From FIR to Malware Claims: A Timeline of the Bhima Koregaon Case
All you need to know about the 16 accused, 3 charge sheets, and the controversial narrative surrounding the case.
(This story was first published on 20 February 2021 and is being republished in light of the new report by a US-based forensic company, finding 22 additional files that show the computer of Bhima-Koregaon case accused Rona Wilson was compromised by a malware attack.)
When exactly did the Bhima Koregaon case, as it has come to be known, begin?
Was it on the day the first set of activists were arrested, back in June 2018? Was it the day when malware was allegedly planted on the computers of at least one of the accused, two years before that? Or do we have to go all the way back to the Battle of Bhima Koregaon itself to understand what’s really going on with this case?
And when will this case, which has dragged on for nearly three years with a trial nowhere in sight, end?
Here’s a complete timeline of this controversial case: from its origins in a dodgy FIR, to the moment the Supreme Court could have nipped all this in the bud; and from the filing of 3 charge sheets, to the 16 arrests made under its vague and dubious mandate.
All of which have led, of course, to the latest revelation about alleged fabrication of evidence, which has been taken to the Bombay High Court in a petition that could now define the way this case proceeds.
How It Started...
1 JANUARY 1818
Battle of Koregaon is fought between the army of Peshwa Baji Rao II of the Maratha Confederacy, and a force of the British East India Company. The victorious 800-strong ‘British’ forces included members of the Mahar Dalit community, whose offers of military service had been rejected by the Peshwa.
A 60-foot-commemorative obelisk, to honour the fallen soldiers of the Bombay Native Infantry, was erected at the battle site and inscribed with the names of 49 soldiers. Twenty-two of the names mentioned in the list belonged to people from the Mahar community.
1 JANUARY 1927
Dr BR Ambedkar visits the memorial. Following this, Dalit groups begin to commemorate the Mahar soldiers every year on 1 January, the anniversary of the battle, for their role in the fight for Dalit rights and dignity.
13 JUNE 2016
According to a report by US forensic digital analysis firm Arsenal Consulting, this was the day when the computer of academic and activist Rona Wilson was first compromised by an unknown attacker using the NetWire RAT malware. The computer would be compromised several times between this date and 17 April 2018.
2017 (?) ONWARDS
Activists and lawyers connected with Dalit and tribal rights are allegedly targeted using Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus spyware. These include lawyers Nihalsing Rathod, Bela Bhatia and Shalini Gera, as well as academic Anand Teltumbde.
Rathod claims to have received missed WhatsApp calls from suspicious numbers (the modus operandi for planting of the spyware) from 2017 onwards, sharing screenshots of calls from 2018 with The Wire, while Citizen Lab informed him and others of being surveilled for two weeks leading up to May 2019.
31 DECEMBER 2017
Retired Supreme Court judge Justice PB Sawant and retired high court judge Justice BG Kolse Patil organise the ‘Elgar Parishad’ along with, reportedly, 250 Dalit grassroots organisations.
The Elgar Parishad saw speeches by Dalit leaders and numerous activists including Prakash Ambedkar, Justice Kolse Patil, Rahika Vemula, Jignesh Mewani and Soni Sori , regarding the historical significance of the battle, along with cultural events.
The programme reportedly ended with pledges to protect the Constitution and oppose the communalisation and divisive politics of the BJP and RSS.
1 JANUARY 2018
In the weeks leading up to the bicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, various Hindu right wing and Maratha groups had objected to the commemoration of the event by Dalit groups.
On the actual day, Dalit processions are attacked near the village of Bhima Koregaon. Violence breaks out, in which a 28-year-old Dalit man Rahul Patangale is killed and several others injured.
Tensions continue into the next day, with further violence leading to the death of a 16-year-old Dalit boy, Yogesh Prahalad Jadhav.
Whose Conspiracy is it Anyway?
2 JANUARY 2018
The first FIR in connection with the violence is registered at Pimpri police station against Sambhaji Bhide (former RSS worker who founded his own right wing outfit) and Milind Ekbote (a former BJP and Shiv Sena corporator connected with several Hindutva groups).
