One year of Bhima-Koregaon case: Part III | One FIR, many arrests and politics of a State at war with the people
[WATCH] The Bhima Koregaon Case: What Really Happened
Owing to violence as many as 628 crimes under Indian Penal Code (IPC), general laws and 17 under Atrocities Act came to be registered.
However, with regards to the incidents, one FIR by an activist victim, Anita Salawe, had named Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide as perpetrators. In pursuance of this FIR, the State had filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court of India, opposing the anticipatory bail of Milind Ekbote. In the said affidavit, it was clearly stated that after investigation and recording of statements of the witnesses and based on call data — it was clear that Milind Ekbote was the mastermind behind the riots.
Two FIRs came to be registered against Elgar Parishad speakers. One was registered against Umar Khalid and Jignesh Mewani alleging inflammatory speeches. Another one by Tushar Damgude, on January 8, 2018, accusing that Elgar Parishad was organised by Maoists, too was registered. Though this FIR came to be registered with the Vishrambag Police Station, however its investigation, very interestingly, was handed over to the ACP of Swargate jurisdiction, whereas there is an ACP for the Vishrambag itself.
Though initially there was no enquiry on this FIR, suddenly on March 6, 2018, Section 120B came to be added and names of two suspects — namely Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson — too were added.
On March 8, 2018, ACP Swargate sought search warrant against Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Harshali Potdar, Rona Wilson, Sagar Gorkhe, Dhawala Dhengle, Ramesh Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap and Rupali Jadhav. However, the Judicial Magistrate of First Class (JMFC) rejected the same.
On March 19, 2018 again an attempt was made to obtain search warrant against above named persons: this time as well the court rejected the same.
On April 17, 2018, much after the Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in Assembly had stated on two occasions that the perpetrators of the violence were Hindutva forces and had given detailed chronology of events, raids were conducted at the houses of above-named persons, without any search warrant.
Gadling is a decorated criminal lawyer, who has dedicated his whole life in fighting cases having social significance. Raised by extremely poor Dalit parents, he worked part time and simultaneously studied law when he was still in his teens. Agitated at the plight of tribals who were arbitrarily and without any rehabilitation evacuated from Pench forest which was being converted into a tiger reserve, Gadling started assisting Advocate Harane, who was a human rights lawyer working for the tribals of Pench. Gadling took the baton from ailing Harane and assisted unaccountable number of people in their legal troubles. Even after rising to the stature of getting appointed as the special public prosecutor, he preferred to represent a popper over an opulent man.
In 25 years of his career, he has handled many cases under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). There have been efforts, time and again, to dislodge his activism by threatening him of evil consequences. Police even attempted to book him in a sedition case 20 years back; however, no action was taken against the same. In that case as well, he had represented the accused who happened to be a resident of his locality and managed to get bail immediately. Police rearrested his client from prison gates and slapped more cases at Chandrapur and stated to media that Advocate Gadling was also a wanted accused in the matter. He had to obtain anticipatory bail. However, in the past he was not even called for recording his statement.
Advocate Gadling is known in Nagpur and across Maharashtra as a champion of Dalit and tribal rights and has anchored various fact-finding committees, and petitioned courts seeking justice for voiceless. Of the prominent activists he has represented, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Prof G N Saibaba, journalist Prashant Rahi and Maruti Kurwatkar are some of the names. He is representing Dalit activists who were booked under serious offences during Khairlanji Massacre agitations. He had collected contributions from various lawyers and retired judicial officers, by issuing them receipts for the same. Those receipts too have been seized by Pune Police during the raid at his residence.
Another Dalit rights activist, poet, singer, artist, has been tirelessly working for the rights of Dalits since his young age. He was booked under UAPA. After a prolonged trial, the Gondia Court acquitted him, famously holding that “he was carrying books and not bombs”. Prosecution could not prove any allegation against him, resulting in his honourable acquittal.
A staunch Ambedkarite, Dhawale has authored a number of booklets, writing extensively against casteist repression. He has anchored many fact findings pertaining to Dalit atrocities and assisted lawyers in such cases with his intellectual inputs. He is a member of the board of editors of a bimonthly Vidrohi, along with other Ambedkarite intellectuals, including Vira Sathidar, Gautam Sapkale, Sharad Gaikwad, Sumedh Jadhav and Harshali Potdar. After his release, he resumed his work as a State Convener for Republican Panther, Jati Antachi Chalwal (movement for annihilation of caste).
