'Urban Naxals', Sharad Pawar's U-Turn and What it Means for Efforts to Ensure Justice for Activists

When the MVA government came to power in Maharashtra, it vehemently criticised the Fadnavis government's handling of the Elgar Parishad case. Two years later, Sharad Pawar is sounding a lot more like Fadnavis.

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Mumbai: In 2018, the Maharashtra police, under the Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party government, arrested several rights activists, lawyers and academics for their alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case.

This series of arrests, made from different parts of the country, made way for the dramatic discourse on the presence of “urban Naxals” in the country. These Naxals, the police claimed, were both “financially” and “intellectually” running the armed Maoist movement in the rural parts of the country and, more specifically, in India’s central region.

But since the tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi government came to power at the end of 2019, the discourse marginally shifted. Ruling party leaders like Sharad Pawar, Nitin Raut and Jitendra Ahwad openly criticised the Pune police (that had earlier handled the investigation) and later, the National Investigating Agency (NIA) for wrongful arrests and flawed investigations. The issue even made it to the floor of the state assembly.

In their early enthusiasm, the party leaders even announced that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) would be set up to find out the ‘truth’ behind these arrests and the real culprits behind the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018.

However, it has been two years since the government came to power and the state has failed to take any concrete step towards finding the truth. Promises were made and a series of meetings were organised between the ruling party and rights activists in the state to discuss the case. But these amounted only to empty assurances and grand statements. 

Also read: Elgar Parishad Case: CPI (Maoist) Leader Arrested in Jharkhand

Now in November, 2021, having forgotten old promises, Pawar too has started sounding like Fadnavis. During his recent visit to Gadchiroli, Pawar spoke of the “urban Naxalisation” spreading in the state. Pawar spoke of the Naxal presence in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and in parts of the Sahyadri ranges, as far south as Kerala. “There is a section which is trying to create public opinion and hatred against the government,” he claimed.

Pawar was speaking just a few days after the killings of 27 alleged Naxals inside the dense Gyarapatti forest in Gadchiroli – one of the largest operations in the state. Milind Teltumbde, a top-rung leader of the banned CPI (Maoist) organisation was also killed in the ambush. The recent killings are considered a major setback to the Naxal movement, not just in Maharashtra but also in the neighbouring states.

Also read: Gadchiroli: Top Leader Milind Teltumbde Among 26 Naxals Killed, Say Police

“Urban Naxal” is not a benign term; it has had a lasting impact on the rights movement in the country.

What began as a catchphrase on social media was soon being aired on right-leaning news channels. The Pune police built its case entirely on this theory and subsequently arrested 16 leading rights activists, lawyers and academics from across India. From conspiring the violence at Bhima Koregaon to plotting a “Rajiv Gandhi-style assassination” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the activists were accused of a range of criminal acts.

The 16 arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case. One of them, Father Stan Swamy, passed away in custody. Photo: The Wire.

The case is yet to go to trial. Meanwhile, 14 of the 16 arrested continue to be incarcerated. One of them, poet and author Varavara Rao had been released on medical bail and another, Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, died in July at the age of 84 after the state failed to provide him the requisite medical care while in custody. 

Over the past three years, the investigating agencies’ theory has been amply challenged and several international independent research bodies like Citizen Lab, Amnesty International and Arsenal Consulting have meticulously debunked their case.

In their independent investigations, they have found evidence of the use of spywares like Pegasus on the phones of those arrested and their family members. Arsenal Consulting found evidence of the use of the malware Netwire, used to plant evidence on the computers of the accused like Rona Wilson and advocate Surendra Gadling. The defence lawyers are relying on these findings and they will eventually be presented to the trial court.

Also read: Surendra Gadling’s Computer Was Attacked, Incriminating Documents Planted: Arsenal Consulting

It has taken the defence team a great deal of effort to build substantial evidence for those languishing in jail and they fear loose remarks, such as those made by Pawar, will cause a dent in their efforts. 

These arrests aside, there are at least two separate FIRs naming two Hindutva hardliners – Milind Ekbote, a Pune-based Hindutva leader and founder of the Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti and Manohar, alias Sambhaji Bhide, founder of Shiv Prathistan Hindustan leader – as “masterminds” of the attack at Bhima Koregaon. Both Ekbote and Bhide are Brahmins. Even after the fall of the BJP government in the state, the Sena-NCP-Congress coalition has also not shown any inclination to apprehend Ekbote and Bhide.

Manohar Bhide at an event in Sangli organised by the Congress. Photo: By arrangement

In fact, several congress leaders, especially in Western Maharashtra, have been accused of having close ties to Bhide. Anti-caste activists and lawyers who have been pursuing the case have, time and again petitioned the ruling state government to act on their pending complaints, but to no avail.

Also read: Case Against Hindutva Leaders Ignored, No Justice in Sight for Bhima Koregaon Violence Victims

With no faith in the police, most victims have focused on the inquiry commission, headed by retired chief justice of the Calcutta high court Justice Jay Narayan Patel and retired chief secretary of Maharashtra government, Sumit Mullick. Set up by Fadnavis, the commission was meant to look into the causes of the violence and scrutinise the responses of the police and state administrations. However, after over two years of struggling with office space in Mumbai, the commission has suspended all hearings.