Even in these times of growing sense of hopelessness in the country under the present regime, the arrests of the five activists by Maharashtra’s Pune Police had stunned people all over the world by the blatancy of misuse of power and impunity it reflects. The continuing spate of condemnation by scores of people within and outside India would not affect the unruly regime that parrots the law would take its course. And what law? The draconian law like Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) that gives Police an unaccountable authority to arrest anyone, torture, fabricate evidence, slap any number of charges they want and rot them for years in jail as the law charts its meandering course in the courts. And what courts, when the four senior judges of the highest court had to take a desperate step to hold a press conference to voice their concern to the people that all was not well with even the Supreme Court? It has been more than clear that these laws have been singularly misused against the people who took cudgels for oppressed people and in course, spoke against the elitist bias of the state. But the courts that proactively grudge the misuse of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act would refuse to see the misuse of UAPA and permit decimation of innocent people who may otherwise be seen as the model of selfless humanists dreaming to realize the constitutional promise of India as the secular, socialist, sovereign, democratic republic as dreamt by our founding fathers.
The rot may be traced to the constitution itself of the post-colonial state that adopted entire apparatus of colonial governance including its draconian laws under the veneer of democracy. It has been used by all governments irrespective of parties in power paving the way for its motivated use by the present regime to decimate descent. The manner in which the arrests of Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, Advocate Surendra Gadling, Prof Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut from Nagpur and Rona Wilson from Delhi were carried out following raids on theirs and some other activists’ homes marks a new low in lawlessness under the garb of the rule of law.
The Context of Bhima-Koregaon
The rapid shifting of narratives of these arrests by the police could not hide the thick context of the violence at Bhima-Koregaon on 1 January 2018 by the Hindutva forces in which scores of Dalits were injured, their property was damaged and a youth lost his life. It had a backdrop of a conference called Elgar Parishad that took place the previous day. This parishad was convened by P B Sawant, retired justice of the Supreme Court and BG Kolshe Patil, ex-justice of the Bombay High Court and joined by 200 odd liberal and Dalit organizations in Maharashtra to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, believed by the Dalits to have been won by their ancestors to end the oppressive regime of Brahmin Peshawas. It gave a call to “Bury the New Peshwai” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seen by the Dalits and minorities as the revival of Brahmanic rule and to “never vote” for it. It naturally irked the Hindutva forces who decided to teach lesson to Dalits when they congregated in large numbers at the obelisk at Koregaon. They instigated Marathas against Dalits raking up the controversy over the samadhi of Govind Gopal Gaikwad near that of Sambhaji Maharaj, son of Shiwaji, who was tortured and killed by Aurangzeb in 1689. The legend is that Gaikwad had gone against Aurangzeb to carry out the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj and built his Samadhi on his land. The tension ensued when on 29 December the board at his samadhi was removed and a canopy over it damaged. It is said that this was used as the immediate trigger for the attack on 1 January. A police complaint was filed by one Sushma Ovhal against 49 people, including village sarpanch Rekha Shivale, deputy sarpanch Sanjay Shivale, and former sarpanch Sunita Bhandare, under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, for damaging the board, the canopy, desecration of the samadhi and for making “casteist comments”. The last line of her complaint also named Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote but the police FIR did not carry it. A counter-complaint also was filed by Shivale accusing Dalits of threatening them of retaliation on 1 January when they gathered in large number.
The riots on 1 January started as Hindutva activists led a procession to Bhima-Koregaon. On 2 January, an FIR was registered against Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide with Pimpri Police Station by one Anita Ravindra Savale under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, Arms Act, 307 (attempt to murder) of IPC and rioting, serious enough for the Police to act. Ekbote had worked as a BJP corporator in Pune between 1997 and 2002 and reportedly had 12 cases of rioting, trespassing, criminal intimidation, and attempts to spread enmity between two communities against him and had been convicted in five of these cases. His entire family is associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). After losing the corporation election in 2007, he formed the Hindu Ekta Aghadi. Sambhaji Bhide, a former RSS activist is the founder president of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan with a history of many Hindutva campaigns in Western Maharashtra. Narendra Modi, Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray are among his followers. Despite a continuing agitation by Dalits demanding their arrest, the Police would just not act. Over the full three months, Ekbote sought anticipatory bails from the lowest court to the Supreme Court that at the end it had exasperatedly rapped the State government and probe agencies for their tardy progress in their probe against Ekbote, and questioned the agencies’ claims that he was allegedly ‘untraceable’. Only when Ekbote’s anticipatory bail was rejected by the Supreme Court that the Police arrested him just to be bailed out after little over a month. About Bhide, none other than Fadnavis would summarily attest his innocence.