The FIR was filed by social worker Anita Ravindra Salve, a member of the Bahujan Republican Socialist Party, who claimed that Bhide and Ekbote and their supporters were among those who attacked the Dalit processions, snatching and burning their flags, and attacking them and the police.
8 JANUARY 2018
A belated complaint is filed by Pune businessman Tushar Damgude at the Vishrambagh police station in which he claimed that the violence at Bhima Koregaon was instigated by leftist activists during the Elgar Parishad. This complaint was converted into an FIR by the Pune police, which forms the basis of the Bhima Koregaon case.
Activist Sudhir Dhawale, along with members of the Kabir Kala Manch, including Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap, were named in the complaint and FIR.
14 MARCH 2018
Milind Ekbote is arrested after the Supreme Court declines to order anticipatory bail/protection from arrest. He is granted bail on 19 April 2018. Sambhaji Bhide is not arrested at any point.
17 APRIL 2018
Raids are conducted at the homes of several activists: Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling and Sudhir Dhawale, as well as Kabir Kala Manch members Harshali Potdar, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Ghaichor and Deepak Dhengle. Electronic devices were seized during the raids, including the computers of Wilson and Gadling.
Magistrates had initially denied warrants for these raids on 9 March and 13 March 2018, based on claims by Pune Police that they had “secret information” about correspondence between the accused which would unravel some great conspiracy.
The raids were conducted under the FIR registered by Damgude on 8 January 2018, in which Wilson and Gadling had by now been added as suspected accused.
Despite this, the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis sought to claim that the raids had nothing to do with the Bhima Koregaon violence, and were instead part of a nationwide crackdown on people associated with Naxalism, according to The Hindu.
Beginning of the Arrests and the Myth of ‘Urban Naxals’
6 JUNE 2018
The Pune Police make the first arrests in the case:
- Sudhir Dhawale – Dalit rights activist, publisher of left-leaning Marathi magazine Vidrohi
- Surendra Gadling – Human rights lawyer, former general secretary of the Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers (IAPL), part of legal team for Prof GN Saibaba
- Mahesh Raut – Land rights activist in Maharashtra, former fellow of Prime Minister’s Rural Development Programme
- Shoma Sen – English literature professor, Dalit and women’s rights activist
- Rona Wilson – Academic, activist, member of Committee for Release of Political Prisoners, involved with legal defence for Prof GN Saibaba
4 JULY 2018
Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami presents a show with allegations against lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj, claiming she is a Maoist and that she has written a letter stating that a “Kashmir like situation” has to be created in the country to take on the Modi government. Bharadwaj denies the allegations and files a case against Republic TV.
From around the time of the raids in April 2018, pro-government news channels have been presenting similar shows with conspiracy theories about Maoist plots and the ‘Urban Naxals’ who are involved in these plots, with similar narratives also being created on social media.
28 AUGUST 2018
Homes of nine activists raided by Pune Police with assistance of police forces outside Pune. Next set of five arrests made:
- Sudha Bharadwaj – Trade unionist, human rights lawyer, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties
- Arun Ferreira – Lawyer for Dalit and tribal rights activists.
- Vernon Gonsalves – Trade unionist, academic, Dalit, tribal and prisoner rights activist.
- Varavara Rao – Telugu poet, communist ideologue.
- Gautam Navlakha – Academic, writer, human rights activist, particularly in Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, former secretary of People’s Union for Democratic Rights
Following interventions in the high courts and then the Supreme Court, the second set of five activists is originally kept under house arrest.
‘Cloud on the Impartiality of Investigative Process’
28 SEPTEMBER 2018
By a 2:1 majority, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court declines a plea for a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the case (originally by historian Romila Thapar and four other eminent persons and then the accused themselves) who had alleged that the arrests of the activists were unlawful and that there was not sufficient evidence for the police to proceed against them.
