Probing alleged Maoist involvement in the Elgaar Parishad meeting in Pune on the eve of the January 1 violence that targeted Dalits at Bhima Koregaon, Pune police Tuesday searched homes of nine human rights activists and lawyers and arrested five of them.
Those arrested after near simultaneous searches early morning were Varavara Rao in Hyderabad; activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai; lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad; and, civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha in New Delhi.
While Varavara Rao has been arrested several times in the past, Gonsalves and Ferreira have spent time in jail after their arrest in 2007 — one under the Arms Act and the other under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Homes of Stan Swamy in Ranchi and Anand Teltumbde in Goa were also searched. Teltumbde was not in Goa when police landed at his home, an officer said, maintaining that the house was not searched. Teltumbde, who teaches at the Goa Institute of Management, however, told The Indian Express that his locked house was opened and searched.
In Navlakha’s case, the Delhi High Court stayed until Wednesday the transit remand and directed that he be confined to his home under police guard till further orders. Justices S Muralidhar and Vinod Goel said police were not able able to “satisfactorily” explain the offence for which Navlakha had been arrested.
Retired Supreme court judge Justice P B Sawant, one of the organisers of Elgaar Parishad, slammed the arrests: “These are really worrying developments. This is a campaign of misinformation. The (Pune) conference was an effort to bring together people under one slogan ‘Save the Constitution, Save the Country’. By its action, the present regime has shown that it does not believe in the Constitution.”
It was not immediately clear on what charges had the activists been arrested or how they were connected to the Elgaar Parishad, an event to mark the 200th year of the Battle of Koregaon which Dalit groups observe as a victory over the forces of the upper caste Peshwas.
Ever since the Bhima Koregoan violence against Dalits, the Maharashtra Police along with central agencies have been targeting dalit rights activists and lawyers who have been taking up their cases. This is a brazen attack on democratic rights & civil liberties. pic.twitter.com/rqW3XzQEcx
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) August 28, 2018
In Pune, Joint Commissioner of Police Shivaji Bodkhe said the arrests were based on information they had received from five “urban Maoist operatives” arrested in a similar operation nearly three months ago. Another police officer claimed there was “evidence in the form of electronic communications” through a portal that ensured anonymity.
Pune police claim the speeches made at the Elgaar Parishad meeting amounted to incitement and triggered the January 1 violence in which Dalits were targeted.
On January 4, two youths, Akshay Bikkad and Anand Dhond, complained to police against Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and JNU student Umar Khalid who were among the speakers at the Elgaar Parishad event. Bikkad and Dhond alleged that Mevani and Khalid had created “communal disharmony” through their “provocative speeches” — the FIR was registered but there has been no movement in this case.
Four days later, on January 8, Tushar Damgude, a 37-year-old resident of Pune, lodged a complaint with police against six persons including members of the Kabir Kala Manch for “creating communal disharmony” through “provocative slogans, speeches, pamphlets and booklet” at the Elgaar Parishad.
It is the police action in this second FIR that has led to arrests. On June 6, police arrested Nagpur University professor Shoma Sen, Delhi-based activist Rona Wilson of the Committee of Release of Political Prisoners, Sudhir Dhawale, a leader of Mumbai-based Republican Panthers Jati Antachi Chalwal, Nagpur lawyer Surendra Gadling of Indian Association of People’s Lawyers, and Mahesh Raut who had in the past been Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow.
Police accused these five of sourcing funds from banned Maoist groups to help in organising Elgaar Parishad. When they were produced in court, Pune police also claimed they had recovered material from them that pointed to a plan to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi-like manner”. The police submitted to court a letter, allegedly written by Wilson to one Comrade Prakash.
As a biographer of Gandhi, I have no doubt that if the Mahatma was alive today, he would don his lawyer’s robes and defend Sudha Bharadwaj in court; that is assuming the Modi Sarkar hadn’t yet detained and arrested him too
— Ramachandra Guha (@Ram_Guha) August 28, 2018
The five persons arrested in June were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and are currently lodged at Yerawada central prison in Pune. Police are yet to frame a formal chargesheet.