The Pune Police at 6.00 am on June 6, 2018 carried out simultaneous raids in Mumbai, Nagpur and New Delhi. From Mumbai, they arrested Sudhir Dhawale — the editor of the progressive Marathi magazine Vidrohi and a key organiser of the Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan. From Nagpur, they picked up three individuals — advocate Surendra Gadling, general secretary, Indian Association of People’s Lawyers; Professor Shoma Sen, the head of the Department of English, Nagpur University; and Mahesh Raut, anti-displacement activist from Bharat Jan Andolan and a former fellow at the Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) for Gadchiroli District. They arrested Rona Wilson, public relations secretary, Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, from New Delhi.
These arrests and searches were purportedly made under an FIR registered on January 8, 2018 at Vishram Baug Police Station, Pune, with regard to the holding of the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017 by the Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan. This FIR, originally registered under sections 153(A), 505 (1)(b), 117 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), was made into a conspiracy case in March 2018 and now has had sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) added to it. The June 6 arrests have thus been made under UAPA, which has several draconian provisions that ensure long detention and makes it difficult to obtain bail.
These arrests come in the face of the mass demand of several political parties and human rights organisations and activists and the Prerna Abhiyan, in particular, to arrest the two leaders of Sangh Parivar organisations who were responsible for the violence on January 1, 2018 at Bhima Koregaon — Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote.
The Fadnavis government, which has been protecting these actual perpetrators of the violence, has been attempting to create a false narrative that the violence at Bhima Koregaon was caused by the Elgar Parishad and that banned Maoist organisations are behind the Prerna Abhiyan.
Targeting the Dalit coalition
The Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan is a coalition of around 260 mass organisations under the Chairmanship of Retired Supreme Court Justice P B Sawant and includes prominent political figures like advocate Prakash Ambedkar, the leader of the Bahujan Republican Party (Bharip), and the retired high court judge Justice Kolse-Patil. In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon that vanquished the Peshwa rule, the Abhiyan had organised the Elgar Parishad, a mass meeting on December 31, 2017 at the historic Shaniwar wada in Pune. Several prominent speakers, including Justice Kolse-Patil, Prakash Ambedkar, Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Umar Khalid and others, with about fifty thousand people attending. Elgar Parishad was organised with the stated objective of fighting the nav-peshwahi, or the new Brahminical forces ruling the country today. The programme was historic and immensely successful, attended by thousands from across the state and even other parts of the country.
It is important to note that there were no untoward incidents on that day, December 31, 2017. No clashes, no riots. A most disciplined crowd dispersed at the end of the programme. It was two centuries ago, on January 1, 1818, that a few hundred Mahar soldiers, fighting as part of the British Indian army, defeated over 20,000 Peshwa soldiers in the battle of Bhima Koregaon, which is 40 kilometres away from Pune in Maharashtra. Over the years, lakhs of Dalits have converged at Bhima Koregaon, much like the manner in which crowds gather at Deeksha Bhoomi in Nagpur every year to celebrate the rejection of Hinduism and embrace of Buddhism by Dr B R Ambedkar, as well as those that assemble at Chaitya Bhoomi at Dadar on December 6 to pay respects on his death anniversary.
Several right-wing groups like the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha, Rashtriya Ekatmata Rashtra Abhiyan, Hindu Aghadi and also the descendants of the Peshwas have, however, opposed the celebration, calling it “anti-national” and “casteist”. The government and the right-wing forces were thus alarmed and shaken with such unprecedented mobilisation of anti-communal forces. Instigated by Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, two right-wing activists who are closely connected with the RSS and the ruling BJP government, mobs carrying saffron flags, as part of a pre-meditated plan, attacked the Dalit masses who were congregating to commemorate the event at Bhima-Koregaon.
There were huge protests all over the state against the right-wing led violence against the Dalit congregation at Bhima Koregaon on January 1. There was a successful Maharashtra bandh on 3rd January 3, of not only entire Mumbai-Kalyan but of many parts of Maharashtra as well. This too irked the government and the right-wing forces no end.
The first FIR to be registered was against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. To counter this, C.R. No. 2 of 2018 of Vishrambagh Police Station under sections 153-A, 505, 117 of IPC, was registered against Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid, two of the most popular speakers at the Elgar Parishad. It took eight days for the police to register C.R. No. 4 of 2018 under sections 153-A, 505, 117 of IPC on January 8 2018 against Sudhir Dhawale and five others. This is the FIR upon which the June 6 arrests of Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut were carried out. Of the five, only Sudhir Dhawale’s name finds mention in the original FIR of January 8.
A trail of illegal, vindictive arrests
While arrests were being carried out in different parts of the country on June 6, instead of the usual display of arms and ammunition seized to show Maoist links, the Pune police were surreptitiously leaking letters, purportedly seized from those arrested, showing deep Maoist links to the Elgar Parishad and thereby concluding that the violence of the extreme right-wing forces on January 1 on the Dalit masses at Bhima Koregaon was actually instigated by the Maoists, who in turn were funded by the Congress party. And the supposed deep links of the accused five with all this was as liaison between Maoists and Congress Party to organise the Elgar Parishad! A letter released a day later made an even more bizarre claim of a suggested assassination plot on Prime Minister Narendra Modi (See images).
A press conference taken on June 7 by Pune Joint Commissioner of Police, Ravindra Kadam, lent credence to these letters. The modus operandi of Ravindra Kadam publicising supposedly sensitive material to the press being questionable is just one aspect of the sordid saga.
