On January 12, 2018, two weeks after Bhima Koregaon Yalgar Parishad program in Pune, the anti-terrorist squad of Maharashtra police picked up four workers of Reliance Infrastructure, one contractor from the same company and a casual worker. Their houses in the slum were raided in the midnight for hours before the arrest. A union activist was picked up a day before. The ATS squad questioned several other workers from the same company in the following days and finally arrested one more person from Reliance Infrastructure on 25th January. Interestingly, all the eight arrestees are migrants from Andhra/Telangana region. All of them have been charged under draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
The arrests of the activists in June and August, allegedly in connection to Bhima Koregaon triggered much controversy across India, leading to the Supreme Court of India to finally interfere in the case. The Pune police have been flaunting a set of letters which they claim to have confiscated from those arrested. However, the authenticity of the letters makes it hard to believe any Maoist conspiracy. The case of reliance workers, after 10 months of their arrest with no media attention and scrutiny of the police excess, is in limbo.
Not many are aware of this case against the workers, which is the first case charged under UAPA in connection to the Bhima Koregaon violence. Several news reports appeared on the next day on this raid on worker’s home claiming theseto be the ‘arrest of seven Maoists in Mumbai.’ However, as the case unfolded it becameclear that the arrests had no connection to the Bhima Koregaon program except for using the claim for media attention, just like in the case of recent arrests.
Of the eight arrested, the five workers of Reliance Infrastructure Ltd. Satyanarayan Rajayya Karrela, Babu Shankar Buchayya Vanguri, Shankarayya Lingayya Gunde, Ravi Rajanna Maarampalli and Saidul Narsimha Singapanga are the founders and committee members of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union as well (MEEU).
The wives of the arrested have been frequenting the Mumbai City & Sessions Court and the High Court for the past 10 months - still in shock and unable to comprehend what and why has this conspired with them. “There were about 15-20 of them (policemen and women) in civil dress. I tried to stop them. But the women among them pushed me and came inside. They pulled out everything in the house and rummaged through all our belongings, making a mess. It was only at the end they told us that they are from police.” said Rajitha, wife of Sathyanarayana. The ATS did not show them any arrest warrant or a notice justifying the raid. They were told that the men would be released by morning after questioning. But an FIR (CR No. 02 of 2018 at ATS Police Station, Kalachowki, Mumbai) was registered on January 13, 2018. They have been charged with a total of 11 charges including serious sections of the UAPA as also forgery (an ordinary crime under IPC).
The police have submitted a chagre sheet running into 5000 pages in the court. But MM Abhyankar (treasurer of MEEU) who has gone through the charge sheet says all the charges are either baseless or framed. He says, “As per the charge sheet, the union activist named Krishna is associated with the banned CPI Maoist. He has helped few Maoists to get medical treatment 10 years back when they came to city injured. The charge sheet says that the arrested workers have been helping him”.
Contradicting the narrative, the charge sheet also says that the workers know Krishna only for the past 3 years. “Even if Krishna has helped some Maoists to help medical treatment 10 years ago, how are these workers (now wrongfully charged) supposed to know about it?” Abhyankar also explains says that the entire charge sheet is full of such un-corroborated stories. The police have listed literature like pamphlets and notices which call to fight for oppressed Dalits and to organise unorganised workers as ‘objectionable literature’ in the charge sheet.
Another person named Prabhakar Machha, a school teacher by profession, and a close associate and sympathiser of workers' union, very respected in his area, used to translate English literature into Telugu for workers; was also picked up on the night of January 12, but was released later and was not arrested. His is a truly tragic case. The police continued to repeatedly visit his house and interrogate him for hours, and he finally committed suicide on January 23, 2018 (eleven days later).
One of the families thus targeted had to go back to their village in Andhra since the landlord (in Mumbai) asked them to vacate their shanty due to the frequent visits of the ATS squad! Of the 5 families, only one woman is employed, she works as a housemaid. The others are meeting the ends with the help of their relatives. They say even the relatives are not well off enough to send them money to meet the ends of the families living in a city like Mumbai.
