They are lawyer, poet, priest, academic, social workers, activist, leading artist, eminent intellectuals. Most are old. Sixteen men and women, known for their commitments to oppressed communities and lower castes, were arrested in India between 2018 and 2020 under a draconian law on the prevention of illegal activities. Thrown behind bars without a trial, they have since languished in two overcrowded prisons near Bombay, with no prospect of seeing their case examined by the courts.
The eldest, Stan Swamy, an Indian Jesuit priest, has dedicated his life to defending the indigenous tribal communities, the Adivasis. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he died on July 5, 2021, at the age of 84, behind bars, despite several requests for release on medical grounds. Since his disappearance, which aroused great emotion, four detainees in poor health have been granted bail.
Indian authorities accuse them all of having, in connection with a banned Maoist armed group, conspired to overthrow the government of Narendra Modi and even planned the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister – crimes punishable by life imprisonment.
The facts of which the sixteen activists are accused took place in 2018 on the occasion of the bicentenary of a legendary battle led by Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon. In 1818, this modest village located in the district of Pune (State of Maharashtra) was the scene of an epic confrontation between a small battalion of the British army of the East India Company, composed mainly of Dalit soldiers, formerly called ” untouchables”, the lowest caste in India, and the army of a Brahmin empire, made up of Peshwas, representatives of the high castes. The battle ended the Marathi Empire which then dominated the region.
Each year, the 1er January, Dalits from all over the country flock to Bhima-Koregaon to celebrate the event, considered the first victory of the oppressed against the upper castes. Until then the festivities had gone off without a hitch, but on the 1er January 2018, violent clashes opposed the Dalits to a crowd of Hindu extremists, who came in large numbers equipped with saffron flags, and shouting religious and political slogans. One person was found dead. A complaint was then filed against two members of the Hindu nationalist galaxy and the ruling party, suspected of having orchestrated the anti-dalit violence. They were never arrested.
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