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New Book on Bhima Koregaon Case Tells Uncomfortable Truths, But Brings Hope

Alpa Shah’s book, ‘The Incarcerations’, is alive with stories of fearlessness, but also of the cost it extracts.

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"Well, I am off to NIA custody and do not know when I shall be able to talk to you again. However, I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes."

- Anand Teltumbde, on the eve of his incarceration in April 2020

Alpa Shah’s book on the Bhima Koregaon incarcerations is not an easy read. When I first decided to review the book – before laying my hands on it – I thought it would not take me longer than a week. How could it? I was familiar with the case, having covered it as a legal journalist, and I am usually a quick reader. It took me nearly three times the intended period to just finish reading. I had to pause several times simply to catch my breath before I allowed the tsunami of pain, anguish and terror to wash over me again. For this book is a relentless collection of uncomfortable truths. It is alive with accounts of fearlessness, but also of the cost it extracts. It is about the inequality of power, the absence of justice and the fragility of democracies. And that is precisely why you must read it.

But The Incarcerations (published by Harper Collins in March 2024)  is also about hope. It juxtaposes the malleability of social structures with the unbreakability of conviction. And it is about the cracks in everything around you, that even in the darkest of hours, pave the way for some light to slip in.
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As Shah notes, many of the under-trials in the Bhima Koregaon case did not even know each other, prior to their arrests under India's stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). But the common link between them had always been that they had all worked with/for the most marginalised groups of people. Therefore, Shah, a trained social anthropologist, with experience living and researching amid the Adivasis in Jharkhand (Nightmarch, her book on the subject, was published in 2018), is well situated to contextualise the incarceration of the sixteen accused.

Shah’s accomplishments as a writer and academic standing as a professor at the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) might have also improved her access to the cyber-security experts who have managed to rip the “evidence” in the case apart, exposing deep fabrication and suggesting alarming links with sections of the Indian state. What’s more, she has been able to convince a former top cop, significantly associated with this case, to answer some probing questions.

Most importantly, however, her familiarity with the subjects (the BK-16) as well as her ability to empathise, allow her to paint an honest picture of their lives and the losses they incurred – not only since their arrest, but also through the years they spent immersed in their work.

In a sense, Shah illustrates how the BK-16 dug their own prison cells.

After the arrest of Binayak Sen, an activist and a doctor, Sudha Bharadwaj had joked as early as 2007 about the possibility of her own incarceration being due. The awareness of that eventuality, however, did not prevent Bharadwaj from continuing her endeavours to enforce workers’ rights, participating in fact-finding missions amid reports of brutality against Adivasis and providing legal representation to the most deeply under-represented.

Shah acknowledges the ripples Bharadwaj’s work created in her personal life, putting a strain on her relationship with her mother and disallowing her daughter the gift of a “normal” upbringing and an English-medium education. But Sudha’s activism and pursuit of social justice remained relentless, even when she found herself locked in an overcrowded women’s prison in Mumbai. There, Shah notes, the incarcerated trade union activist wrote hundreds of applications for other prisoners and applied her understanding of the law to their aid.

Similarly, in 2018, when Father Stan Swamy was booked in a sedition case, for raising issues of unconstitutionality in government and corporate annexure of “land banks” in an Adivasi territory of Jharkhand, he had said: “If this makes me a desh drohi, then so be it.” Stan Swamy remained a force for good till the end of his life, even while his health withered away as an incarcerated under-trial and he could no longer write or eat or bathe by himself.

It may be pertinent to add here, that the judges of the Bombay High Court had posthumously called Swamy a “wonderful person” and said that they had deep respect for his work. But they had failed to grant him an opportunity to ever return to his beloved Bagaicha – his home in Jharkhand, described in Shah’s book as a “utopian oasis” by a “fast-growing concrete jungle of Ranchi”.

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Scrutinising the ‘Evidence’

So how did a “wonderful person” like Swamy, a selfless activist like Sudha, and the other equally unfortunate professors, lawyers and activists end up incarcerated for prolonged periods in this case (which incidentally is yet to go to trial)?

