- They say the former police officer was targeted was speaking against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Leading civil rights activists and organizations from India and the U.S. have urged India’s Supreme Court to give bail to former police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, saying his conviction in a murder case was wrong and based on fraudulent evidence. They said Bhatt was targeted because he had alleged that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s had been complicit in the Hindu extremist violence against Muslims in Gujarat state nearly two decades ago.
At a virtual press conference organized by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, and Hindus for Human Rights, which is committed to the ideals of multi-religious pluralism in the United States, India and beyond, several speakers criticized Bhatt’s conviction and said it would not hold under judicial scrutiny.
The Supreme Court of India has scheduled a bail hearing for Bhatt on Jan. 22. Under Indian law, courts can grant bail to those convicted of various crimes, including murder, pending their appeal at higher courts. Bhatt was convicted in June 2019 for the death of a man in 1990. His defense was not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses during the brief trial, nor was it allowed to present its own witnesses or submit evidence. India’s human rights groups have called it a sham trial.
Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, a former Undersecretary General at the United Nations, said he was “outraged by the injustice meted out” to Bhatt, whose “conscientious service to society” and “indomitable capacity for speaking truth to power” had put him in jail.
Renowned documentary filmmaker and human rights defender Anand Patwardhan said Bhatt had been jailed “for no other reason than the fact that he opposed the massacre in 2002” and spoke against it. Patwardhan said the civil society “should build a movement for Bhatt’s release.”
Human rights activist, classical dancer and actor Mallika Sarabhai said there was a “definite agenda” not only in Bhatt’s but in most cases of most critics of the Modi government. “If anyone speaks against the government or asks a question, which is a fundamental right of our democracy, they are somehow punished. Raids are carried out against them, false cases are brought up, fraudulent charges are made, and they are made to silence,” she said.
Gandhian activist and Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey said Bhatt was the “most courageous” of all police officers as he filed an affidavit stating that Narendra Modi had “chaired a meeting in which the police officers were told to go soft on the Hindutva brigade which was rampaging against the Muslims.” Pandey said that “manipulation of cases” was a “common story” in the Modi government.
Pandey cited the case of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, who had “16 cases against him, including a case of murder and inciting riot,” but the cases were withdrawn later. “They manipulate cases so that either the witnesses are threatened or the people who have filed the cases are threatened to withdraw the cases and the judges are influenced so that the people who have committed the crimes are not convicted.”
Renowned activist S. R. Darapuri, who is a former Inspector-General of Police in Uttar Pradesh, said he could relate to Bhatt’s predicament as they both were “upright and righteous”police officers who had both been “at the receiving end of State oppression.” Bhatt was “not involved in any way in the case in which he has been falsely implicated. He has been prosecuted and convicted merely because he dared to expose the involvement of the then Chief Minister of Gujarat in the 2002 pogrom,” Darapuri said. Mr. Bhatt’s situation is “not unusual” as it has become the “unavoidable fate of those who dare to question the State.”
Women’s rights activist Arundhati Dhuru said even 30 years ago in his early career Bhatt “never used the power of his baton or firearms but he always always stood by the side of the people to fight” against oppression. “This is a testing time for the honorable Supreme Court of India to uphold the same constitution by the rule of law, and take out all the charges and release [Bhatt] unconditionally.”
Saurin Shah, Ahmedabad-based lawyer who defended Bhatt at his flawed trial, gave a detailed chronology of the case. In October 1990, Bhatt was posted at Jamnagar, Gujarat, when local police arrested 133 rioters, one of whom died 18 days after release. Importantly, none of the 133 people, including the person who died later at a private hospital, had made any allegations of police torture or brutality, even when they met a magistrate. The medical record at the jail where the rioters were imprisoned do not mention any injuries to anyone. The alleged murder victim, Prabhudas, was twice examined by the jail doctor and at the local government hospital, and none recorded any complaint of torture or injuries.
Commending Mr. Bhatt as a “brave officer” who “spoke truth to power,” Raju Rajagopal, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, recalled that Bhatt had witnessed the “fateful decision” by Mr. Modi, who was at that time Gujarat’s chief minister, that the “law enforcement shall stand down to give Hindu nationalist organizations free rein to attack” Muslims. Bhatt had been “incessantly hounded by the authorities since that time,” Rajagopal said. “In 2018, he was interrogated on a decades-old case, was tried on completely bogus charges without any opportunity for the defense to call their witnesses, and was put him away for life.”
Rasheed Ahmed, executive director of Indian American Muslim Council, said the Indian government must stop “politically managing Mr. Sanjiv Bhat’s case and let the law take its course under the supervision of independent judges not the judges who are either scared of government or have themselves becomes political.”