These letters were not filed in the court of Special Sessions Judge Bhaisare, Pune, on June 7 when the accused were produced before him. Nor were the defence lawyers given copies of these letters. Most importantly, they do not find a mention in the remand application of the Investigating Officer, ACP Dr Shivaji Pawar, Swargate, Pune demanding 14-day police custody remand (PCR) of the accused. The judge after hearing two hours of arguments by the defence lawyers about the illegality of the arrest and of imposing the draconian UAPA against them, while the real perpetrators of the Bhima Koregaon violence have been allowed to go scot free, granted the police PCR of seven days, till June 14.
The condition of those illegally incarcerated is serious. Surendra Gadling, who was surreptitiously produced at 5 am on June 7 before the Sessions Judge Bhaisare, in order to avoid presenting him along with the others, was even foisted with a legal aid lawyer, which he refused. However, for the rest of the day, the canard was spread that Gadling had accepted the legal aid lawyer provided by Pune police.
It is a tragic irony that Gadling, who has become world-famous for his skills as a successful criminal lawyer, particularly in special security laws like TADA, POTA, NSA and UAPA, today finds himself an accused in a UAPA case. He was briefly admitted in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the government hospital in Pune. In order to wash their hands off it, the Pune police promptly applied for MCR and Judge Bhaisare even granted it, possibly in the presence of the fake legal aid lawyer. On Monday, June 11, Gadling was transferred to Yedwada jail in Pune despite being critically ill.
Similarly, all the other accused have terrible stories to tell.
Dr Shoma Sen was about to celebrate her 60th birthday in just a month’s time and to retire as HoD, English at Nagpur University. With one sleight of its hand, the Pune Police have ensured that she will be denied the dignity and benefits of having served the university for the past 30 years.
Sudhir Dhawale, who had got a clean acquittal (won by none other than Surendra Gadling) in a UAPA case falsely foisted on him by the very same Ravindra Kadam in 2011 while he was the DIG, Anti-Naxal Operations, Nagpur, an acquittal which the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court refused to set aside when Kadam appealed against it. He has now been foisted with a fresh UAPA case.
And with another sleight of hand, the immense work put in by Sudhir Dhawle in organising the Bhima Koregaon Elgar Parishad has been tarnished with a Maoist-link brush.
On her part, Rona Wilson, who for the past decade had been campaigning for the release of political prisoners, has become one himself. Mahesh Raut, the youngest of those arrested, a committed former PMRD Fellow who was campaigning for the democratisation of Gram Sabhas in Gadchiroli, will see his finest years snatched away.
The entire operation has been stage-managed by the Maharashtra government keeping in mind two things. First, to suppress the judicial inquiry headed by the retired Justice J N Patel in order to ensure that submissions from the victims of Hindutva and state violence on January 1 at Bhima-Koregaon, and after the successful Maharashtra bandh called by Dalit groups on January 3, are suppressed. Secondly, this is a desperate act to queer the pitch for the forthcoming elections in the state as well as Centre in 2019. Thus, the BJP government is desperate to create a reign of terror in order to polarise the Dalit and Bahujan votes. And also to create a terror narrative, thereby protecting the real terror culprits — Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote — who will ensure votes for the BJP.
There have been widespread protests throughout the country against the repressive actions of the Maharashtra and central governments, bringing to mind the days of the Emergency and foreboding the days of fascism in Europe in the 1940s. Organisations like CPDR, IAPL, PUCL, Amnesty International have strongly condemned this open show of state terror and complete bypassing of the rule of law by the government and have demanded the immediate release of Advocate Surendra Gadling, Professor Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawle, Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut.
In the words of Surendra Gadling’s wife, Minal:
“When the police reached our house on June 6 at 6 am, my husband was told that he was under arrest. The police team was led by an officer whose sole purpose was to humiliate my husband. He was not allowed to take his clothes, medicines or toiletries. I pleaded with them saying he is under treatment and that if he suffers any medical emergency, then they would be responsible. My pleas had no effect on them.
When they took Surendra away, they did not inform me where they were taking him. They did not give me the phone number of the officer who I could contact. Later on, I came to know, this is the duty of the police officer arresting anyone. That the nearest relative has to be informed under what sections he is being arrested, where he is being taken and when he would be produced in court. And also that a contact number of the police officer has to be given to the nearest relative. In Surendra’s case, none of this was done. Despite the fact that he is a lawyer.
I next heard about Surendra at 8 pm when some lawyers met him. They did not tell me that he was admitted in Sassoon hospital. That is because he expressly told them not to, as he thought that I would get worried. But when his condition deteriorated, he himself got the police to call me and he asked me to come to Pune. I reached Pune from Nagpur on the morning of June 9. Surendra’s sister Darshana, who is a matron in Byculla Railway Hospital, also arrived from Mumbai. We too were given very bad treatment. We were allowed to meet him briefly and we learnt that he had been transferred to MCR (magisterial custody remand) and that he was being taken for angiography. The whole of the next day we were not allowed to meet him. On Monday, June 11 at 3 pm, the police officials took him away. They said that he was being taken to Yerwada jail. I asked them to wait till the medical reports came as he is a patient and to allow him to take a bag of clothes, medicines and toiletries which I had brought for him from Nagpur. They did not even allow that.
I don’t know what these people have against Surendra. It is inhuman the way they have been treating him from the day of his arrest on June 6. If anything happens to my husband, all these police persons will be responsible.”