Shah wades through a cesspool of evidence that appears to have been planted into hacked and malware-riddled technological devices owned by some of the BK-accused. In order to carry out her heavily research-based analysis, she also consulted with experts who had independently – and free of cost – carried out the investigations. They help her grapple with the unprecedented and alarming nature of the cyber-warfare that appears to have been unleashed in this case.

Shah builds up on existing literature, and attempts to trace the hackings back to their source. Her findings are baffling and terrifying in equal proportions. She learns that the hacking activity seems to have strange links with the police that had carried out the arrests, casting a pall on the larger security apparatus, by extension.

This is not surprising, considering that the Bhima Koregaon accused have long been refuting any prior knowledge of the emails used to incriminate them. Additionally, the Indian government has been plagued since 2021 with allegations of (and questions about) employing an Israeli spyware to snoop on journalists, dissenters and opposition leaders.

But that’s not it. Through the course of her research, Shah also stumbles upon the name of one police officer whose apparent links with the hacked accounts, at the very least, warrant an urgent probe.

Shah researches with the persistence and factual clarity of a seasoned journalist. But she writes in a manner in which only someone who specialises in the study of people can.

My own experience researching the Bhima Koregaon case suggests that the BK-16 have largely been framed in the media as either “terrorists”, “activists” or sometimes as victims of a sinister design that attempts to keep dissent at bay. The Incarcerations takes it one step further and depicts them as “people” first.

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BK-16, Beyond Existing Frames

We discover how the villagers Mahesh Raut worked with wished he would get married already. We catch a glimpse of Gautam Navlakha’s friendly golden retriever, and the twinkle of stars on the night he invited his future partner Sahba Husain for a walk around Delhi’s India Gate. It was the nineties, “I was looking at the moon, but he was so passionately talking about Kashmir, about militancy, about militarisation, about what it is doing to people and their lives, about the character of the state and what it means if we do not understand it,” Sahba tells us through Alpa Shah. And we learn how Hany Babu never thought he was important enough for the police to get after him.

We also feel the warmth emanating from the tea Vernon Gonsalves’s son had shared with his mother when the cops burst in to raid their home, and we can nearly hear the echo of the poetry Ramesh Gaichor writes and sings even from within the confines of his prison.

This experience of learning about the BK-16, intimately, bridges the gap between us and them. It helps us understand them better, and relate with them. And it brings the terror of their experiences closer home. If it could happen with them, it makes you think, it can just as easily happen with you. At least, if you find yourself on the wrong side of majoritarian sentiment.

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How the Light Gets In

It is also in this context that the book reinforces a reader’s sense of admiration for those who have continued to speak truth to power – despite clampdowns on press freedom, raids on independent news organisations and arrest of dissenting citizens. Despite the BK-16 example.

While researching the malware attacks on the computers of the Bhima Koregaon accused, Shah also discovered that there had been similar attempts on the devices owned by some of their lawyers. “Those who were at the legal frontiers of laying bare the fabrications of the police and NIA case against the BK-16, who were representing the BK-16, were on the next target list. How long before they too found themselves in prison?” she writes.

And it is also here that the efforts of Shah, as well as her publishers, ought to be acknowledged. It is not easy to tell such stories in the present climate. The book illustrates this by the example of the second batch of arrests in the BK-16 case, which came after the subsequent arrestees had spoken or written in defence of the first few. And yet the publication of this book is of paramount consequence not merely for those still incarcerated in connection with this case, but also in a bid to save democracy everywhere.

Shah notes, in her introduction:

“To tell, share and spread the story of these remarkable people, and the shockingly fabricated case in which they have been ensnared, is an act of international solidarity, and is part of a global fight for how we can all reclaim, remake and extend democracy, in India and elsewhere.”

And it is in endeavours such as these that one finds hope; despite the severity of the discoveries made by the author and all the uncomfortable truths that followed. In his last public letter prior to incarceration, Gautam Navlakha quoted the following lines from Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

Alpa Shah notes that as she raced to finish her book, Navlakha’s evocation of Cohen stayed with her.

(Mekhala Saran is studying Global Media and Digital Communications at SOAS, University of London. She was formerly The Quint's Principal Correspondent - Legal. Find her on X @mekhala_saran.)

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Topics:  Bhima Koregaon 

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