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BRP Bhaskar: Court stalls crackdown
September 04, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In a swift, unprecedented intervention, the Supreme Court last week denied custody of five human rights activists, well-known for their devotion to the cause of tribals and other oppressed communities, whom the Maharashtra police had picked up from different states on conspiracy charges.

Police teams from Pune had raided the residences of the activists in Mumbai, Thane, Delhi, Faridabad and Hyderabad simultaneously and arrested them. They obtained permission from local magistrates to take Telugu poet and Marxist ideologue Varavara Rao from Hyderabad, former university professor Vernon Gonsalves from Mumbai and writer and cartoonist Arun Ferreira from Thane with them to Pune.

However, High Courts blocked the paths of the teams that arrested prominent woman lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj at Faridabad in Haryana and journalist Gautam Navlakha in Delhi.

On a petition filed by eminent historian Romila Thapar and four others, the Supreme Court held an urgent hearing and passed an interim order directing the police to keep the arrested persons in their own houses until September 6 when it will hear the matter. The police had to send back to their homes those whom it had taken to Pune.

Some activists whose houses were raided were not taken into custody.

According to the Pune police, the arrests were made in connection with the violent incidents at Bhima Koregaon where a large number of Dalits had congregated on January 1 to celebrate the victory of British-led Mahar (a Dalit community) soldiers of the East India Company over the army of the caste supremacist Peshwa regime in 1818.

Dalit icon BR Ambedkar had led his followers to Koregaon in 1927 to commemorate the event. Since then Dalits have gathered there on New Year’s Day every year to mark the occasion. Being the 200th anniversary of the war, this year’s event attracted a large crowd.

Some residents of the area, resentful of Dalit assertion, attacked the celebrants in the streets. One person was killed and several were injured. A first information report registered with the police named Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, two leaders of the powerful Maratha community.

Ekbote was arrested and released on bail. There was no action against Bhide, whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi had honoured with a visit during his election tour of 2014.

The day before the celebration a big public meeting, styled as Elgaar Parishad, was held at the Shaniwarwada fort in Pune to protest against attacks on Dalits in different parts of the country. The speakers included Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, MLA, and Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid, both of whom have emerged as faces of resistance to Hindutva advance.

On a complaint filed by a businessman alleging the speakers had tried to promote hatred among sections of society the police registered a case. Six months later, in June, the police arrested five activists, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson and Shoma Sen, who, it said, had organised the meeting.

Initially, the police saw no link between Elgaar Parishad and the Koregaon violence. Now they are seeking not only to connect them but also to link them with an alleged Maoist conspiracy involving the 10 activists arrested so far. It alleges there was even a plot to kill Modi and overthrow the government.

It appears the Maoist conspiracy theory was first articulated by a retired army officer in a paper prepared for a think tank, named Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS). Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Seshadri Chari is one of the conveners of the Forum, which is based in Mumbai but has an office also in Pune.

Activists have been a bugbear of Modi since they played a big part in bringing to light the anti-Muslim riots which occurred in Gujarat soon after he became the Chief Minister. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to block sources of funds of an NGO which led the effort and launch cases against its founder, Teesta Setalvad.

The Pune police could not satisfy the High Courts about the charges against the activists. Its theory about Elgaar Parishad was punctured by former Supreme Court judge PB Sawant and former Mumbai High Court judge GB Kolse Patil who said they had organised the event at their own expense.

One question begs for an answer: if there was indeed a conspiracy involving people in different states why is the investigation left to a district police and not to a national agency? Meanwhile, the Hindutva camp, aided by compliant media, is propagating the concept of a new “other”, nicknamed Urban Naxal.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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