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On the ‘Urban Maoists’

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

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Even in these times of a growing sense of hopelessness in the country under the present regime, the arrests of five activists by Maharashtra’s Pune police have stunned many due to the blatant misuse of power and impunity that it reflects. The continuing spate of condemnation by scores of people within and outside India does not affect the regime that parrots the statement that the law will take its course. The draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) gives the police unaccountable authority to arrest, slap any number of charges, and ensure that the arrested rot in jail as the law meanders through the courts. And what of courts when the four senior judges of the highest court had to take a press conference to voice their concern to the people that all was not well with even the Supreme Court? It has been more than clear that these laws have been singularly misused against the people who took up cudgels for the oppressed and spoke out against the elitist bias of the state. But the courts that proactively grudge the misuse of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act would refuse to see the misuse of the UAPA, which punishes those who may otherwise be seen as the model of selfless humanists who want to realise the constitutional promise of India as the secular, socialist, sovereign, democratic republic as envisaged by our founding fathers.

The rot may be traced to the Constitution of the postcolonial state itself that adopted an entire apparatus of colonial governance, including its draconian laws under the veneer of democracy. It has been used by all governments irrespective of the party in power, thus paving the way for its motivated use by the present regime to decimate dissent. The manner in which the arrests of Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, lawyer Surendra Gadling, college teachers Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut from Nagpur and Rona Wilson from Delhi were carried out following raids on their and some other activists’ homes marks a new low in lawlessness under the garb of the rule of law.

Context of Bhima–Koregaon

The rapid shifting of narratives of these arrests by the police could not hide the context of the violence at Bhima–Koregaon on 1 January 2018 by the Hindutva forces, in which scores of Dalits were injured, their property damaged and a Maratha youth lost his life. The backdrop was a conference—the Elgar Parishad—that took place the previous day. It was convened by P B Sawant, retired justice of the Supreme Court and B G Kolse Patil, ex-justice of the Bombay High Court and joined by 200-odd liberal and Dalit organisations in Maharashtra to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima–Koregaon battle, believed by the Dalits to have been won by their ancestors to end the oppressive regime of Brahmin Peshwas. It gave a call to “Bury the New Peshwai” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seen by the Dalits and minorities as the revival of Brahminic rule and to “never vote” for it. It naturally irked the Hindutva forces, which decided to teach the Dalits a lesson when they congregated in large numbers at the obelisk at Koregaon. They instigated the Marathas against the Dalits by raking up the controversy over the samadhi of Govind Gopal Gaikwad near that of Sambhaji maharaj, son of Shivaji, who was tortured and killed by Aurangzeb in 1689. The legend is that Gaikwad had disobeyed Aurangzeb in order to carry out the last rites of Sambhaji and built his samadhi on his land. On 29 December 2017 the board at the samadhi was removed and a canopy over it damaged. This became the immediate was trigger for the attack on 1 January.1 A police complaint was filed by one Sushma Ovhal against 49 people, including village sarpanch Rekha Shivale, deputy sarpanch Sanjay Shivale, and former sarpanch Sunita Bhandare, under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, for damaging the board, the canopy, desecration of the samadhi and for making “casteist comments.” The last line of her complaint also named Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote but the police first information report (FIR) did not carry it.2 A counter-complaint was filed by Shivale accusing the Dalits of threatening them with retaliation on 1 January when they gathered in large numbers.

The riots on 1 January started as Hindutva activists led a procession to Bhima–Koregaon.3 On 2 January, an FIR was registered against Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide at the Pimpri police station by Anita Ravindra Savale under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, Arms Act, Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and rioting, and which was serious enough for the police to act upon it. Ekbote had been a BJP corporator in Pune between 1997 and 2002 and reportedly had 12 cases of rioting, trespassing, criminal intimidation, and attempts to spread enmity between two communities against him and had been convicted in five of these cases. His entire family is associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). After losing the civic election in 2007, he formed the Hindu Ekta Aghadi. Sambhaji Bhide, a former RSS activist, is the founder president of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan with a history of many Hindutva campaigns in western Maharashtra. Despite a continuing agitation by Dalits demanding their arrest, the police would just not act. Over three months, Ekbote sought anticipatory bails from the lowest court to the Supreme Court, which rapped the state government and investigation agencies for the tardy progress in the probe against Ekbote, and questioned the agencies’ claims that he was allegedly “untraceable.” It was only when Ekbote’s anticipatory bail was rejected by the Supreme Court that the police arrested him just to be bailed out after little over a month.