Justice DY Chandrachud, however, delivers a strong dissent raising several questions about the investigation and the arrests, and supports the plea for an SIT, since there was a “ cloud on the impartiality of the investigative process.” Some of the issues highlighted by Justice Chandrachud in his dissent include:
- The way in which the Pune Police held briefings to insist they had enough evidence against the activists, and “selectively disclosed” details including the revelation of a letter, allegedly obtained from Rona Wilson’s computer about plans for a “Rajiv Gandhi style incident” to assassinate the PM.
“The use of the electronic media by the investigating arm of the State to influence public opinion during the pendency of an investigation subverts the fairness of the investigation.”Justice Chandrachud’s dissent
- No material including the purported letter, was submitted to the apex court which indicated any basis to link the arrested individuals to a plot against the Prime Minister.
- A purported letter from Bharadwaj to ‘Comrade Prakash’ contains 17 references to “words scribed in Devanagari, using forms peculiar to Marathi” – even though Sudha Bharadwaj does not speak Marathi.
- The Pune Police sent witnesses from Pune who were employees of the Pune Municipal Corporation to observe arrests made outside Pune. Section 41B of the Code of Criminal Procedure requires independent witnesses to be present at the time of an arrest.
“Circumstances have been drawn to our notice to cast a cloud on whether the Maharashtra police has in the present case acted as fair and impartial investigating agency. Sufficient material has been placed before the Court bearing on the need to have an independent investigation.Justice Chandrachud’s dissent
Because of the majority opinion, however, four of the second set of five activists are arrested and taken to Pune. Gautam Navlakha obtains protection from arrest from the high courts owing to procedural irregularities.
The FIR, which by now has nothing to do with the Bhima Koregaon violence, gets more names added to it, including Anand Teltumbde and Father Stan Swamy.
Offences under the FIR (from the time the raids on the activists stated) include terrorism and terror financing offences under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA.
The First Charge Sheets and the NIA Transfer
15 NOVEMBER 2018
First charge sheet in the case, against the five activists arrested in June 2018, is filed in the special court. The core of the charge sheet is the unsigned letters on requirements for ammunition and the Modi ‘assassination plot’ that formed core of the (recovered from Wilson and Gadling’s computers), and purported oral and documentary evidence to corroborate these.
All the letters were recovered in text formats even though at least some were supposed to have been sent by email. The lack of email header information had been queried by Justice Chandrachud’s dissent.
The activists are all alleged to be working for the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) group, thereby justifying the UAPA charges. All accused had by this time already been denied bail because of the invocation of the UAPA.
21 FEBRUARY 2019
Supplementary charge sheet filed against the activists arrested in August 2018.
In addition to similar claims about letters, the supplementary charge sheet focuses on additional claims about the conspiracy, including that the IAPL – which Gonsalves, Ferreira and Bharadwaj were associated with, and which had successfully defended several of those accused of Maoist links in the past – was a Maoist front.
‘Literature’ recovered from the accused was also cited, including documents relating to the CPI (Maoist) dating from before it had been banned, as well as documents about caste and ‘party’ strategies.
DECEMBER 2019 - JANUARY 2020
Following the state elections, a new coalition government comes to power in Maharashtra consisting of an alliance between the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress.
NCP supremo Sharad Pawar says an SIT is required to assess the probe into the case. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh says he will seek a status report on the matter. A meeting is held between government officials and the police officers to decide whether a reinvestigation of the case is required on 23 January.
24 JANUARY 2020
One day after that meeting, the Centre transfers the investigation of the case from the Pune Police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
No reasons were specified for the transfer.
The NIA Keeps On Carrying On
14 APRIL 2020
The Supreme Court refuses to extend the interim relief from arrest provided to Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, despite them citing the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk to them because of their age and co-morbidities.
They surrender to the NIA on 14 April 2020, and are taken into custody.
28 JULY 2020
Delhi University associate professor Hany Babu is arrested by the NIA. His house had been raided twice, and he had been summoned to the NIA office for questioning in July 2020.
According to Babu’s wife Jenny Rowena, the NIA claimed they had found partitions on his hard drive that contained incriminating documents, and that they had tried to pressurise Babu into implicating others.
