Pune: It was an unusual proceeding in the Shivajinagar sessions court in Pune on October 10. The courtroom was packed with lawyers and journalists waiting in anticipation. Unlike the past 25 years of his legal practice, where advocate Surendra Gadling would place himself right in front of the judge and address the court, this time, he was standing on the side, inside a witness box. His legal uniform of a white shirt and black coat was replaced with a loose khadi kurta.
Since his arrest on June 6, for his alleged involvement in the “Naxal activities”, this was his first representation before the court. Yet in this rare set- up, a few things were just as earlier – his confidence, the nuanced legal arguments and the ability to invoke socio-political context while arguing over terse legal points.
Surendra Gadling was one of the five persons to be arrested by the Pune city police on June 6 and to be branded as “urban Naxal”. The police while seeking their remand had claimed those arrested were part of a larger conspiracy behind the violence that broke out on Dalits gathered at Bhima Koregaon in the outskirts of Pune on January 1.
It was the 200th year of the battle of Bhima Koregaon and several lakh Dalit-Bahujans had gathered at the “victory pillar” (obelisk) to pay respect to the small number of Mahar soldiers who fought under the British in the Third Anglo- Maratha war and defeated Brahmin Peshwas.
Later in August, five more people including social activists and lawyers were arrested. Their custody, however, was stalled after academics and rights organisations approached the Supreme Court. One of them, Gautam Navlakha, a rights’ activist has been granted bail by the Delhi High Court.
The police since the arrest have shifted their allegations several times. First the arrested persons were accused of participating in the Elgaar Parishad, an event organised on December 31 at Shaniwarwada, considered as a Brahmin hub of Pune and later for planning a “Rajiv Gandhi style assassination”.
Gadling provided strong rebuttals to the prosecution’s claims. He pointed at the specific sections of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act levelled against him and others. “Section 15 invoked in our case speaks categorically about threatening sovereignty of the state by using bombs, dynamite or other explosive substances. Have the police in three months of our arrest admitted to have found explosives on any arrested persons?” asked the 47- year old lawyer.
The prosecution lawyer Ujjwala Pawar sought more time to argue the police’s case and she is likely to argue after Gadling and his co-accused lawyers present their case seeking bail. After Navlakha’s bail, others are hopeful to be granted bail on the grounds of parity.
“These sections are a relic of the already repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act,” he claimed while giving an elaborate history of TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act] law and how the law was passed to control the rebel Khalistan movement demanding an independent Sikh state in Punjab. The TADA law was repealed in 2004 and the same year, the UPA-led government chose to “strengthen” the UAPA law.
He further asked if dissenting voices can be termed a terrorist act. “At the said Elgaar Parishad (which he had not participated in) the speakers are believed to have given speeches which were anti-establishment and were critical of the Narendra Modi regime. Under what law does this act of dissent become an act of terrorism,” he asked. “They [the police] claimed we were plotting to do something similar to Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The police implied it was a plot to kill Narendra Modi. Have they managed any evidence besides a few highly doubtful letters to support their claim?” he asked.
Gadling, in jest, further added: “Even a common man standing at a chai tapri (tea stall) speaks similar language. Or this court can just go back and take a look at their respective family’s WhatsApp group to know what a common man feels for his prime minister.” He reminded the court that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis was also in charge of the home department, an important portfolio which handled the police department. “These claims of plotting the PM’s murder are so loosely made and the police have till date not explained what it has done to ascertain those charges,” he alleged.
He challenged the police’s claims that letters were exchanged between co-accused Rona Wilson, an activist from Kerala working on the release of political prisoners and Sudha Bharadwaj, an activist lawyer and a visiting professor at the National Law University, Delhi. These letters, were supposedly exchanged in Hindi but had several Marathi words in them. “Rona is from Kerala, who barely converses in Hindi and Sudha on the other hand has stayed in a foreign country and worked in Chhattisgarh and now in Delhi. How and when they learnt Marathi is something that the prosecution would have to explain besides why two “comrades” even decided to converse over letters and not opt for a more foolproof way of communication,” Gadling claimed.
Surendra Gadling, in his nearly two-and-a-half decade long legal practice in Nagpur and other districts in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, has handled thousands of cases. He is known to have mastered the stringent laws like TADA, POTA and later UAPA. “Almost all cases filed under these laws have come been handled by him over last two decades. In them, barring only three cases, he managed to get acquittal in all others,” says his junior Nihalsingh Rathod.
The last case that Gadling lost to the state was that of G.N. Saibaba. A wheelchair-bound English professor at Ram Lal Anand college in Delhi University, Saibaba, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a sessions court in Nagpur for his alleged links with the Maoists.
The police have alleged that Gadling was in touch with one ‘comrade Prakash’ which they claimed was an alternative name of G.N. Saibaba for his underground activities. Gadling rubbished the claim saying “the exchange of letter is of the time when Saibaba was already in the jail and no such communication was possible unless planted”.
Saibaba’s conviction has not just proved to be a major jolt to the human rights movement, as the rights defenders have argued in past year, it also landed Gadling in a vulnerable situation. Describing those several instances where he was “targeted” by the state, Gadling told the court veiled and unveiled threats only intensified after he decided to take up Saibaba’s case. “The police officers investigating the case would casually tell me I was next in the line. They even went to the extent of planting false allegations in the media. This was happening when I was appearing as a profession lawyer in the court,” Gadling explained.
He also claimed that in at least five to six instances, the police, especially those in Gadchiroli and Nagpur have tried to implicate him in false cases. “They would claim I am a wanted accused even when I was appearing before them. But they never arrested me. This was only to break my morale. I have worked in the face of severe threats to my life and damage to my professional credibility. It has not been easy,” he added.
In one Anil Borkar’s case that Gadling had appeared as a lawyer 20 years ago, he said, the Chandrapur police had issued a press statement that he was an “absconding accused”. “I had to approach the high court seeking ad-interim relief and filed for anticipatory bail. I have since then travelled to Chandrapur on several occasions both on work and personal engagements. The police have not sought my arrest, neither have they made it clear if I was really a wanted accused in the case. But they ensured the press looks at me as an accused.”
Gadling, who began as an apprentice in the railways soon after finishing college in the ’80s, has actively participated in many socio-cultural movements in Nagpur. He along his friends – Sambhaji Bhagat an activist, a people’s poet and balladeer and Vilas Ghogre, also a prominent poet and activist from Mumbai who committed suicide to protest the 1997 Ramabai killings – started an organisation called Awhan Natya Manch. This group would organise cultural evenings in the bastis of Nagpur and engage in conversations around rights and oppressions.
Since Gadling’s arrest, his team of over 30 juniors have panned across Vidarbha’s court and have been handling cases on their own. “These are all serious cases. Some of them were handled by the juniors with Gadling supervising them. But since his arrest, we decided to form smaller groups and distribute responsibilities among us,” Rathod told The Wire.