Sudhir Dhawale was instrumental in organising various agitations after the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula, the destruction of Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai, the Una flogging of Dalits and the mob lynching of Pehlu Khan in Alwar. He was one of the members of the State Committee constituted for the Bhima-Koregaon Elgar Parishad, which was chaired by Retd Justice P B Sawant of the Supreme Court of India, and supervised by Retd Justice B G Kolse Patil of the Bombay High Court and Advocate Prakash Ambedkar, national president of the Bharatiya Republican Party.
An alumnus from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and originally from Kerala, Rona since his college days, has been actively participating in the civil rights movement, particularly in Delhi. Later on, he took up work with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, along with many prominent personalities and activists based out of Delhi and other major cities. He helped hapless victims of state repression by engaging lawyers for them and helping coordinate between lawyers and the family members of the prisoner.
It must be noted that Ronal Wilson had no role to play in Elgar Parishad in any manner. Neither had he attended the programme, nor did he made any contribution towards the programme. He stated that he came to know about the programme after reading about the riots that took place in Maharashtra on January 1 and 2, 2018.
Kabir Kala Manch
Kabir Kala Manch is a staunch Ambedkarite cultural troupe, which was formed in aftermath of Gujarat riots in 2002. Its founders — Prof Yogendra Mane and Union leader Amarnath Chandaliya — were of the opinion that the rift that has been created out of the riots among various religions needs to be bridged by inculcating truth and the spirit of brotherhood through cultural performances. Starting out with only two people, this troupe eventually expanded and many young singers and poets joined in. Inspired by the ideals of Chatrapati Shahu, Mahatma Phule, Savitri Bai, Shivaji Maharaj and Babasaheb Ambedkar, the troupe made it a single-line agenda to annihilate caste.
Of the many artists, activists and volunteers, it has Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, Rupali Jadhav and Dipak Dhengale, who look after the ideological and cultural functioning of the troupe. While they perform on the special occasions on invitations, for livelihood they work in different sector. Dipak Dhengale a tribal person works as fitter with garbage collection vehicles of Pune Municipal Corporation. Sagar Gorkhe is graduate in arts and worked as a clerk with Pune Majdur Sabha. Ramesh Gaichor is a postgraduate and worked as a professor at Gnyanba Moje College, Pune.
Songs written by this group started to become so popular that even Bollywood started approaching them for rights of some of their songs. However, determined not to commercialise their art and not to let capitalists exploit Ambedkarite art that belonged to the people, they refused to let any song be used in cinemas or for any commercial purpose.
However, in the year 2011, alleging that some of the members of this group have Naxal links, few of its artists were arrested and eventually granted bail by the Bombay High Court. Later in 2013, other artists appeared before the then home minister R R Patil, along with Advocate Prakash (Balasaheb) Ambedkar and submitted themselves to law. After spending 44 months of incarceration in jail, the Supreme Court granted them bail in 2017. In the past eight years, only one witness has been examined. These artists must weekly give their attendance at police station between 10AM to 2PM and are restricted from travelling out of the State, except with permission of the court.
This troupe is a sensation in the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra and is often invited on the occasions of Phule or Shahu or Ambedkar or Shivaji Maharaj anniversary programmes and have received honorarium for the same. They voluntarily perform at the agitations, protests and collect contribution for their work. From the money obtained, they support their unemployed members and maintain instruments for their performance.
Kabir Kala Manch had the responsibility for the cultural programmes of Elgar Parishad and was tasked to mobilise and encourage people to come for the programme by performing street plays. The troupe had been receiving work and guidance from (Retd) Justices Sawant and Kolse-Patil as well as Advocate Prakash Ambedkar, from time to time.
Very importantly, Sagar Gorkhe and Rupali Jadhav had argument with some of the police officers who were operating their laptops and connecting their pen-drives to them. Though police claim to have videographed everything, it has refused to file footage of the same on records. Activists believe that it was mere intimidation tactic and was meant to divert the attention of masses, continued with their work unbothered. True to their expectation, nothing happened for quite some time.
April 24, 2018: Encounters in Gadchiroli
Little later in the same month, on April 22, 2018, a big operation was undertaken by police in which the authorities claimed to have gunned down 40 Naxals. Various organisations then decided to conduct fact-finding over the issue and the same was being anchored by Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut, apart from other activists. They visited the villages in Gadchiroli district, where, true to their anticipation, it was revealed to be a cold-blooded massacre of several innocent people.
This fake encounter had taken place under the supervision and command of IG Naxal Shivaji Bodkhe, who now stands transferred to Pune, where he has taken over the supervision of investigation in the case against activists.
Fact-finding team hence released a press note summarising their findings. It would be important to note that there was a two-year-old kid who was killed in the operation; at the same time there was a huge Maoist cash seizure and the amount was siphoned off, according to the fact-finding team.