8 SEPTEMBER 2020
Three members of the Kabir Kala Manch – Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Ghaichor and Jyoti Jagtap – are arrested by the NIA, who claim they made provocative speeches at the Elgar Parishad on 31 December 2017. The NIA claims that they were part of a conspiracy with Maoists/Naxals to instigate the violence that followed.
The Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan released a video from Gorkhe and Ghaichor in which they allege that the NIA during previous bouts of questioning had tried to make them agree to be witnesses in the case. They were allegedly told to accept they had gone to a jungle in Gadchiroli to meet their Naxalite contacts (which ties in to the claims about the other activists’ Naxal ties), or face arrest.
8 OCTOBER 2020
The NIA arrests 83-year-old Father Stan Swamy from Ranchi in connection with the case. Swamy is a Jesuit priest who has worked for tribal rights for decades. Swamy releases a statement which says:
“…what is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals and others who stand for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits and the marginalised and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted.”
10 OCTOBER 2020
The NIA files a supplementary charge sheet against Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Ghaichor, Jyoti Jagtap and Milind Teltumbde (Anand’s brother, still absconding).
The supplementary charge sheet claims that all eight persons conspired with the other accused to further the ideology of the banned CPI (Maoist) organisation. Anand Teltumbde is supposed to have helped organise the Elgar Parishad. Babu is supposed to have arranged visits for foreign journalists to Maoist areas, and tried to secure the release of Professor GN Saibaba.
Navlakha is accused of “uniting intellectuals against the Indian government forces to defeat them both physically and otherwise” and recruiting new members. The NIA also claims he is in touch with officials of Pakistan’s ISI spy network.
Swamy is alleged to be “actively involved” in CPI (Maoist) activities, with literature and propaganda material of the outfit allegedly recovered from his possession. The NIA also claims that the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, which he is a part of, is a front for the Maoists.
State of Play
OCTOBER 2020 - PRESENT
Multiple bail applications by all the accused have been rejected, including for Varavara Rao, who had suffered from several medical problems and even caught COVID-19. A fresh request for him to be granted bail on medical and humanitarian grounds is being considered by the Bombay High Court.
Despite the age of accused like Stan Swamy, the NIA has consistently opposed bail, claiming the accused are trying to “take advantage of the pandemic”. A massive controversy had also broken out in November 2020 over the NIA’s reported failure to provide Swamy, who has Parkinson’s Disease, with a sipper to drink water.
8 FEBRUARY 2021
Rona Wilson’s lawyers submit the Arsenal Consulting report to the NIA special court. The report claims that Wilson’s laptop had been compromised by malware for nearly two years before his arrest, and that at least ten ‘incriminating documents’ were deposited in it as a result of these attacks.
The report suggests that other co-accused’s computers had also been compromised.
“Arsenal has connected the same attacker to a significant malware infrastructure which has been deployed over the course of approximately four years to not only attack and compromise Mr. Wilson’s computer for 22 months, but to attack his co-defendants in the Bhima Koregaon case and defendants in other high-profile Indian cases as well.”
The report had been prepared by the US forensic analysis firm at the request of Wilson’s lawyers, with the assistance of the American Bar Association, which has come out against the arrests.
10 FEBRUARY 2021
News about the Arsenal Consulting report breaks in The Washington Post. Wilson’s lawyers file a petition on his behalf in the Bombay High Court asking for an independent investigation by an SIT into the planting of documents.
Wilson’s new petition also asks the high court to quash the sanction provided by the then-Maharashtra government under the UAPA for the case to proceed, after a review of the records. In addition, he has requested compensation and to release all the accused immediately pending the investigation.
The case is yet to be listed.
22 FEBRUARY 2021
81-year-old Varavara Rao is granted bail for six months by the Bombay High Court on medical grounds. The bench of Justices SS Shinde and Manish Pitale noted that this was a “genuine and fit” case to grant this relief and if they did not, “we will be abdicating our constitutional duties as a protector of human rights and right to health under Article 21.”
The judges reject the NIA’s request to stay their order for three weeks while they appeal.
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