Conspiracy Theory

From Kanpur to Koregaon

Freny Manecksha

When veteran leader and former trade unionist George Fernandes died earlier this year, obituaries referred to his days during the Emergency and the Baroda dynamite conspiracy case which was a key chapter in his life. Fernandes, it may be recalled, was arrested in June 1976 for alleged conspiracy to procure dynamite sticks to blow up bridges and vital rail and road infrastructure. In the case handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation, Fernandes was shown to be "mastermind" of the conspiracy and as accused number one. The trade unionist himself charged that the CBI had cooked up the charges and, later when the Janata government came to power, the case was withdrawn against him and other accused.

Conspiracy cases to quell dissent is now new to India's political history. As a former judge wrote recently it was the British who, so cleverly, made it a crime in 1913 and used it widely.

Criminal conspiracy, which still exists in the Indian Penal Code, was defined as "two or more people agreeing to do an illegal act." If the conspiracy involves a crime punishable with death or life imprisonment the conspirator can be sentenced to two years in prison or more.

The British would use the law to register a case of criminal conspiracy in one part of the country and then charge people from all over, regardless of whether there was any basis for such a charge, since the purpose was quite simply to launch a witch hunt.

Among the notable examples of the British Raj using criminal conspiracy laws to stem political dissent are the Kanpur Conspiracy Case of 1924 and the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929.

The Kanpur Conspiracy Case was triggered by fears of the growing influence of the Communist International and the foundation of the Communist party of India under M N Roy. Fearing radicalisation of the freedom movement the British began applying the law to various trials like that of Communists in Peshawar, but it was the Kanpur conspiracy that attracted public gaze like no other.

Newspapers splashed sensationalist Communist plans and detailed accounts of Communist activities. On March 17 1924, trials began at the court of the Joint District Magistrate. The case for conspiracy was based on intercepted letters written by Berlin based M N Roy to various people in India. Initially eight persons were named but, in the end, four people_ Shaukat Usmani, Muzaffar Ahmad, Nalini Gupta and Shripad Amrit Dange were charged individually and sentenced to four years rigorous imprisonment. The charge was of treason and conspiracy for wanting to remove the British Emperor of India and to gain control of the Indian National Congress.

The vernacular press like Prabhat and Pratap protested strongly against the verdict calling it an infringement of civil liberties and, the case in fact, helped bolster the Communist movement by crystallising the disorganised and scattered rank and file of Communists in India.

In 1929, the British government, now thoroughly alarmed by the success of different Communist groups in different industrial cities that had led to a large number of strikes and hartals by industrial workers, hatched the Meerut Conspiracy. Initiated in March 1929 and decided in 1933, the case saw several trade unionists, socialists and Communists, including three English men being arrested for organising a rail strike in India. S A Dange, Usmani and Ahmed were among the 33 people, labelled as Bolsheviks, who were put on trial under Section 121 A and awarded stringent sentencing in January 1933. On appeal the sentencing was reduced partly on the grounds that the accused had already spent a considerable part of their sentence whilst waiting to be sentenced.

It became evident that the aim of the British was not to establish conspiracy but to keep the people in jail and out of activities. However, the Meerut conspiracy came to be defined as a watershed moment in anti -imperialist politics in South Asia because of the way the defendants turned the courtroom into a public platform to espouse their cause. It attracted attention from trade unionists the world over.

Revisiting history, one cannot help notice the striking similarities between these cases and the Conspiracy case of 2018 (which is still unfolding) or the Bhima Koregaon case as it has come to be known.

The bizarre manner in which a probe on the violence at Bhima Koregaon morphed into a Maoist plot becomes even more complex when the prosecution in the Supreme Court suddenly discounted the Rajiv Gandhi like assassination plot.

What is the evidence? Principally, the Pune police claim they have found incriminating evidence in the laptop of Rona Wilson and cite letters and emails that they claim they have seized. Many lawyers have opined that this is not sufficient and that finding names in letter is not tantamount to committing crimes.

Advocate Yug Choudhry arguing in the Bombay High court for bail of Sudha Bharadwaj, points out:

"These are undated, unsigned, unverified letters written by A to B, mentioning C and found on the laptop of D, which cannot be accepted as evidence under the law and the police want to keep the applicant in jail only on the basis of such documents which cannot be proved in a court."

What is even more remarkable in this conspiracy case has been the way these letters were bandied and leaked to the media even before the police had named some of those subsequently arrested.

[source : RAIOT]

Vol. 51, No. 45, May 12 - 18, 2019