IN a bizarre turn of events after the violence that broke out on January 1 during the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, five rights activists have been arrested for their alleged links with naxalites. According to the police, the “Elgaar Parishad” meeting that saw hundreds of Dalits congregate in Pune on December 31, 2017, was funded by naxalites. The five activists have been charged with conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The authorities believe the Elgaar Parishad (loosely translated as clarion call) instigated the violence on January 1 at the victory pillar, the monument that commemorates the battle near Ahmednagar. Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer from Nagpur; Sudhir Dhawale, Dalit rights leader and editor of Vidrohi; Rona Wilson, a New Delhi-based social activist; Shoma Sen, a professor of English in Nagpur University; and Mahesh Raut, a former recipient of the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship were arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which gives no scope for anticipatory bail. They join the ranks of an increasing number of moderate activists and social workers arrested on false charges just because they believe in a cause and are becoming a thorn in the side of the government. But the police call them urban Maoists, that is, they take the Maoist ideology to urban areas.
A lawyer said (on the condition of anonymity given the current climate of harassment): “The battle for [their] release will be long and hard, as we have seen each time an activist or social worker is arrested. There is always an agenda behind the arrest; this case is no different.”
Dalits played a stellar role in a division of the British army which defeated the Peshwa rulers in the Third Anglo-Maratha War in 1818. For Dalits, the battle was not about joining forces with the British but a victory over their oppressors, the Brahmin Peshwas. Every year on January 1, thousands of Dalits make a pilgrimage to the monument, an innocuous obelisk with the names of Mahar soldiers inscribed on it. It is located between Pune and Ahmednagar near a village called Bhima-Koregaon along the Bhima river.
As 2018 marked the bicentennial of the battle, Dalit organisations had planned celebrations at the ground. On December 31, rights activists, some politicians, social workers, leaders of Dalit organisations and their supporters held the Elgaar Parishad rally at Shaniwarwada in Pune. Dhawale was instrumental in planning the rally. Jignesh Mevani, a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, was among the key speakers at the rally. He, too, has been accused of having links with naxalites.
The main accusation is that other than Rona Wilson, all the other accused were present at the Elgaar Parishad and used their naxalite connections to fund the programme.
According to Jaideo Gaikwad, a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council from Pune, the rally was peaceful and its leaders essentially spoke about the need to fight for Dalit rights and welfare. Videos uploaded on YouTube prove this.
Involvement of right-wing groups
Gaikwad believes that the Pune rally and the extensive preparations that took place at the Bhima-Koregaon monument began to rile troublemakers among Marathas and Brahmins such as Milind Ekbote of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi and Shambhaji Bhide, who leads the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan in the Sangli-Kolhapur-Satara belt. “I was at the site and we spoke to many people who said Ekbote had been in the area and young Maratha boys had begun to assemble around the village. The air was certainly restive on December 31, 2017,” he said.
Eyewitness accounts say that as pilgrims started arriving, people began throwing stones at vehicles, ransacking shops and in some areas openly clashing with Dalits who were on their way to Bhima-Koregaon. The situation took an ugly and tragic turn when one man lost his life in the violence, Gaikwad said.
In spite of ample evidence, including credible eyewitness accounts, proving the involvement of right-wing and Maratha fringe groups in the Bhima-Koregaon violence, only Ekbote, a self-proclaimed champion of the Maratha community and Hindu supremacy, has been arrested. Ekbote was arrested in March following severe pressure from Dalit groups. The octogenarian Bhide has been given a clean chit by the police and the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra.
Ravindra Kadam, Joint Commissioner of Police, Pune, told mediapersons that a specific letter found during a raid conducted on April 17 revealed “an assassination plot” on the lines of the one conducted aginst former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to kill Modi. This accusation has shaken the rights activists, who say it is far from the truth.
Many activists Frontline spoke to said that none of the five arrested activists had the capability to carry out a terror operation. An activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the BJP government was targeting human rights activists it was not comfortable with. “Any dissent is considered anti-national; whistle-blowers are killed and whoever stands up to them gets strapped to their radar, which is dangerous as they can be targeted at any time.”
The lawyer, writer and former social worker Arun Ferriera was a political prisoner for six years on similar charges. He said: “Sadly, it has become a political case, and under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act it will be a tough legal battle.” Ferriera, who is closely monitoring the recent case, said the arrests were made following a first information report filed on January 1 against Mevani and the student activist Umar Khalid and another filed on January 8 against Dhawale, the Kabir Kala Manch, and the Republican Panthers for allegedly inciting communal violence through hate speeches at the Elgaar Parishad rally. They were charged with Section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
In March, the police added 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC to the charges. This would make their case even more difficult, Ferriera said. Apparently, using a statement given by the Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, who was arrested in 2013 for his connection with a banned Maoist organisation, the police brought Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson into this case. Ferriera questioned the legality of this action.