Even after their press conference, nothing concrete had happened. Therefore Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut had decided to complete a fact-finding report, and approach the court. In the opinion of Gadling and Sen, Mahesh Raut was the ideal petitioner to knock the court’s door in public interest. However, Mahesh Raut was of firm opinion that instead of any individual, gram sabhas from Gadchiroli district should petition the court. Thus, in consultation with all, he had approached many gram sabhas who had expressed their readiness and willingness to approach the court of law, seeking independent investigation and action against the cops.
In the meantime, media exposed that personnel involved in the operation were given a special treat by the State government and as a reward, they were sent on foreign tour for holiday.
Thus, the three, along with other juniors of Gadling, decided to assemble on June 7, 2018, in Nagpur and take a final call on the legal strategy. Mahesh who was staying at his sister’s place, had relevant evidence and documents which he had brought along with him.
June 6, 2018: First round of arrests
Morning hours of June 6, 2018 left many phone buzzing with the news that activists across India have been picked up by the Pune Police. Among the arrested were Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, as well as, surprisingly enough, Mahesh Raut and Shoma Sen.
A senior citizen who recently turned 60, Shoma Sen holds a doctorate in English Literature, and was working as the head of the English Department at Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj University, Nagpur since 2011. Prior to that, she had taught in PWS College, Nagpur from 1987 to 2011. She was an elected member of the Academic Council of the university. Sen is frequently invited by prestigious foreign universities to deliver lectures on English Literature, feminism and other subjects. She has written many articles for Indian and foreign publications, on current politics and feminism. She was a regular contributor to the Economic and Political Weekly.
Sen is a reputed person from Nagpur who has made tremendous contribution to various peoples’ movements throughout her life. Be it incidences of atrocities on Dalits or tribals or any other political social issue, Sen has been among the first to channelise various public spirited and social organisations to come together and agitate demanding justice. In her long academic career she has mentored many students who at present hold significant positions in academia.
Sen was arrested just a fortnight before her retirement from service. Shoma Sen was neither a speaker in the program, nor did she actively participate in the programme. She happened to be in Pune regarding some personal work and thus paid a visit to programme. Apart from this visit for a couple of hours, she had no role to play in the Elgar Parishad event dated December 31, 2017.
This 32-year-old Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai alumnus was in the first batch of the prestigious Prime Minister Rural Development fellowship. The fellowship was a central government initiative to encourage young people to go and work in the rural/conflict areas and liaison between the state machinery and people. Mahesh Raut thus took on the work of implementation of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act, and with the help of the local administration was successful in bridging the gap between people and government.
However, after the completion of the fellowship, Raut decided to continue this line of work. He thus started strengthening the gram sabhas and advising them on using the law for upholding their right over forests. In course, he came across instances of illegal mining in the area, and thus following the wish of people, started a movement opposing Surjagad Mining.
It would be important to note here that in the hardcore Naxal area, where elections are boycotted, Mahesh Raut convinced people to participate in elections, and as a result, two tribals from the area came to be elected to the Zila Parishad.
Mahesh is networked with people working for the rights of tribals, and has published many booklets in simple language to explain forest rights act and PESA. As mentioned earlier, he was assisting Advocate Gadling in fact-finding pertaining to the Gadchiroli massacre, along with many others, and was about to petition in the high court on the issue. He had also convinced certain gram sabhas to come in the support of the petition and be petitioners in the matter. This information had clearly reached the police, since they have their informers planted all over the district.
Mahesh Raut had no role to play in the Elgar Parishad event. He did not even participate in the programme, nor was at Pune on December 31, 2017.
First press conference by Pune Police: ‘Letters’ disclosed
The Joint Commissioner of the Pune Police Ravindra Kadam, took a press conference on June 8, 2018 after the arrest of the first five. He claimed that they had found the “assassination plot letter”, and further, that the arrested people were the sponsors of the programme at the behest of Maoists.
Upon uproar from the masses and the organisers replying to these ridiculous allegations by citing the receipts of the contribution, and disclosing the accounts, the police took another press conference.
Second press conference by Pune Police: ‘Letters’ released to media
In the second press conference again headed by the then Joint Commissioner of Pune Police, Ravindra Kadam, the cop changed his version a little and stated that they were the masterminds behind the riots and the Elgar Parishad event.
Third press conference
Ravindra Kadam, upon his transfer to Nagpur out of his own choice owing to his nearing the retirement age, held a third discussion with the media. In this, he made an about turn, completely changing the allegations against the arrestees. He stated to the media that Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregaon riots have no connection. Further, that they had not found any concrete proofs of funding by Maoists to the Elgar Parishad and probe in the same was going on.
