Mumbai: The Maharashtra police has turned the investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence on its head by arresting three Dalit rights activists, a professor and a social activist from across three cities. The arrests were made as a part of a “joint operation” carried out by the Pune police along with its counterparts from Mumbai, Nagpur and Delhi. Contrary to earlier investigations, which focused on Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, both Brahmins and prominent Hindutva leaders, the police now claim that “Naxals and their sympathisers” were behind the January 1 violence at Bhima Koregaon.
The five persons include Sudhir Dhawale, a senior Dalit rights activist and editor of radical political magazine Vidrohi, senior human rights lawyer Surendra Gadling, anti-displacement activist and former Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow Mahesh Raut, associate professor at Nagpur university Shoma Sen and Delhi-based social activist Rona Wilson.
Early in the morning on June 6, a team of the Pune police along with the Deonar police, Mumbai knocked at Dhawale’s residence in Deonar. His house, which is also his magazine’s office, was raided and he was soon arrested. He is accused of inciting violence against Dalits in Bhima Koregaon on January 1. Simultaneously, raids were also carried out at the residence of advocate Gadling and Raut, and both of them were arrested as well. At around noon, police announced the arrests of Sen from her residence in Nagpur and Wilson from Delhi. All five have been taken to Pune’s Vishrambag police station, where an FIR was registered on January 8.
“We have arrested five people in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence. All five have close Maoist links and prima facie, their involvement is being seen in the matter. We are ascertaining if they had incited the violence,” a senior police officer from Pune said.
The initial FIR had only Dhawale’s name, along with activists of cultural group Kabir Kala Manch. Dhawale’s colleagues, who were at the office at the time of the arrest, said the police first took him to Deonar police station, and then around 12:30 pm he was taken to Pune. “A team of police landed up at our office. Documents and computers have been seized. Only when we insisted, the police informed us about the sections applied in the case. The FIR has been altered and new sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act have been added,” Harshali Potdar, an activist and Dhawale’s colleague at Vidrohi, told The Wire. Potdar has also been named in the FIR but has not been arrested so far.
The FIR initially mentioned sections of the Indian Penal Code and the two were accused of “inciting enmity” among two groups and criminal conspiracy. According to the police, the “provocative” speeches and presentations made during the programme “promoted” enmity between two groups, Dalits and Brahmins. The police had further claimed that the “inciting speeches” led to the violence. But today, sources in Nagpur police have claimed that the arrested persons had “Naxal links” and have added sections of the UAPA to the FIR.
Each of the people arrested today have been socially active and have not shied away from criticising the present government for its policies.
Dhawale has been at the forefront of seeking justice for victims of the Bhima Koregaon violence and has also participated in several fact-finding exercises in Mumbai. In 2011, the police had claimed that Dhawale was involved in Naxal activities in Maharashtra and had arrested him. He spent 40 months in jail and was later acquitted. Dhawale, on his release, continued to run his bi-monthly magazine and also launched a political organisation, Republican Panther.
Gadling is a prominent lawyer from Nagpur, and among several UAPA cases, he also handled Delhi University professor and wheelchair-bound activist G.N. Saibaba’s case.
Raut is a young activist from Gadchiroli who has been handling several cases of displacement and atrocities against Adivasis in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. He is an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and was a fellow in the prestigious Prime Minister Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF).
Wilson, 47, a native of Kerala, is currently based in Delhi and associated with the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners.
Today’s arrests raise several questions on the state’s intent and whether it is trying to shield those responsible for the Bhima Koregaon violence. Bhima Koregaon is a small village on the outskirts of Pune, where the battle of Bhima Koregaon was fought. This year was the 200th anniversary of the battle, in which the Mahar community fought together with the British to end the Brahmin Peshwa regime in the state. According to the Pune police, just a few days before the anniversary celebrations at Bhima Koregaon, Ekbote had held a conspiracy meeting at a hotel in Pune with his supporters to strategise ways to disrupt the anniversary celebrations. The police have already seized pamphlets, with anti-Dalit messages, that were distributed in Pune.
As the agitation intensified, the Pune police had to arrest Ekbote, who was later released on bail by a Pune sessions court in April. Bhide, also known as ‘Bhide Guruji’, has not been arrested even after the apex court rejected his anticipatory bail. Bhide has continued to address public rallies and deliver inflammatory speeches at these gatherings.
While the case against Ekbote and Bhide continues, the police had filed a parallel case against activists, mostly Dalits and Left-leaning leaders, for participating in a meeting that they had called ‘Elgar Parishad’ organised by the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan, which is a coalition of around 260 mass organisations under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court Justice P.B. Sawant and retired Justice Kolse-Patil. Elgar Parishad was also organised days before the anniversary celebrations. Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Rohith Vemula’s mother and Dalit rights activist Radhika Vemula, and Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar were among those who had attended the meeting.
The venue of the Elgar Parishad was considered significant as it was organised at the Shaniwarwada fort in Pune. The fort was an important centre for the Brahmin Peshwas who headed the military front of the Maratha empire.
This year’s anniversary event saw a large turnout, much more than earlier years. But as the visitors entered Bhima Koregaon village, they were attacked and their vehicles were burnt. The attack led to an impromptu shutdown in Maharashtra. Instead of arresting those involved in the violence, the police focused on those participating in the bandh, and over 20,000 people were booked including several children. Only two months ago, at the assembly session, the state government announced that it would withdraw the cases against Dalit protestors. A two-member commission, headed by former Chief Justice of the Kolkata high court J.N. Patel and comprising chief secretary Sumit Mullick, has been probing the incident and the report is likely to be submitted at the end of this month.
Civil liberties groups and human rights organisations have accused the Pune police of diverting attention from the “main accused persons”. The Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Maharashtra, in its statement has condemned the arrests and has claimed that the entire operation has been “stage-managed by the Maharashtra government”. “The BJP government is desperate to create a reign of terror in order to polarize the Dalit and Bahujan votes,” the statement claims. It further alleges that the state is trying to “create a terror narrative thereby protecting the real terror culprits Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote who will ensure votes for the BJP.”
Another statement issued by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Maharashtra State Unit) states:
“This has been a standard protocol followed by State for years. Under the garb of countering “Naxalites” any democratic protest is labelled as unlawful activity against the “State.” People are arrested and incarcerated in jail for years. They are subsequently released as the State fails to prove their case. The whole purpose being to crush any protest against injustice, deny people their basic citizenship rights, deprive them even of their basic means of livelihood. Prejudicial narratives that above persons are “maoist sympathisers” or “top maoist operatives” is already underway in the mainstream media.”