About 2,000 academics from top institutions in India and abroad have signed petitions demanding federal authorities stop targeting people critical of the government as part of a widening investigation into caste clashes two years ago.
The National Investigation Agency has arrested more than a dozen people, including scholars and human rights campaigners, saying they had ties to Maoist guerrillas and had instigated violence in Maharashtra in 2018.
More university professors have since been summoned for questioning, some of whom had never visited Bhima Koregaon, the village where violence broke out between upper caste Hindus and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, the Dalits, according to the petitioners.
“We are writing to express our deep concern at the actions of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in its investigation of the Bhima-Koregaon violence,” the signatories said, adding the probe was more focused on hunting down left-wing intellectuals and activists than the actual perpetrators of the violence.
The NIA did not respond to a request for comment.
The signature campaign by the academics comes amid growing concerns that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been seeking to stifle opposition and that India’s traditions of secularism and free speech are under threat.
The signatories noted that several of the academics detained had been charged under the Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act, which makes it difficult for them to get bail.
It quoted Gautam Navlakha, a civil liberties activist who was detained in 2018 as saying “the process itself becomes punishment” since the accused were deemed “guilty unless proven innocent”.
The violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon during the 200th anniversary celebration of a battle where Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, fought alongside British colonial forces to defeat an upper-caste ruler.
Police accuse the activists of making speeches that triggered the violence between the Dalits and Hindu hardliners.