Shifting Police Narratives
The 29 December incident was warning enough for the Police to deploy adequate force to thwart impending trouble on 1 January but it let the miscreants have free run. They refused to act against the named culprits. Instead they began insinuating that the violence was caused by the inflammatory speeches made in the Elgar Parishad. On 2 January, a complaint was filed against Jignesh Mewani, Gujarat MLA and student leader Umar Khalid for allegedly inciting people through their provocative speeches. Their speeches could be easily examined within less than an hour to see that there was nothing. As protests against shielding of the culprits began getting louder, the police conducted raids on 17 April at the homes of activists of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), Rupali Jadhav, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe, Dhawala Dhengale in Pune and Republican Panther activist Sudhir Dhawale and Harshali Potdar in Mumbai and also at homes of Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson, who were not even remotely connected with Elgar Parishad. While the search warrant clearly mentioned “Bhima-Koregaon”, the chief minister stated that they did not have anything to do with Bhima-Koregaon. On 6 June the police arrested four of them and Mahesh Raut, a noted social activists and a fellow of prime minister’s rural development (PMRD) who after passing out from TISS devoted his life to tribals of Gadchiroli. The police made out a story that the Elgar Parishad was organized and funded by the Maoists, duly publicized by media ignoring the repeated explanation of Justice Kolshe Patil that he along with justice Sawant was its convener, did not spend any money, and none of the arrestee had much to do with it.
On June 6, Deputy Commissioner of Police Ravindra Kadam called a press conference where he explained the police investigation and the accusations against the five in minute detail. He maintained that the five were arrested in connection with an “Elgar Parishad” in Pune on December 31, which he claimed was funded by Maoist outfits and led to violent Dalit-Maratha clashes. The next day, even before the arrestees were produced before the court, two letters – purportedly recovered from Rona’s laptop – that discussed a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi made their way to media houses and television channels, where they were intensely debated. It was clearly in contravention to the Bombay High Court circular of 7 November 2014. Criminal lawyers saw it as the blatant violation of the law laid down by the Bombay High Court and the Maharashtra Police circular. Rahul Thakur, on whose petition the court had passed the binding directions in 2014 said, “Those arrested should file contempt petitions against the police officers and the public prosecutor for violating the High Court’s order”.
Most analysts including politicians and ex-police officers doubted the authenticity of these ‘fantastic’ letters purportedly written by a banned underground party and preserved by its sympathiser. The first letter revealed the plan of the party, with real names of people, and even their phone numbers. The pitch was escalated in another letter that spoke of “Rajiv Gandhi” like assassination of Narendra Modi. This drama of plotting Modi’s assassination was enacted in Gujarat several times to justify encounters of innocent people. Many people commented that whenever Modi’s popularity declined, the murder plot was released to garner public sympathy and as an image boosting tactics. Severally ludicrous, but it helped police to justify their arrests, support its theory of the Maoist urban network, slap UAPA, do media trial and amass sympathy for Modi, so necessary in the face of the increasing exposures of his performance deficit in the election year. The script writers obviously did not know that the Maoists had discarded such “annihilation of class enemy” line almost a half century ago and even then they would not do it with suicidal method.
Each of these five people has an exemplary record of selfless activism to protect democratic rights of people, particularly Dalits, Adivasis, women and minorities. They had excellent academic and professional credentials to live comfortable lives but their extension motivation impelled them to live modestly and serve people. They would obviously not agree with the rulers whose obsessive politics has been impoverishing this rich landmass and pushing majority people to bear its brunt. How could they endorse destruction of institutions, trampling of constitutional ethos, decimating dissent, othering of certain people and unleashing gangs to lynch them? The ‘urban Maoist’ is the figment of their imagination, sans contours or legality and is only meant to whip up baser instincts of people. Every thinking Indian is a potential ‘urban Maoist’; it is just the mercy of police that you are out!
Dr Anand Teltumbde is writer, political analyst, and civil rights activist with CPDR, Maharashtra. The piece was published as his column in EPW of 30 June 2018.
 Makarand Gadgil and Alka Dhupkar, Mumbai Mirror, 3 January 2018. https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/cover-story/the-two-who-brought-your-city-to-a-halt/articleshow/62344275.cms.