On April 14, 2020, Indian authorities arrested scholar-activist Anand Teltumbde in apparent retaliation for his human rights activism and political views.
Teltumbde is a professor at the Goa Institute of Management, a public intellectual, and a human rights activist known for his anti-caste activism and his advocacy on behalf of Dalits (formerly the “untouchable” caste) and other vulnerable communities in India.
His arrest is part of a case involving eleven other activists, including two academics, who have been accused of several offenses, including violating the Unlawful Activities and (Prevention) Act, based on their alleged involvement in the 2018 Bhima Koregoan memorial event, which commemorated an 1818 battle between Dalit soldiers of the British army and the upper-caste Peshwas. Violent clashes, apparently provoked by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, broke out during the event, leaving one person dead.
Authorities accuse the activists—nine of whom have been in custody since at least August 2018—of inciting the violence one day prior at Elgar Parishad, a related event held to mark the battle that featured artistic performances and speeches that contained anti-caste and pro-democracy themes (see related report). The case against the activists is reportedly based on purported letters collected in house raids, telephone records, a pamphlet from Elgar Parishad, and other evidence that human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and legal experts have called into question for their veracity and relevance.
Two former High Court judges that organized Elgar Parishad have publicly stated that most of the detained activists were not involved in the event. Authorities have reportedly refused to take the judges’ statements. Teltumbde has rejected the accusations he and his co-defendants face. He and his fellow activists assert that the arrests are politically motivated and in retaliation for their human rights activism and political views.
While Teltumbde was not initially arrested alongside his co-defendants, he was reportedly subjected to repeat surveillance and harassment, including a police raid on his house in August 2018 and the hacking of his mobile phone, discovered in October 2019. On February 2, 2019, police in Pune attempted to arrest Teltumbde at an airport; however, a sessions court in Pune ordered his immediate release.
On March 16, 2020, India’s Supreme Court rejected an anticipatory bail plea from Teltumbde, ordering him to surrender to authorities within two weeks. That order was later extended, and on April 14, Teltumbde was arrested after turning himself in to the National Investigation Agency. The following day, Gautam Navlakha, a journalist and activist charged in the same case, was also arrested after similarly being ordered to surrender.
On April 18, the day Teltumbde was due for release, an NIA judge ordered that he remain in custody until April 24.
At the time of Teltumbde and Navlakha’s arrest, India, like most countries around the world, were grappling with a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. As of April 17, there were more than 2.2 million confirmed cases around the world, with nearly 14,000 in India. Supporters and legal counsel representing Teltumbde and Navlakha say that the two, both of whom are over the age of 65 and reportedly with pre-existing medical conditions, are at a heightened risk of infection and suffering from potentially deadly complications from COVID-19.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest, prosecution, and judicial harassment of scholars and activists in apparent retaliation for their peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities are obligated to refrain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent expression and associations. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of arrests and prosecutions to punish expression and associations undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.