In all, 13 letters were released to the media, wherein serious and extremely doubtful contents were attributed to many activists. Some of the names revealed were of Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Jignesh Mewani, Umar Khalid, Nihalsing Rathod, Monica Sakhrani, Mahrukh Adenwala, Degree Prasad Chauhan, Amarnath Pande, Vara Vara Rao, et al.
Of those named, noted lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bhardwaj issued a defamation notice to Republic TV.
August 28, 2018: Second round of arrests
In the morning hours of August 28, 2018, Pune Police conducted raids at various places across the nation and arrested Vara Vara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Gautam Navlakha from their residences. Attempt to arrest Anand Teltumbde failed since he was not his residence at the relevant time.
A human rights activist and journalist based in New Delhi, Navlakha was the President of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and has been long associated with the Economic and Political Weekly. He is a known commentator on current affairs. The State relied upon him to negotiate the safe return of persons abducted by left-wing extremists in Chhattisgarh. Navlakha was arrested from New Delhi.
Bharadwaj is a prominent cause lawyer of the Bilaspur High Court who has represented workers, poor and marginal farmers and others in Chhattisgarh, currently residing in Faridabad. She is the national general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and since 2017 has been teaching at the National Law University, Delhi. As a member of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers, Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj was vocal against the arrest of lawyers like Surendra Gadling in recent times. Bharadwaj has been a member of committees and provided legal aid and is a recognised human rights defender.
Bharadwaj was arrested from her Faridabad residence, where she was living with her daughter. After her house arrest period got over, she has been in jail like the others in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Vara Vara Rao
Political worker, commentator and renowned poet, Vara Vara Rao needs no introduction. He was a professor of English and Telegu literature. In past as well, there have been many attempts to jail him. Every time, he was booked under one or other serious offence and then State would eventually withdraw the case. This 79-year-old poet is named in some of the 13 letters released by the police to media. Rao was arrested from his Hyderabad residence in the presence of his daughter and son-in-law, and other family members.
Practising as a lawyer since 2015 and a renowned human rights activist, well known for his book on his experience of prison life — Colours of Cage — which is translated in most of the Indian languages, Arun Ferreira was similarly arrested in the past and had spent considerable time in jail, under the accusation which were as ridiculous as the current one. He came to be acquitted in all the cases. However, the moment he stepped out of the prison, he was again arrested by police and booked under more cases. Eventually, he could obtain his acquittal by proving his innocence once again.
After his release, Ferreira completed his law, and had started practising in Mumbai. He was also appearing for Advocate Surendra Gadling in this case. Ironically, Advocate Surendra Gadling was the one who defended Arun Ferreira in most of his cases. Ferreira was arrested from his Mumbai residence.
Gold medalist from Bombay University in Commerce, accounts officer at Siemens, then lecturer of accounts in Maharastra College, writer and columnist, Vernon Gonsalves is credited with his translation of Annabhau Sathe’s Gold from the Grave from Marathi to English, published in David Davidar’s A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces.
Like Ferreira, Gonsalves was also persecuted in past and was kept in jail for long. He was also defended by Surendra Gadling in his cases. Gonsalves was acquitted in most of his cases, and convicted in one. Appeal against the same is pending before the Bombay High Court.
Though Anand Teltumbde is yet to be arrested, Pune Police is not leaving any stone unturned to capture this widely respected academic, well known for his original insights into many a contemporary issue in activist and academic circles world over. He has written extensively in all leading newspapers, magazines, organisational pamphlets, and booklets as an aid to struggling masses, and has lectured widely in India and abroad. He has authored 22 books which are popularly translated into most Indian languages. He had pioneered a theoretical critique of neoliberal globalisation vis-à-vis Dalits and other oppressed masses. He is a regular contributor to India’s most respected social science journal, the Economic and Political Weekly, wherein he writes a monthly column “Margin Speak”. He also regularly contributes to other progressive journals like Mainstream, Frontier, Seminar, etc. as well as most English newspapers.
Born in a family of landless labourers in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, Teltumbde was active in student politics and held several elected offices. He was concurrently involved in/associated with various people’s struggles — significantly, the struggles of construction workers and casual labour in West Bengal in late 1970s and thereafter in Mumbai with the struggles of textile workers, slum dwellers and contract labourers in 1980s.
