Left-Right: Tushar Damgude, Sambhaji Bide - a former RSS worker accused of inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon. (Image Courtesy: Firstpost)
The apparent pro-active pursuance of a controversial first information report (FIR) filed on January 8, 2018 on the basis of a complaint lodged by one Tushar Ramesh Damgude — who is close to 85-year-old Sambhaji Bhide, a former RSS worker accused of inciting violence in Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 2018 — is raising chilling questions on the motive of the Maharashtra police and its theory of ‘Urban Naxals’ that has led to the arrests of 10 human rights activists, advocates and academicians.
Like every year, a big gathering was organised at historic at Shaniwar Wada (the erstwhile seat of the Peshwas ) of Pune to mark the 200th anniversary of the historic Koregaon-Bhima war that took place on January 1, 1818 between the vanquished army of Peshwa Bajirao II and a small force of the victorious East India Company that comprised a large number of Mahar Dalits. This year, the gathering was much larger than usual.
Prior to the commemoration, about 250 Dalit and Bahujan groups got together under the banner of ‘Elgar Parishad’ and organised a conference at Shaniwar Wada. The speakers included two retired judges, BG Kolse Patil and PB Sawant, Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid among others. The agenda of the conclave was assertion of Dalit rights and criticism of Hindutva politics. The gathering dubbed the Hindutva-inspired ruling groups of India as new peshwai (new Peshwas). The meeting ended with an oath of allegiance to the Indian Constitution.
It is the equating of Hindutva with the Peshwas that is said to have irked Hindu right-wing groups, which, as alleged by Dalit activists, disrupted the commemoration at Bhima-Koregaon by throwing stones at the gathering. Thereafter, riots broke out leaving two people dead.
As per the FIR, members of the ‘Kabir Kala Manch’ led by the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shourya Din Prerana Abhyan’ (the organiser of the annual event) held the meeting of ‘Elgar Parishad’ wherein active members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) or CPI (Maoist) with other associates declared in the meeting that “Jab zulm ho to baghawat honi chahiye shahar men, agar baghawat na ho to, behtar ho ke, yeh raat dhalne se pahle shahar jal kar raakh ho jaye, yeh jo satra hai, yeh satra ki title hi apne aap men ladai ka elaan hai, yeh nai peshwai ko humko shamashan ghaat men, qabrastaan men dafnana hai (there should be revolution when repression goes beyond limit, if it does not happen, it is better for a city to be reduced to ashes, the session on its own declares a fight, we will have decimate the neo Peshwai regime forever)”.
The FIR further says that members of the CPI (Maoist) delivered “rebellious speeches and also distributed pamphlets, books with the intention to conspire, advocate incite abet and knowingly facilitate the commission of terrorist act and unlawful activities by use of violence or by other unlawful means and to take part, commit or advocate, abet or incite the commission of unlawful activities being the member of banned organisation CPI (Maoist)”.
The FIR named Sudhir Dhawale and Sagar Gorkhe of the Kabir Kala Manch and Harshali Potdar, Ramesh Waghmare, Deepak Dongle and Jyoti Jagtap as accused. Leaving aside other FIRs, the police chose to investigate the role of the people mentioned by the complainant. They claim to have found involvement of five Left-leaning activists — Professor Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and advocate Surendra Gadling — in the alleged hate speeches and “unlawful activities” organised in the meeting.
Based on Damgude’s complaint, which was filed at Vishrambaug police in Pune (rural), the police booked the six activists under sections 153(A), 505 (1)(B), 117 and 120(B) read with section 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sections 13, 16, 17, 18, 18(B), 20, 38, 39 and 40 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention), 1967.
The investigators claimed they were “active members” of the banned CPI (Maoists) and part of a conspiracy to set up an “Anti Fascist Front”, whose objective was to “overthrow the democratic government of India”.
A letter was then leaked in the media that allegedly mentioned a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a ‘Rajiv Gandhi-like incident.’ The purported letter was allegedly written by advocate Sudha Bharadwaj to a few comrades. After the letter hit headlines, the police arrested five more Left-leaning activists — Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navalakha — in a country-wide raid.
Maoist link — a figment of imagination?
Notably, there was no mention of any Maoist link in the Damgude’s complaint. But the police claim when they began probing the “provocative speeches” made in the ‘Elgar Parishad’, it was revealed that accused Dhawale, Wilson, Gadling, Sen, Raut and other accused along with underground accused Comrade M. alias Milind Teltumbde, Comrade Prakash alias Naveen alias Ritupam Goswami, Comrade Manglu, Comrade Dipu, Comrade Kisan alias Prashant Bose are the “active members of the banned CPI (Maoist)”.
