On Sunday evening, in Nallasopara in north Mumbai, around 500 people gathered outside the home of Hindutva activist Vaibhav Raut to demonstrate their support for him. Raut, a member of a cow protection group, had been arrested on Thursday by the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Maharashtra Police. The police claimed that they had recovered eight crude bombs from his home and office. But the crowd, which included Nallasopara residents as well as Raut’s relatives from other parts of Mumbai, expressed firm belief in Raut’s innocence.

“Vaibhav Raut is our person, he is someone who protects cows,” said his cousin Jitesh Raut who lives in the same building as Raut does. “How can a person like that make bombs?”

In addition to Raut, the Anti-Terrorism Squad also arrested Sharad Kalaskar of Aurangabad, and Sudhanva Gondhalekar of Satara. The police alleged that these men were working with Raut to make homemade bombs to spread panic at public gatherings. Kalaskar was reportedly arrested from Raut’s home and Gondhalekar was detained in Pune.

On Saturday, the police said they had recovered 11 country-made pistols, air guns, pistol barrels and pistol magazines from Gondhalekar’s Pune home, as well as parts for pistols that were not fully made, relay switches, number plates and printouts about explosives. After a full-day search of Raut’s home and office in Nallasopara on Thursday, the squad had said it found 20 crude bombs, detonators and parts to make more bombs. Soon after Kalaskar’s arrest, a pamphlet on how to make bombs was reportedly recovered from his home near Aurangabad city.

The police said they had acted on a tip-off they had received some days ago that Hindutva organisations might be planning a terror attack.

Cow protection group

Raut is the co-founder of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti, a cow protection group in Nallasopara. When he set up the organisation at the end of 2014, he had allegedly sought the guidance of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an offshoot of the Sanatan Sanstha. In 2011, two men associated with the Sanathan Sanstha were convicted for planting bombs in an auditorium in Thane three years before. In 2015, a member of the organisation was arrested in connection with the murder of Communist Party of India leader Govind Pansare.

The police suggested that Gondhalekar might have links with members of the Shiv Prathishthan Hindustan, a Hindutva organisation run by the controversial Sambhaji Bhide, who has been accused of instigating violence at Bhima Koregaon in January. In a formal statement after Gondhalekar’s arrest, the organisation said that he used to attend their events but is not an office bearer.

It is not yet clear whether Kalaskar, who works as a lathe machine operator in Kolhapur, was affiliated to any organisation. His family has denied any knowledge of Kalaskar’s activities and have said that they were not in regular contact with him as he had stopped using a phone.

Distrust in Bhandari village

In Nallasopara, which is also Raut’s ancestral village, disbelief ran high, with a particular mistrust in the procedures of search and investigation followed by the Anti-Terrorism Squad.

Lakshmi Raut, wife of Vaibhav Raut, was at home early on Thursday morning when the squad came to their door. She claims the squad confined her six-year-old son, her mother-in-law and her to one room and confiscated their phones so that they could not contact anyone for the entire day.

“They told us they would search the house, but did not show us any search warrant or other paper,” she claimed. “They did not do a panchnama of what they brought into the house or took out from it so we do not know whether what they say is real.”

Scroll.in has asked the Anti-Terrorism Squad for its comments about these accusations. The article will be updated when a response is received.

Early on Sunday evening, this narrative had already begun to set in people’s minds, with even those who were not eyewitnesses to the arrests confidently repeating the same details to this reporter.

The story was reinforced by a dramatic speech by Diptesh Patil, a childhood friend of Raut and co-founder of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti. Patil described the events as he claimed they had unfolded and then urged the crowd to draw upon their feelings for their “samaj” or community to come out in large numbers to support Raut.

“[Vaibhav Raut] is a Hindutvawadi and a rashtrawadi,” Patil said as he briefly choked up with tears. “How can he be a terrorist? […] I ask you to support us for the Bhandaris, for Hindutva and for the nation. We will show everyone what the Bhandari community really is.”

Patil made a particularly strong call for their “samaj” or community to support Raut, telling them to tell those who hesitated to join that it might happen in their homes next.

The Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti is not formally affiliated with the Sanatan Sanstha as the police have insinuated, Patil said. But he and Raut did take extensive advice and support from a key wing of the Sanstha, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, in putting together the paperwork to start their organisation.

Diptesh Patil addresses a crowd outside Raut's house.
Diptesh Patil addresses a crowd outside Raut's house.

Shifting blame

The Rauts live on the second floor of a relatively new three-storey bungalow in Bhandar Ali in Nallasopara, an area named after the Bhandari caste to which they belong. The other two floors are occupied by the families of Raut’s uncles. Opposite the lane from them is a community hall yet to be painted but which already has an advertisement for karate classes. Diagonally opposite is a newspaper library for the Bhandari community.

Bhandaris were once associated with toddy tapping and are spread across the western coast, with a significant concentration in Goa. They consider themselves to be a martial caste. Though the community might seem insular, it is politically important in the areas in which members live. In Nallaspora, Christians and Muslims also have a strong presence.

Patil and Raut started their cow protection organisation towards the end of 2014, months before Maharashtra implemented a ban on beef. On February 2, 2015, they organised their first shutdown and rally in Nallasopara to protest cow slaughter, which to their surprise, Patil says, drew 1,000 people.

“Our ancestors were involved in work like this,” Patil said. “We are doing nothing new in cow protection.”

Whether or not their ancestors protected cows, community members eat meat even today. But Prasad Mhatre, Raut’s nephew, remembers how his uncle convinced his family to become vegetarian, in the face of community opposition, around ten years ago, when he began to become involved in social activities. This was around the same time that Raut began to acquire the reputation of being something of a fixer, Mhatre said. People would approach Raut to sort out disputes or lend them money.

“If he did not even want to hurt animals, why would he want to hurt humans?” Mhatre asked.

A common theme of the evening, particularly pushed by Patil, is the staunch assertion that not only is the case against Raut false, but that it is likely to have been instigated by Muslim butchers and “lawbreakers” in the area.

“Illegal beef supply from Nallasopara to other parts of Mumbai has almost entirely stopped here,” said Patil when asked why the Anti-Terrorism Squad, a state-level police team, might accept false evidence against Raut, who is at best a local strongman. “In four years, we have filed 35 FIRs in cases like this. The business is worth crores of rupees. We are not saying the ATS did anything, but we believe they might have gotten some false information from those who do not like our work.”

But when someone in the crowd suggested that their next step should be to shut down sales of goat meat in protest in Nallasopara, everybody dismissed it immediately as an impractical idea. Another idea, of a bandh, was better received.

For now, the caste group plans to raise support from members of their community in villages “from Dahanu to Alibaug” along the western coastal strip near Mumbai to attend a protest scheduled for Friday evening.