Mumbai: On March 13, 2018, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced in the state assembly that cases of a “political nature” registered in the aftermath of Bhima Koregaon violence would be withdrawn. Months later, in November, he announced that the state had decided to take back 592 of the total 655 cases, amounting to a withdrawal of nearly 90% of the cases.
But a year later, contrary to the chief minister’s claims, the Maharashtra police has begun its combing action, arresting and summoning political leaders and activists from across the state. Anti-caste activists and political leaders have called this sudden action, just three months before the general elections, a “politically motivated” move initiated only to harass them.
Over the last week, over 200 political activists from Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Aurangabad, Nanded and Mumbai received summons to appear before the police station and respective trial courts in connection with cases registered against them. Almost all of them are affiliated with political outfits like Republican Party of India (Athawale), Bahujan Samaj Party, and BHARIP Bahujan Mahasangh and Bahujan Republican Socialist Party (BRSP).
Some activists, along with the court summons, have also been served with externment notices, the proceeding that prevents the person from entering the city limits up to one year.
Suresh Nikalje, an activist associated with RPI (Athawale) party in Pimpri-Chinchwad against whom three cases of unlawful assembly and rioting were registered, was served an externment notice last week.
“As a political activist, it is only natural to have such cases of public protests (registered) against me. The chief minister had claimed on the floor of assembly that he would be taking back every political case registered on us for protesting against the Bhima Koregaon violence. Instead, the police have been directed to identify every politically active person and harass them. This is a clear political vendetta,” Nikalje told The Wire. Nikalje had responded to the police notice soon after he received it, but it was rejected on the ground that he could “foment trouble” in the area.
The merit of the cases
On January 1, every year, lakhs of Ambedkarites assemble at Bhima Koregaon, 30 km north-east of Pune, to celebrate a historic win by the British army – largely comprised of soldiers from the Dalit community – against the Peshwa regime ruled by the Brahmin king Baji Rao II in 1818.
Last year, at the 200th anniversary of the battle, the number of people visiting Bhima Koregaon shot up exponentially. However, before the pilgrims could reach the memorial spot, Hindutva goons – allegedly belonging to Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote’s organisations – had launched an attack on the visitors. The police failed to take any action against the two.
On October 23, last year, the state’s home department had issued a government resolution (GR) to set up a committee to look into the cases registered against the Ambedkarite protestors, mostly belonging to Dalit communities.
The GR had stated three criteria for further investigations. Cases which involved intentional violent attack on someone, cases which led to loss of public property over Rs 10 lakh and cases where policemen were attacked. The committee, which comprises of the police head of the district, a subordinate officer and a public prosecutor, was to look at specific cases, the nature of crime committed, prima-facie evidence gathered in each of them and then decide if they were fit to be investigated further.
However, according to a highly-placed source in the home department, the committee, which was to look in to the culpability of the cases, never met. When the commissioner of Pune police K. Venkatesham and Pimpri-Chinchwad police R.K. Padmanaban were approached for the reasons behind this, both claimed to not know the details.
Padmanaban confirmed that all six cases that were registered in Pimpri-Chinchwad have been investigated and that the police has initiated action. “These are all serious cases and on looking at the merit of each of these cases, notices were issued,” he said. He also said these cases fall within the criteria set up by the committee for further investigation.
But the ground reality is very different than what Padmanaban has claimed. For instance, consider 34-year-old Pravin Vakode’s case. An electrician from Nigdi in Pimpri Chinchwad, Vakode was booked under bailable sections for unlawful assembly and wrongful restraint. His case does not fall under the three criteria stated in the GR. Still the police have initiated action against him.
“This police action is totally against what was promised to us,” said Rahul Dambale, an eyewitness to the violence at Bhima Koregaon and also the president of Bharatiya Republican Yuva Morcha.
Dambale says there is a pattern how the state is filing cases against activists. “Some of them have two-three cases registered against them which are all bailable. But the police have bunched them all together and have presented the person as a nuisance. In every district, they have identified activists,” he added.
The GR, along with Bhima Koregaon violence, was also supposed to look into the cases related to state- wide agitation initiated by those from Maratha communities in 2017 and 2018.
Dambale claims those cases are all sent into cold storage. While it is true in almost all districts across the state, in Pimpri-Chinchwad the police have made an exception. Padmanabhan said the police have started an investigation into all five cases filed (within his jurisdiction) against the Maratha agitators. “It is obvious that the police action will be termed as a political move. But we have done our duty,” Padmanabhan told The Wire.
While the police are moving swiftly in cases registered against the protestors, it is yet to take action against Bhide and Ekbote who have been named in multiple FIRs as the “masterminds” behind the January 1 attack, last year. Instead, the Pune police have branded human rights activists as “urban Naxals” and accused them of instigating violence. Nine activists have already been arrested in the case. Well known academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde is also facing imminent arrest.
Dambale says over 100 such names were mentioned in the 20-odd cases of violence that were registered by Dalit victims in January. But the police have turned its back over those complaints.
In Nanded, the police have arrested 13 persons and were denied bail by the court after the public prosecutor opposed the bail application. In Pune, five persons, who were accused of rioting and assembling unlawfully were summoned to the police station and made to pay Rs 15,000 against bail surety.
Some activists complained that they were summoned to the police station under the pretext that the cases would be withdrawn. “And once we reached the court, we were asked to accept that we were involved in vandalism. The court has now adjourned the case until next month to begin the trial,” said BHARIP’s Santosh Jogdand.
Similarly, the police in Nanded have allegedly asked those accused to accept their “crime” and sign an undertaking that they would not participate in agitations in the future. “If the state has decided to look at those cases as political cases and withdraw them, where does the question of accepting our crime arise. And as a citizen of this country, I have every right to agitate against the state. How can the police seek such undertaking from anyone?” asked Rahul Pradhan of the Nanded-based organisation Yuva Panther.