NEW DELHI — “Day in and day out we are reminded that there is no justice in this country. And there is no peace without justice,” Hany Babu Musaliyarveettil Tharayil, an associate professor of English at Delhi University tweeted one day in July this year. Babu is a vocal and influential voice against India’s discriminatory caste system.
Weeks later on 28 July, Babu, who is 54 years old, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in connection with the Elgaar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case — a sprawling, open-ended investigation into the caste violence near Pune on 1 January, 2018, and the so-called assassination plot against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that critics say, is being manipulated to imprison those dissenting against India’s increasingly authoritarian regime.
Days later on 2 August, his wife Jenny Rowena found a team of NIA officials at her doorstep at 7:30 AM.
“To find ten men trying to enter your home early in the morning is disturbing. We are not hardened criminals. We are teachers and academics. My teenage daughter was at home,” said Rowena, an assistant professor in the English Department at Delhi University’s Miranda House college. “I didn’t know how long they would stay. I was very worried.”
“I told them that I would not let them enter until I phoned someone and told them what was going on,” she said.
This wasn’t Rowena’s first police raid, she said. Their home had been raided once before in September 2019 in connection with the same case.
The image that stays with her almost a year after the first raid, Rowena said, was of the policemen entering their bedrooms and their storage space to make video recordings of all the books in her house.
“They were looking at what we read. They made videos of all our books,” she said.
“To find ten men trying to enter your home early in the morning is disturbing.”
Babu is the 12th person to be arrested in the Elgaar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case; a probe that even mainstream political parties have described as a misuse of India’s investigating agencies. Others arrested include lawyers Surendra Gadling and Sudha Bharadwaj, Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale, adivasi rights activist Mahesh Raut, revolutionary poet Varavara Rao, women’s rights activist and former English professor Shoma Sen, civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha, and management professor Anand Teltumbde.
The case, critics say, is an illustration of how the Modi government has leveraged India’s draconian anti-terror laws to imprison students, civil society activists, lawyers, university professors and critics of his regime for years at a stretch, despite presenting little solid evidence to justify their arrests.
The probe was initially handled by the Maharashtra Police when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power in the state, but was quickly shifted to the NIA – which answers to the BJP-run Union government — when the saffron party lost the state elections. Sharad Pawar, the chief of Nationalist Congress Party which is part of the new Maharashtra government, has described the probe as a misuse of the state police.
On 1 January 2018, a young man from the Martha community was killed and several injured at a gathering to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, in which an army of Dalit soldiers defeated the Peshwa army led by Peshwa Bajirao II in 1818.
Eyewitnesses who deposed before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Bhima Koregaon violence said that men with saffron flags had pelted stones at the Dalits. Milind Ekbote, who heads the right wing Samasta Hindu Aghadi outfit, was arrested in connection with the violence in March 2018, but was quickly granted bail by a Pune court. An FIR was registered against another Hindutva leader Sambaji Bhide, but he was never arrested and Maharashtra Police dropped the case against him in August, 2018. While Ekbote has been a member of the BJP, Bhide has been part of the right-wing Hindutva circles for years.
Meanwhile, the police claimed the violence at Bhima Koregaon had been orchestrated by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and mounted a series of raids and arrests against left-leaning professors, lawyers and academics. The raids, the authorities claim, helped them uncover a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi.
The 5,000 page chargesheet presented by the police, an analysis by the Pune Mirror says, offers little evidence to bolster these claims.
In October 2019, HuffPost India reported that the phones, laptops and electronic devices of lawyers and activists involved in the Bhima Koregaon case had been hacked using Pegasus, an intrusive cyber-weapon developed by the Israeli government. A subsequent report by HuffPost India suggested the Indian enforcement agencies were most likely behind the hacking.
Hany Babu was arrested in July 2020, two and half years after this investigation first began, suggesting the case will continue to be used to target those opposed to the Modi government.