The police have told the media that the posters of the Bhima Koregaon were found in the homes of these workers. But Bhima Koregaon posters could be found from anyone who is inclined towards the Dalit movement in Maharashtra. Lakhs of Dalit Bahujans visit Bhima Koregaon every year, and since this was the 200 year anniversary, multiple organisers had planned extended celebrations. Some of these workers have also visited Bhima Koregaon on December 31, a day before the violence occurred. But even this is only one among the hundred charges in the charge sheet alleging that these workers have Maoists links.
“The police told the court that they are Maoists and living with false identities! But the lawyers appeared for them showed the proof that they were regular employees of Reliance Energy and that they were members of a registered trade union, Mumbai Electric Employees Union, having permanent addresses, Aadhar and PAN cards and being employed in service for 5 - 15 years,” said Susan Abraham, one of the lawyers representing the case.
The stage is now set for framing of charges before the trial. Bail applications were filed in the session’s court which were also rejected. So now bail petitions are pending in the High Court. Chances are weighed heavily against them, given the fact that draconian sections of the UAPA have been applied, a formidably long charge sheet stretching into 5,000 pages has been filed, all of which will work to influence the court into assessing the case serious as a prima facie ‘serious’ case. Bail therefore seems a distant dream.
These workers from Reliance Infrastructure have been also active, both socially and politically, outside the Union as well. They have fought for the rights of all the workers to demand for necessary safety equipments while working, gloves, uniforms etc. Since, all of the workers arrested, along with other workers of the company, have been working for nearly two decades, they have been demanding permanency in the company. A court case articulating this demand has been filed since 2009 and is currently pending. “One can’t rule out the possibility of the company’s role behind the case. But we don’t know who took the initiative - the police or the company”, indicated N Vasudevan, the president of the Mumbai Electric Employees Union.
The ploy used against the Reliance Workers is similar to the more publicised case of the arrested activists and lawyers too. Despite the fanfare on television, the police has not cited any ‘Maoist-connection’ or link to the ‘Bhima Koregaon gathering on Janauary 1, in the court.
Is this one more ploy, like in the case of the activists and journalists, of the police playing to the tune of their political masters? All these workers, like the others have been committed to working with the marginalised. They are people who are known for their extensive work among the marginalised of the country. Like Sudha, Gadling or Arun who are lawyers representing many crucial cases in the court! In fact, Arun Ferreira is one of the lawyers representing the Reliance Workers case in the court till his arrest in August 2018.
“This is the way in which the police and the government is trying to divert the whole issue of attacks on Dalits by the upper caste Hindutva forces led by Ekbote and Bhide. In order to cover up,
they have put up this inconclusive narrative in all these cases.” added Susan.
“We cook one vegetable and the entire family eats it for 2 to 3 days. We don’t know how long we are going to live like this”, added one family member of an incarcerated worker, in tears. Shocked by the arrest of her son, the mother of one of the workers passed away in two days after he has been taken into custody. All five families have children, from toddlers to school going children. They do not know where their fathers are. School going children had to drop out of their tuition centers as the fees are pending for months now. Ten months down the line, the families of these workers are clueless. There only hope is that their husbands might come home soon.
According to reports from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB),two-thirds of those falsely charged in UAPA cases are subsequently released. This exposes the falsification of the investigation and prosecution. This is a high acquittal rate, even compared other criminal cases. The trials also take years to conclude. Through this inordinately long time of prosecution, personal freedom is denied, since under the UAPA, there are strict conditions for bail. The fact that there are no penalties for false prosecutions encourages the police to register such motivated cases even when they have no substantial evidence.
This has happened in a number of cases under UAPA, including that against Arun Ferreira in the past. If the case made out against these workers of Reliance Infrastructure Ltd turn out to be false, would the criminal justice system of the country ever compensate for the lost years in the life of these extremely poor and marginalised families?
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