On April 17, Pune City Police carried out near simultaneous multiple-city search operations at the residences of eight people over their suspected links with Maoist groups. The action was taken on the basis of a complaint filed in connection with Elgaar Parishad, an event held in Pune on December 31 in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, observed every year on January 1.
The complaint had alleged that speeches made during the Elgaar Parishad had triggered the violence in and around Pune on January 1, in which one person was killed and several others injured, and had sought action against the organisers. Based on the complaint, police had registered an FIR against six people — Sudhir Dhawale and Harshali Potdar of Govandi, Mumbai, who are members of Republican Panthers Jatiantachi Chalwal, often referred to as RP, and Pune-based Sagar Gorkhe, Deepak Dhengle, Ramesh Gaichor and his wife Jyoti Jagtap, all ‘artistes’ of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a ‘cultural group’ that police suspect has links with Maoist organisations. The complainant had stated that the suspects, as per the strategy of the banned CPI- Maoist, tried to “mislead Dalits and spread thoughts of violent means”.
Raids were also carried out in Delhi against Rona Wilson of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), and against Nagpur-based lawyer Surendra Gadling of Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL). Neither of them were named in the FIR. Their role in organising Elgaar Parishad is not known. The organisations involved — RP, KKM, IAPL and CRPP — have all condemned the search operations, calling them an attempt to divert the investigations from the ‘main accused’ for inciting violence on January 1, Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. The artistes say while KKM was indeed active in the Elgaar Parishad, Deepak Dhengle was not part of the organising team. They claim the inclusion of Dhengle’s name in the FIR shows that the complaint was filed with ‘wrong intentions and bias’.
Police say searches were conducted on the basis of prima-facie evidence about the “suspicious links” these people had with Maoist organisations, and the items seized from them — computer hard disks, documents, cellphones and other articles — were being used for further investigations.
G N Saibaba case
The searches have brought back memories of a similar search operation on Delhi University professor G N Saibaba by the Gadchiroli police in 2013. The search team had raided his residence in Delhi and seized his computer hard disk and other items, to investigate his “Maoist links”. Following investigations, Saibaba was arrested in May 2014. In March last year, a Gadchiroli court convicted him and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He is lodged in Nagpur central jail.
Incidentally, two of those at the receiving end of the current round of police raids — Rona Wilson, the Delhi-based activist, and Surendra Gadling, the Nagpur-based lawyer — are known to be close associates of Saibaba.
Gadling is also known to have represented Sudhir Dhawale, one of the key organisers of the Elgaar Parishad. Dhawale has previously been arrested, in January 2011, on charges of sedition for his alleged Maoist links. However, he was acquitted of all charges by a Gondia court in May 2014.
Kabir Kala Manch
As per police records, Kabir Kala Manch was started by a Pune-based artiste, Amarnath Chandaliya, in 2002, to spread communal harmony following the Gujarat riots. But Chandaliya himself left the group some time later, owing to ‘differences’ with colleagues, after which the organisation was allegedly taken over by Angela Sontakke and Milind Teltumbde, described as ‘Maoist operatives’ by police.
Several ‘artistes’ of Kabir Kala Manch have faced police action in the past. In fact, Angela and six others, including Dhengle who is part of current searches as well, were arrested by the state anti-terrorism squad (ATS) in April – May 2011 under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Later, in 2013, four KKM members, including Sagar and Ramesh, whose houses were also searched now, were arrested in the same case by ATS. All of them, however, were later released on bail by different courts.
The eight under police lens:
Rona Wilson: A native of Kerala, Wilson is currently based in Delhi and is the public relations secretary of the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP). He has been active in campaigning against laws like UAPA and the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA). He is considered to be a close aide of convicted Delhi University professor G N Saibaba.
Sudhir Dhawale: A Dalit activist and editor of Marathi magazine , Dhawale founded the Republican Panthers Jatiantachi Chawal to create a common political platform for Dalits. He also launched a movement called Radical Ambedkar. He was arrested on charges of sedition but was acquitted later.
Surendra Gadling: Based in Nagpur, Gadling, a lawyer, is general secretary of Indian Association of People’s Lawyers. A tribal and Dalit rights activist, he has been providing legal aid to those arrested on charges of having Maoist links, including Saibaba and Dhawale.
He was the lawyer who had fought for the Kabir Kala Manch artistes who had been questioned by Nagpur Police in September 2013 on allegations of carrying ‘suspicious’ literature.
Harshali Potdar: An alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, Harshali is a full time member of Republican Panthers (RP) and a close aide of Dhawale. She was questioned over “Maoist links” in 2013, after she, along with Mahesh Raut, a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow, was found in the interiors of Gadchiroli. The two of them had apparently gone there to meet a senior Naxal leader, said police. Potdar was let off after
Ramesh Gaichor: A resident of Yerwada, Pune, Gaichor is one of the prominent artistes of Kabir Kala Manch. In 2013, he was arrested by the state ATS under provisions of UAPA. He was released on bail by the Supreme Court in January last year.
Jyoti Jagtap: Wife of Ramesh Gaichor, Jyoti is an active member of Kabir Kala Manch. She has never been named in any offence earlier.
Sagar Gorkhe: A lead poet and singer of Kabir Kala Manch, Gorkhe hails from Kasewadi slums in Bhavani Peth, and now lives in Wakad area of Pune. He was booked along with Ramesh Gaichor and other KKM artistes under UAPA. He too was arrested in 2013, and released on bail by Supreme Court in January 2017.
Deepak Dhengle: A former civic worker, he was among the Kabir Kala Manch artistes arrested by the state ATS in 2011 under provisions of UAPA. He was released on bail by the Bombay High Court in 2013.