Rowena and Babu
Babu, 54, and Rowena, 49, met and fell in love when they were pursuing their PhDs at the English and Foreign Language University (EFLU) in Hyderabad.
“I’ve admired his intelligence and sense of justice,” Rowena said. “When there were issues in Hyderabad, I liked the positions he took. He is different. He is more interested in social issues than an individualistic kind of life. We share that.”
Their shared quest against casteism, Rowena said, was the basis of their deep companionship. “It is a privilege,” she said.
“I’ve admired his intelligence and sense of justice.”
In 2008, after working at EFLU, Babu was promoted to a position in Delhi University and Rowena soon followed him to Delhi.
Rowena says they both got their jobs at Delhi University through the OBC (Other Backward Class) quota, and she was the first OBC professor in the English Department of Miranda College.
“In our families, many people have not studied,” she said. “We are one of the few people who have come into academics.”
Rowena’s Twitter handle reads, “post-mandal lecturer in a casteist college and department in the university of delhi,” as a reminder of the fight for reservation to be properly implemented at Delhi University after the Government of India, led by the Congress Party, extended OBC reservation in 2006 in central educational institutions to 27%, in addition to the 22.5% for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes that already existed.
It was a Delhi University student Rajeev Goswami who in September 1990 had tried setting himself on fire after the V.P. Singh government accepted the Mandal Commission’s recommendation to reserve 27% of government jobs for the OBCs.
“My own college used to organise processions against the Mandal commission,” said Rowena, recalling how when she joined DU, OBC seats would not be filled up and then converted into general seats.
“When I started teaching, I was teaching a class of 26 girls, of which two were SC/ST and the rest were upper class and caste,” she said. “Now, there are 80 students in a class, and half the class is SC/ST and OBC. This is the result of a lot of work done by SC/ST and OBC teachers who have really tried to get the law implemented.”
“My own college used to organise processions against the Mandal commission.”
‘We will not be overwhelmed’
In retrospect, the Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case appears to have formed the template for the BJP’s approach to dealing with public demonstrations of dissent.
The ongoing investigation in the Delhi Riots of 2020 appears to follow a similar pattern: Days before the riots, BJP members including Kapil Mishra and Minister of State Anurag Thakur held public meetings in which they openly called for violence against those opposed to the Modi regime’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.
Yet, Mishra and Thakur continue to walk free even as the Delhi Police has arrested students, and civil rights activists under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Action for allegedly instigating riots to overthrow the Indian state. The Delhi Police, it is worth noting, reports to the Union Home Ministry.
One of the students arrested for the Delhi riots, Devangana Kalita, had completed her graduation from Miranda House before going to Jawaharlal Nehru University, Rowena pointed out. Another professor of Delhi University, Apoorvanand, was recently called in for questioning in connection with the riots, she noted.
The NIA summoned Babu to Mumbai on 14 July, Rowena said. Her husband, she added, tried delaying the meeting because of the coronavirus pandemic, but he was only allowed time till 24 July. The interrogation lasted for five days. He was questioned during the day and returned to a hotel in the night.
On 7 August, a special NIA court in Mumbai extended Babu’s judicial custody till 21 August. He is lodged in Mumbai Central Jail on Arthur Road.
“We will not be overwhelmed. We will keep fighting,” Rowena said. “It’s not just happening to us. It’s happening to other families as well. They are not going after people who are actually behind the violence. They are going after academics and intellectuals.”
As India gets ready to celebrate its 74th Independence Day, Rowena said, “I don’t think we have ever had real independence in this country. We have always been under some kind of oppression. What is happening to my husband is part of the larger oppression that exists in our country.”
“We will not be overwhelmed. We will keep fighting.”
Editors note: Dr Rowena clarified that due to the persistent inequalities in India, the country is yet to experience “real independence” not “independence” as stated in an earlier version of this report. The headline and report have been modified to reflect that sentiment.
Correction: An earlier version of this report erroneously stated that the person killed in the caste violence on 1 January 2018 was from the Dalit community. He was from the Martha community. The error is regretted.