The police further claims that Sudhir Dhawale was “secretly in contact with other members of the CPI (Maoist), viz., Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling and under the guidance and directions of the members of the banned organisation organised the meeting of ‘Elgar Parishad’ on December 31, 2017 at Shaniwar Wada through frontal organisation or ‘Kabir Kala Manch’ with the intention to create riot and violence, as well as with the intention to disturb the public tranquility and harmony between different religious groups”.
They (investigators) said the ‘Elgar Parishad’ was organised by the members of Kabir Kala Manch under the banner of ‘Bhima Koregaon Shourya Din Prerana Abhyan’. “In the said meeting, the accused Dhawale and his associates, in pursuance of the criminal conspiracy, has given rebellious provocative speech and distributed books and pamphlets with the intention to create violence between two religious groups, caste or community and thereby caused insecurity among the members of such religious groups,” said the police.
The investigators further said Wilson, during investigations, was “found in possession of letters and writings regarding the banned the CPI (Maoist) and also found booklets, pamphlets, correspondence, writing report and resolutions of the meeting, letters, emails, video and text formats contained in electronic gadgets like CDs, DVD, pen drive, hard disk, memory card and found using the same for creating violence and causing public disorder”.
Why are cops pursuing only one FIR?
This is not the first FIR with regard to the alleged provocative speeches. An FIR in this regard was already filed in the same police station on January 3. The complainants — Akshay Bikkad (who claims to have no political affiliation) and Anand Dhond (an active member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS) — had named Mevani and Khalid.
The police could have pursued this FIR but chose not to do so because they thought that they are unable to come up with a big plot, says sources who are closely following the developments. “They (the investigators) had to create a big plot in view of the 2019 general elections. So, they came up with the theory of ‘Urban Naxals’ similar to the ‘anti-national’ narrative created by the Delhi Police after the controversial JNU incident on February 9, 2016.The police found no substance in the allegation against Khalid and Mewani. Therefore, they chose Damgude’s FIR as he had named six people and the cops found it more powerful to coin the theory of ‘Urban Naxals’,” they told Newsclick.
They are also of the view that selective leaking of the alleged letter – which reportedly contains the plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi – in the media was part of a conspiracy to strengthen the ‘Urban Naxal’ theory. “Ideally, these documents – if genuine – should come under the Official Secrecy Act. Are these kinds of documents supposed to be leaked? The police are going overboard under political influence,” they added.
Questioning why only Damgude’s FIR was acted upon, the sources alleged that this was done “because the rest of the FIRs do not have the names of any major activist. Therefore, they (the police) did not find those fit to create a big plot that can dominate the discourse”.
Following the Bhima-Koregaon violence, two names came to the fore – Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. Bhide is an extremely influential in southern Maharashtra. He is considered as ‘Guruji’. “If you go to any police station in Pune (rural) and ask about the status of Bhide’s case, the cops will correct you that you are asking about ‘Guruji’s’ case. Even cops consider him ‘Guruji’,” said one of the reporters who has been covering the case.
Ekbote is actually a “softer target”. He is already named in 13 cases. He has a criminal record. Therefore, he is a softer target than Bhide who enjoys a following and can affect vote bank politics. For Ekbote, such cases are like “badge of honour”. If the police acts against Ekbote, it won’t affect anyone’s vote bank. “Rather his followers will be happy that one more case has been slapped against him. He is so powerful and therefore, it happened,” he added.
While Bhide is close to PM Modi, Ekbote is considered to be associated with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath.
The Pune police (rural) is at present handling 22 cases with regard to the Bhima-Koregaon incident. One case is zero FIR, which has been transferred from the Pimpri police station which also comes under the Pune rural police. In this FIR, Bhide and Ekbote are named. In the other 20 cases, Ekbote and Bhide’s people are named. To chargesheet all of them collectively, the Pune police (rural) filed a suo motu case clubbing all the 20 cases, which is the 21st FIR and named Ekbote for criminal conspiracy that led to violence and vandalism following the Bhima Koregaon event.
The police says they will file a chargesheet in a fortnight in the two cases — one filed suo motu by them and the other that has been transferred to them. But they are framing charges only against Ekbote, arguing that they have enough scientific evidence against him.
“Since there is no scientific evidence against Bhide so far, therefore, he has not even been questioned. So far, there is a clean chit to Guruji,” a police officer in Pune told Newsclick on the condition of anonymity.