Following multiple raids, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) Friday announced the arrest of three men affiliated to radical Hindu outfits from Nallasopara and Satara. The ATS also said that with the recovery of a huge cache of explosives, including live crude bombs and gelatin sticks, they had averted major terror attacks at multiple places.
Among the arrested is Vaibhav Raut (40), allegedly a member of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti who is also said to be a sympathiser of the right wing Sanatan Sanstha. Suspects allegedly linked to the Sanatan Sanstha were involved in the murders of three rationalists – Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi – and the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh.
Another accused, Sudhanwa Gondhalekar (39) from Satara, is a member of the Shri Shivapratishthan Hindustan, whose chief is Sambhaji Bhide. Bhide has been booked in two criminal cases in connection with violence near Bhima Koregaon on January 1 by the Pune Police. The third accused, Sharad Kasalkar (25) was arrested along with Raut from Raut’s Nallasopara residence. Sources said that the ATS recovered a note on making bombs from Kasalkar and that Gondhalekar had knowledge of explosives and trained the other two men on assembling them.
The three have been arrested under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sections of the Indian Penal Code and Explosives Act. According to the ATS, they have recovered 22 items including 20 crude bombs, two gelatin sheets, a note on how to prepare bombs, one six-volt battery, a few loose wires, transistors and glue from the arrested.
Sources said that the bombs recovered from Raut’s house were “ready” for use. “They were up to something sinister and the bombs were active and ready to be used. Such a huge cache recovered before Independence day and Bakrid is reason enough to worry. Our probe is now focusing on the purpose behind assembling so many bombs, were they planning a coordinated attack or otherwise, who trained them and related questions,” said an official.
The ATS is also probing links between the three men arrested and the murders of three rationalists and Gauri Lankesh. “While there is no doubt that they were closely affiliated to Sanatan Sanstha, we think these are two different modules that co-existed but worked differently. While the four murders were executed using weapons, in this case, crude bombs have been recovered, we suspect that this is a different module,” said an official.
“During the course of the investigation into the murder of Lankesh, a diary was recovered, this dairy was shared with the Maharashtra Police. However, the names of the arrested are not mentioned in the diary,” said another senior official.
Raut was also under watch, police said. “He was a self-proclaimed cow vigilante and was under our watch. Prohibitory orders were issued against him,” Superintendent of Police, Palghar Manjunath Singe told The Indian Express.
In Nallasopara, Raut lived in a two-storey bungalow with his wife and two children. According to a neighbour, Raut was a “gau rakshak” and was active in carrying out raids against beef traders for allegedly ferrying banned meat in the locality.
While ATS sources said that the accused frequently visited Sanatan Sanstha offices and are considered to be close affiliates, the Sanatan Sanstha has denied the three men are members. “Raut is not a seeker of Sanatan; however, he had been actively involved in numerous rallies and processions organised by devout Hindu organisations. Although Raut is not a seeker of Sanatan, we believe that any Hindu working for the cause of Hindutva and for Dharma, is Sanatan’s own,” stated a press release by Sanatan Sanstha. The organisation’s advocate Sanjeev Punalekar said they would give Raut legal aid.
“If the ATS officers can place RDX in the houses of devout Hindus, as has been seen in the Malegaon bomb blast case, what’s to say that the same has not been repeated in the case of Vaibhav Raut? There has been absolutely no evidence yet. Therefore, accusing Raut of being guilty would be hazardous,” the release said.
Special public prosecutor, Sunil Gonsalves, representing the ATS, sought 15 days custody of the three men. He submitted that they had received secret information on August 7 about the three men and that they were conspiring to carry out “terror activities” in Mumbai, Pune, Satara, Solapur and Nallasopara.
The mobile numbers of suspects were also provided based on which they were tracked. “The information received also was about weapons, arms and ammunition being stored by the suspects at a particular place. Based on that, we inquired with them and checks were conducted at their premises. At the house of accused number 2 (Raut), we seized 22 articles including two crude bombs and two gelatin sticks,” Gonsalves told the court.
He also said that the ATS had found a chit with Kalaskar on how to make an explosive. “After seizing the phones of the arrested accused, the role of the third accused (Gondhalekar) emerged as he was in constant touch with the other two, he too was arrested,” he said.
According to Gonsalves, the ATS needed them in custody to examine where they got the explosives from, what they were planning to do with them and whether there were others who had trained them. Sanjeev Punalekar representing the three accused claimed that the police had detained the men in illegal custody and conducted the raids without a warrant before the FIR was filed.
Special Judge Adkar said that prima facie there was evidence to show that the accused were involved in a conspiracy. He further said the allegations were “very serious” and that “incriminating articles were found”. He, however, said that he was not inclined to grant custody for 15 days and sent the three men to police custody till August 18.
Following complaints from two accused – Kalaskar and Gondhalekar – that they were assaulted in custody, special Judge Sameer Adkar asked for the names of the officials who had assaulted them, to which the two said that they did not know the names. Raut did not complain of an assault but told the court that he had been picked up from his house on Thursday at 3 am.