could take 10 years.

The background dates back to 1 January 2018. In Bhima Koregaon, a village on the outskirts of the city of Pune, the Dalits (untouchables) are organising a big party to commemorate the centenary of the heroic victory of a small group of untouchables, flanked by a force of 800 British soldiers, over the 28,000 men of the powerful Prince of Maharastra (now the state with Mumbai as its capital). The event, which should have been a joyous celebration of singing, dancing and public speeches, was violently interrupted by the arrival of gangs of thugs. A 16-year-old boy died. The next day, the court issues arrest warrants for the leaders of two Hindu right-wing groups, the police search for them, but after a month they are still nowhere to be found.

A twist brings the investigation to an end. The perpetrators of the riots were a group of activists for the rights of disenfranchised minorities, who had allegedly incited the crowd to riot the day before, on 31 December 2017. There is no evidence against them, but under a 1967 law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, designed to prevent activities against the state, one by one prominent lawyers, university professors, writers, poets, actors, artists and a well-known Catholic bishop have their homes raided and their computers and mobile phones confiscated by the police. Arrests follow. The charges mount, from sedition to conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, compounded by the 16’s alleged membership of an outlawed Maoist movement.

But the evidence is pre-fabricated, constructed ad hoc thanks to the Israeli digital control system Pegasus and hackers who have spied on and altered the correspondence and conversations of the accused. The first to realise this was the researcher Rona Wilson, secretary of an association for the defence of political prisoners, who managed to send a copy of her hard drive to the American digital forensic analysis company Arsenal Consulting. On 10 February 2021, the Washington Post revealed that the activist’s computer had been hacked more than 22 months before his arrest. Despite a High Court ruling to the contrary, Rona Wilson remains in prison.

The main victim of this campaign of exemplary elimination of well-known human rights defenders is the poor Jesuit Stan Swami, who died in prison of COVID at the age of 84. He had fought for the rights of tribal minorities who were being evicted from their land to make way for the extractive interests of big business. So did Mahesh Raut, who remains in jail despite being granted bail. Also in jail with him are Dalit rights activist Surendra Gadling; artists Sudhir Dhawale, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtab; university professor and defender of outcasts Hany Babu; and Sagar Gorakhe, an advocate for religious minorities.

Only seven of the Bhima Koregaon are finally awaiting trial at home after years in prison, out on bail due to lack of evidence or serious health problems. They are poet and literary scholar Varavara Rao, criminal lawyer Arun Ferreira, rural caste scholar Sudha Bharadwaj, university professors Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, Professor Shoma Sen, who was expelled from the university after her arrest, and journalist Gautam Navlakha, released on 19 May this year, author of a diary from prison in which he describes how the poorest are discriminated against even in custody. Amnesty International’s appeal is here.

On the cover photo, cityscape of Pune city from Bopdev Ghat, Pune, Maharashtra, India ©Vinayak Jagtap/