Leading Indian American Organizations, Activists Urge Indian Supreme Court to Give Bail to Sanjiv Bhatt
January 18, 2021
The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, and Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), which is committed to the ideals of multi-religious pluralism in the United States, India and beyond, along with leading politicians, civil rights activists and organizations from India and the US today urged India’s Supreme Court in an online press conference to grant immediate bail to former police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, calling his conviction in a murder case wrong and based on fraudulent evidence.
IAMC and HfHR were joined by leading personalities from India such as Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, renowned documentary filmmaker and human rights defender Anand Patwardhan, human rights activist and artist Mallika Sarabhai and Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey in criticizing Mr. Bhatt’s conviction, predicting that it would not stand under judicial scrutiny, and urging the Supreme Court to set him free immediately in order to uphold the rule of law.
Sanjiv Bhatt is widely believed to have been targeted only because he had claimed to be an eyewitness to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s complicity in the mass violence against Muslims during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. The horrific violence, perpetrated by Hindu nationalist forces owing allegiance to the supremacist ideology of Hindutva, claimed the lives of over 2,000 people many of whom were raped and burnt alive. It led to the US Department of State revoking Mr. Modi’s US visa under the International Religious Freedom Act. The revocation was in place until Mr. Modi became Prime Minister of India.
The Supreme Court of India has scheduled a bail hearing for Mr. Bhatt on January 22. Under Indian law, courts can grant bail to those convicted of various crimes, including murder, pending their appeal at higher courts. Mr. 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.
Dr. Shashi Tharoor, currently a member of Parliament and formerly an Undersecretary General at the United Nations, said he was “outraged by the injustice meted out” to Mr. Bhatt, whose “conscientious service to society” and “indomitable capacity for speaking truth to power” had put him in jail.
“Sanjiv’s case is a reflection of the grim times that we live in, where constitutional values and fundamental privileges that have been granted by the constitution to all Indians appear in many cases to be diluted and in many cases perhaps even supplanted by illiberal forces,” Dr. Tharoor said. “All Indians with a conscience like Sanjiv Bhatt’s must stand up and fight back against such challenges that threaten to undermine the very foundation of our republic.”
Filmmaker and human rights defender Anand Patwardhan said Mr. Bhatt had been jailed “for no other reason than the fact that he opposed the massacre in 2002” and spoke against it. Mr. Patwardhan said the civil society “should build a movement for Mr. Bhatt’s release.”
Human rights activist, classical dancer and actor Mallika Sarabhai said there was a “definite agenda” not only in the retribution against Mr. Bhatt but in the case 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,” Ms. Sarabhai said.
“I hope that today we will be able to appeal to the better sense of our great courts to say what is being done to Sanjiv is wrong and needs to be corrected immediately,” she said. “Vindictiveness should find no place in our courts or in any of the decisions taken. It is a sign of weakness and it is a sign of fear. And our courts can neither be weak nor fearful. I hope that our appeal will see that Sanjiv gets a fair trial and that this case is dismissed as the frivolous case that it is.”
She said she was “deeply worried” as India’s “dependable” institutions such as the Supreme Court had “keeled over to the powers that be.” The Supreme Court was “today taking cases which are liked by the government on an urgent basis; and other cases which are extremely important and involve thousands of people have been left to stew,” she said. Dozens of human rights fighters, educators and writers were in jail without bail, “without even the slightest courtesy for their age of any other infirmity.”
Gandhian activist and Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey said Mr. 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.” Mr. Pandey said that “manipulation of cases” was a “common story” in the Modi government.
Mr. 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.”
If Mr. Bhatt’s affidavit was “taken seriously by the court”, proceedings will begin against Mr. Modi “and obviously that cannot happen because he is now Prime Minister. “Sanjiv is paying a price for what he did and the people who are in power are in a situation right now to be able to manipulate things, so that they can get away with their crimes. Everyone knows about it.”
The crimes committed by Mr. Modi, India’s home minister Amit Shah and Mr. Adityanath were “well known” but because they are in power they can “evade action” against themselves.
Renowned activist S. R. Darapuri, who is a former Inspector-General of Police in Uttar Pradesh, said he could related to Mr. Bhatt’s predicament as they both were “upright and righteous” police officers who had both been “at the receiving end of State oppression.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. Darapuri said. Mr. Bhatt’s situation is “not unusual” as it has become the “unavoidable fate of those who dare to question the State.”
“A large number of human rights activists and other prominent personalities who have dedicated their lives to the social cause are facing the same consequences,” said Mr. Darapuri, who was arrested in Uttar Pradesh last year for opposing the anti-Muslim Citizenship (Amendment) Act. said. “Unfortunately, our criminal justice system has been subverted to serve the interest of those in power.” The world “must recognize the impending danger of the onslaught of fascism in India, he added.
Women’s rights activist Arundhati Dhuru said even thirty years ago in his early career Mr. 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 [Mr. Bhatt] unconditionally.”
Saurin Shah, Ahmedabad-based lawyer who defended Mr. Bhatt at his flawed trial, gave a detailed chronology of the case. In October 1990, Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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.”
“There is no ambiguity that Mr. Sanjiv Bhatt’s conviction and incarceration are politically motivated and that the charges against him are baseless,” Mr. Ahmed said. “The courts clearly know it but the political masters want him silenced so that their own crimes stay in the dark rooms out of the public eye.”
Mr Ahmed said that Mr. Bhatt deserved a “fair trial and an “independent judiciary”.
IAMC and HfHR have pledged to continue the struggle, not only to secure Mr. Sanjiv Bhatt’s release but to end the victimization of human rights defenders, journalists and whistleblowers. Both organizations expressed confidence that ultimately the forces of hate and division would be defeated in their attempt to subvert pluralism and democracy in India.
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Indian American Muslim Council is the largest advocacy organization of Indian Muslims in the United States with chapters across the nation. For more information, please visit our website at: www.iamc.com