He has obtained his Bachelors in Engineering from VNIT Nagpur, MBA from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Doctorate in Management focusing on a pioneering area of cybernetic modelling for public systems. In his illustrious career so far, Teltumbde has been ranked among the top 20 people who contributed to India’s IT, consecutively for three years by Data Quest during the 1990s. With consistent uncompromising stand on issues which made him one of the fiercest critics of the establishment in the country, it may be a veritable wonder that he still reached the zenith of corporate world as the Executive Director of Bharat Petroleum and the Managing Director & CEO of Petronet India Limited. After his corporate stint, he was invited by IIT, Kharagpur to be a Professor in their Vinod Gupta School of Management. He has recently shifted to Goa Institute of Management as Senior Professor, Business Analytics.
Romila Thapar’s PIL in Supreme Court
On August 28, 2018, while the Pune Police tried to whisk away all five activists, concerned lawyers approached various forums. On behalf of Gautam Navlakha a petition came to be filed, wherein on directions of the high court he was shifted to house arrest until final disposal of the case.
Similar approach was taken for Sudha Bharadwaj, wherein she was also prevented from being taken away.
While this was ongoing, the Pune Police had already arrested and brought Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Vara Vara Rao to Pune from Mumbai and Hyderabad.
In the meantime, five eminent members of the civil society led by public intellectual and historian Romila Thapar approached the Supreme Court and apprised it of the matter. Acting promptly, Supreme Court directed to place all five activists under house arrest until further order and therefore Vara Vara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves were kept in house arrest.
The State of Maharashtra opposed the petition vociferously and sought dismissal of the petition on many counts. It showed case diary to the court, and finally on September 28, 2018 Supreme Court through a split verdict dismissed the petition, giving time of four weeks to the arrested activists to work out their remedies before appropriate forums.
The Delhi High Court, struck down the order of transit remand granted against Gautam Navlakha thereby setting him free. Thereafter he approached, Bombay High Court challenging proceedings against him.
Punjab and Haryana High Court, was reluctant to hear the case of Sudha Bharadwaj, thus it was withdrawn and bail application was filed before the trial court. Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves also filed their respective bail applications before the trial court.
Vara Vara Rao, approached Hyderabad High Court and obtained interim stay on his arrest.
On the last day of the house arrest period, when four weeks from the order of the Supreme Court was to end, i.e. October 26, , the sessions court rejected all the bail applications. Acting upon the same, the Pune Police arrested three activists from their residences, including Sudha Bharadwaj.
Vara Vara Rao’s petition in the Hyderabad High Court also came to be dismissed without giving him any time to challenge it before the Supreme Court. Thus, he too came to be arrested.
In the meantime, Pune Police sought extension of 90 days from court to file chargesheet against the first set of arrestees, which came to be mechanically granted. A challenge to same in the High Court succeeded and the High Court was pleased to set aside the order of the trial court, granting extension.
While this had made way to bail clear to first set of arrests, the State promptly approached the Supreme Court and obtained stay on the judgment of the Bombay High Court.
On November 12, 2018, Maharashtra Police obtained production warrant against Surendra Gadling in an old case, just to frustrate his bail possibility.
On November 15, 2018, a day before matter was fixed for decision in the Supreme Court, State filed 5000 odd pages of the chargesheet.
On November 16, 2018, the State of Maharashtra sought time to file rejoinder to the replies filed by the first set of arrestees to the challenge petition.
On December 3, 2018, the State insisted that the Court should look at the charge sheet before releasing the first set of arrests on mere hypertechinicallity. Accepting the prayer, the Court directed state to file charge sheet before the Supreme Court.
On December 09, 2018, state files 12000 pages of charge sheet before the Supreme Court including original and translated versions. The Court deferred the hearing till January 10, 2019.
A glimpse at the chargesheet
The charge sheet claims that Elgar Parishad was organised by Maoists through its frontal organisation namely Kabira Kala Manch. CPI(Maoist) supplied funds for the programme. Arrested accused person wanted to overthrow the government by organising such events. Due to the speeches given at Elgar Parishad, riots broke out at Bhima Koregaon.
Though the chargesheet is based on electronic evidence, forensic reports are awaited. The chargesheet makes allegations which are contrary to records. There are certain statements in the chargesheet which people claim are not as per their say. Very importantly justice Sawant’s statement is part of the chargesheet, which he publicly denied to have given to police at all.
What to expect in the coming times
More arrests, may be third and fourth rounds and many more till all the dissenters are declared “Urban Naxals”, and subjected to long-term incarceration.
Also read: One year of Bhima-Koregaon case: Part I | History of a 200-year-old battle and why it still matters
One year of Bhima-Koregaon case: Part II | Why Elgar Parishad spooked Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the alleged architects of January 1, 2018 anti-Dalit violence
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