Nearly a hundred activists from Dalit and socialist organisations held a protest rally outside the suburban District Collector’s office in Mumbai on Friday afternoon, demanding the release of writer Sudhir Dhawale and four other social activists arrested by the Pune police on June 6.

Other activists from these organisations held simultaneous rallies in Pune, Nagpur and Gadchiroli districts, to protest the police’s claims that the five people arrested are “top urban Maoists” who incited the violence in Pune district’s Bhima Koregaon town on January 1.

In a co-ordinated operation on the morning of June 6, teams from the Pune police arrested Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, activist Rona Wilson from Delhi and lawyer Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen and Adivasi rights activist Mahesh Raut from Nagpur. All five were produced before a Pune court judge on Thursday and remanded to police custody till June 14.

In addition to charges of inciting the Bhima Koregaon violence, the police have charged all five under sections of the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for alleged links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

In fresh allegations made in court on Friday, the police claimed that they had found a letter in Rona Wilson’s house that allegedly mentions a requirement of Rs 8 crore to procure M-4 rifles and four lakh rounds, and discusses plans of “another Rajiv Gandhi type incident”. Some media outlets have reported this as being indicative of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

At the rally outside the Collector’s office in Mumbai, protesters claimed that these allegations are false and that the letter itself is fabricated.

“First they arrest Dalit rights activists and label them as Naxals, and now they are creating a false controversy by claiming that these activists were planning to kill Modi,” said Feroze Mithiborewala, a human rights activist from the Bharat Bachao Andolan, one of the groups that had organised the Mumbai rally. “This is just a strategy to clamp down on the Dalit-Adivasi-minorities movement that is growing stronger in the country.”

Protesters at the rally outside the Collector's office in Mumbai on Friday. Photos: Aarefa Johari

‘Arrest Bhide’

The Friday rally in Mumbai was organised under the aegis of the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan, an umbrella body of 260 organisations that held the “Elgar Parishad” event in Pune on December 31, 2017, a day before violent clashes broke out in nearby Bhima Koregaon between caste groups in the region. While local Marathas claim it was Dalits who attacked them, Dalits at the event claim that they were attacked by men with saffron flags, and that the violence had been instigated by Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide.

Ekbote was arrested in March but soon released on bail. Bhide has not yet been arrested, despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest.

“Arrest Bhide” was one of the rallying cries at the protest in Mumbai on Friday, as protesters called for an immediate release of Dhawale, Gadling, Sen, Wilson and Raut. Most of the protesters were from the Republican Panthers, an organisation founded by Dhawale to fight for the rights of Dalits. Dhawale is a prominent writer, poet and social activist who publishes Vidrohi, a left-leaning Marathi magazine that focuses on various socialist and human rights causes. He was also one of the organisers of the Elgar Parishad.

“The BJP government has arrested Dhawale and the others arrested because we were openly challenging their fascism at the Elgar Parishad,” said Sharad Gaikwad, the state president of the Republican Panthers.

Kashinath Nikalje, president of the Republican Sena political party, accused the police and state government of trying to divert attention away from Ekbote and Bhide by arresting Dalit rights activists like Dhawale. “Hindutva elements had planned the attack on Dalits at Bhima Koregaon months before,” said Nikalje, pointing out that when Dalits gather at Bhima Koregaon on New Years’ Day every year, they are usually welcomed by the locals with food and water stalls. “This year, for the first time, all the stalls and shops were closed right from the morning, and then we were attacked by people with saffron flags and scarves. This shows it was all a pre-planned attack.”

A protester holds up a sign saying, 'Naxalism is just an excuse to save Bhide and Ekbote'.

Rahibai Gaikwad, a member of Republican Panthers, said that Sudhir Dhawale was arrested because he is a writer who “exposes the government’s lies”. Even in the process of arresting him, Rahibai claimed Dhawale was discriminated against for being a Dalit rights activist.

“I heard that when the police went to arrest Ekbote, they waited for two hours for him to finish his puja. But when they arrested Dhawale early morning, they did not even allow him to change out of his night clothes, which is his right under law,” said Rahibai. “How do they break the law when it comes to us Dalits? Hamare baap ne kanoon likha hai, aur woh log humko kanoon sikhate hai?” Our father, BR Ambedkar, wrote the Constitution, and they teach us the law?