Subodh More, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader in Pune, said: “The police have made such an effort to arrest five people. What happened to the FIRs filed by those affected by the clashes at Bhima-Koregaon, people whose property was burnt by vandals or were injured severely?” He said: “If that letter [seized by the police] was so serious, why did they wait for six weeks to arrest the accused?” Moreover, “how is it that a BJP leader, Sambit Patra, was waving the letter on television channels? How did a politician have access to such a sensitive letter? How can one letter contain so much information? An assassination attempt, names of activists, funds for the Elgaar, names of organisations? It seems absurd,” he said. He added that recently Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporters took out a procession in Kolhapur wielding swords and guns but no action was taken. The police just stood watching. “They denied us permission to hold the Elgaar. How is it that a group that brandishes weapons is given permission to hold a public rally?” he asked.
The five accused were arrested from their homes in a joint operation in Nagpur, Delhi and Mumbai on June 6. They are being held in judicial custody in Pune. A look at their profiles establishes the reason why the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is perceived to be going after them.
Sudhir Dhawale is a well-known Dalit rights activist and editor of Vidrohi, a fortnightly magazine. The magazine has grown in size and strength and is an effective voice of Dalits and other marginalised communities. A staunch Ambedkarite, Dhawale founded the Republican Panther Jaliantachi Chalwal (Movement for Annihilation of Caste).
Dhawale has been on the establishment’s radar for a while. He was arrested in 2011 for alleged links with naxalites. He was released from the Gondia prison in 2014, but he continued his work for the community. It was at his house, which the police raided on April 17, that the incriminating “assassination letter” was found. Subodh More said Dhawale conceived and planned the Elgaar Parishad around the Bhima-Koregaon bicentenary celebrations. He wanted it to be a platform for Dalit leaders and organisations to speak publicly, discuss and unite on issues facing the community.
Surendra Gadling is a senior labour and human rights lawyer based in Nagpur. He is sympathetic to Dalit and Adivasi issues and is known to fight cases pertaining to illegal killings, atrocities and police excesses, and of youngsters accused of naxalite links. At present, he is representing Saibaba. Gadling is an active member of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights.
Incidentally, Ravindra Kadam, who is leading the investigation, was the Director General of Police in the naxalite region a few years ago. He was reportedly instrumental in the arrest of Saibaba and Dhawale (in 2011). A source in Nagpur said Kadam had been trying to bring Gadling to book for years.
Mahesh Raut, 30, a graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, is the youngest among the arrested. He has done extensive work in the Adivasi belt of Vidarbha region. Raut is known for mobilising communities to fight for land and against local mining projects.
Shoma Sen is professor and head of the English department in Nagpur University. “It is not clear why they picked her,” said Subodh More. Shoma Sen attended the Elgaar Parishad and is associated with women’s rights programmes. Her husband was once in the underground Left movement and that is perhaps the reason why the couple’s names figure in police records.
Rona Wilson’s arrest is a curious case. A graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, he works with the Committee for Release of Prisoners. He has actively campaigned against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He is not associated with the Elgaar Parishad. The police apparently found documents suggesting that he was part of the assassination conspiracy and thus established a link with the other accused. Wilson was also involved in the Saibaba case. According to a Left source, Wilson is a committed social worker and it is unlikely that he is involved with extremists.
Of the two chief culprits in the Bhima-Koregaon violence, Ekbote, 60, was probably the easier fish to catch. “Mainly because he lacks the political clout that Bhide wields,” says a police source. After failing as a politician and with no support from right-wing parties, Ekbote has been mobilising Maratha and Brahmin youths against minorities and marginalised communities, who according to him are getting better opportunities and surging ahead on the back of reservation in education and jobs.
Although cases were filed against him and there was substantial evidence, including video recordings of his hate speeches and instigation of violence at Bhima-Koregaon, Ekbote managed to evade arrest. He was arrested after the Supreme Court, on March 14, cancelled his interim bail. Massive Dalit rallies had been held across Maharashtra demanding his arrest.
Meanwhile, undeterred by calls for his arrest, Bhide continues to ride his bicycle across Sangli district and make inflammatory speeches about minorities and Dalits. Bhide’s formidable followers include Modi and Fadnavis. “We will continue our agitation until they take action against him,” Prakash Ambedkar, leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, said.
Bhide is a self-proclaimed protector of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s legacy. Unfortunately, he twists history and spreads all kinds of propaganda in the villages around Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur, says Zain Sheikh, a local social worker. He says Bhide holds two major events every year, which are attended by thousands of local people. One is the Durgamata Doard, during Navaratri, when his followers draw rangoli and decorate the front of homes with flowers. They leave out Mulsim and Dalit homes.
Bhide is said to have claimed that “if you kill one Muslim or Dalit, you will be reborn 100 times as a Hindu”.