Shifting Police Narratives

The 29 December incident was warning enough for the police to deploy adequate forces to thwart impending trouble on 1 January but it let the miscreants have a free run. They refused to act against the named culprits. Instead they began insinuating that the violence was caused by the inflammatory speeches made in the Elgar Parishad. On 2 January, a complaint was filed against Jignesh Mevani, the Gujarat member of legislative assembly and student leader Umar Khalid for allegedly inciting people through their provocative speeches. Their speeches could be easily examined within less than an hour to see that there was nothing. As protests against shielding of the culprits began getting louder, the police conducted raids on 17 April at the homes of the activists of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), Rupali Jadhav, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe, Dhawala Dhengale in Pune and Republican Panther activist Sudhir Dhawale and Harshali Potdar in Mumbai and also at the homes of Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson, who were not even remotely connected with the Elgar Parishad. While the search warrant clearly mentioned “Bhima–Koregaon,” the chief minister stated that they did not have anything to do with Bhima–Koregaon. On 6 June, the police arrested four of them and Mahesh Raut, a noted social activist and member of the Prime Minister’s Rural Development (PMRD) fellowship who after passing out from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has devoted his life to the tribals of Gadchiroli. The police made out a story that the Elgar Parishad was organised and funded by the Maoists, which was duly publicised by the media ignoring the repeated explanation of Kolse Patil that he along with Justice Sawant was its convener, that they did not spend any money, and that none of the arrestees had much to do with it.

On 6 June, the deputy commissioner of police, Ravindra Kadam, explained at a press conference about the police investigation and the accusations against the five in minute detail. He maintained that the five were arrested in connection with an “Elgar Parishad” in Pune on 31 December, which he claimed was funded by Maoist outfits and led to violent Dalit–Maratha clashes. The next day, even before the arrestees were produced before the court, two letters—purportedly recovered from Wilson’s laptop—that discussed a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi made their way to media houses and television channels, where they were intensely debated. It was clearly in contravention to the Bombay High Court circular of 7 November 2014. Criminal lawyers saw it as the blatant violation of the law laid down by the Bombay High Court and the Maharashtra Police circular.4 Rahul Thakur, on whose petition the court had passed the binding directions in 2014 said, “Those arrested should file contempt petitions against the police officers and the public prosecutor for violating the high court’s order.”

Most analysts, including politicians and ex-police officers doubted the authenticity of these “fantastic” letters purportedly written by a banned underground party and preserved by its sympathiser. The first letter revealed the plan of the party, with real names of people, and even their phone numbers. The pitch was escalated in another letter that spoke of a Rajiv Gandhi-like assassination of Narendra Modi. Many commentators pointed out that whenever Modi’s popularity declined, the murder plot story was released to garner public sympathy. The script writers obviously did not know that the Maoists had discarded such “annihilation of class enemy” line almost a half century ago and even then they would not do it in this suicidal way.

Urban Maoists

Each of these five people has an exemplary record of selfless activism to protect democratic rights of people, particularly Dalits, Adivasis, women and minorities. They had excellent academic and professional credentials to live comfortable lives but their extension motivation impelled them to live modestly and serve the people. They would obviously not agree with the rulers whose obsessive politics has been impoverishing this rich landmass and pushing a majority of the people to bear its brunt. How could they endorse the destruction of institutions, trampling of constitutional ethos, decimating dissent, othering of certain people and unleashing gangs to lynch them? The “urban Maoist” is a figment of imagination, sans contours or legality and is only meant to whip up the baser instincts of people. Every thinking Indian is a potential “urban Maoist;” it is just the mercy of the police that such Indians are not all under arrest.

Notes

1 Chandan Shantaram Haygunde, “Removal of Mahar Samadhi Board Near Pune Sparked Clashes,” Indian Express, 4 January 2018.

2 Same as note 1.

3 Makarand Gadgil and Alka Dhupkar, Mumbai Mirror, 3 January 2018, https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/cover-story/the-two-who-broug... /62344275.cms.

4 Saurav Datta, “Modi Assassination Plot: By Leaking Letters, Pune Police Went against High Court Directions,” Scroll.in, 12 June 2018.

Updated On : 6th Jul, 2018

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