Almost three months after arresting five human rights activists on grounds that they were “urban Maoists”, a team from the Pune police in Maharashtra raided the homes of several other activists in various parts of the country on Tuesday morning. So far, at least five of the activists have been arrested, Pune Joint Commissioner of police Shivaji Bodakhe told Scroll.in. They were named as: Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, and Varavara Rao in Hyderabad.

The raids and arrests were carried out in connection with a public meeting organised by Dalit and Adivasi rights groups days before caste-related violence broke out in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1.

Lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj’s home in Faridabad was raided at around 6 am, after which she was detained and brought to Suraj Kund police station. In neighbouring New Delhi, the police raided the house of activist Gautam Navlakha. In Mumbai, the homes of activist Vernon Gonsalves and his lawyer wife Susan Abraham, as well as Arun Ferreira, an activist and lawyer, were also raided at around 6 am.

In Ranchi, the Pune police entered the home and office of 83-year-old activist Stan Swamy with a search warrant claiming they had received “confidential information” about him. In Hyderabad, similar raids were conducted at the homes of writers and activists Varavara Rao, Kranti Tekula and Naseem, as well as at the homes of Rao’s two daughters, Pavana and Anala, and their husbands K Satyanarayana, a Dalit rights activist and professor, and Kurmanath, a journalist. Tekula was taken into custody after the raids.

In Goa, a raid was conducted at the home of writer, professor and activist Anand Teltumbde.

According to the Pune police, the raids conducted on Tuesday were based on names that emerged during the investigation of five activists that they had arrested in June in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence. In coordinated operations on June 6, the police had arrested lawyer Surendra Gadling, professor Shoma Sen and activist Mahesh Raut from Nagpur, Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai and activist Rona Wilson from Delhi.

All five were brought to Pune, accused of having Maoist links and booked under sections of the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. They are still under arrest. The team of lawyers representing these five activists includes Arun Ferreira and Gonsalves’s wife Susan Abraham.

The raids and arrests of human and Dalit rights activists in June and on Tuesday mark an ironic shift of focus away from the investigation of cases against Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, who have been accused of making provocative speeches that allegedly triggered the violence in Bhima Koregaon in January.

What happened in Bhima Koregaon?

Every year on January 1, lakhs of Dalit citizens from across the country gather in Bhima Koregaon, a village 30 km north-east of Pune, to commemorate the historic victory of lower-caste Mahar soldiers in the British army over the Brahmin Peshwa-led Maratha Empire in 1818.

This year, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, a coalition of 260 non-profit organisations had held an event called Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada. This was the seat of the Peshwai, the Brahmin rulers of the Maratha Empire who rigidly enforced caste discrimination. The Elgar Parishad featured speakers such as politicians Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mevani and Dalit rights activist Radhika Vemula.

The next day, eyewitnesses claimed that some people waving saffron flags pelted stones at cars heading towards Bhima Koregaon along with lakhs of Dalit marchers. This escalated into violent clashes between Dalit and Maratha groups, with both groups blaming each other for the attacks. As Dalit protests spread across the state, one person was killed in the violence.

Several Dalits claimed that the violence had been incited by Hindutva leaders who made provocative, anti-Dalit speeches a few days before the event. On January 3, the Pune police filed cases against Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan for allegedly instigating the violence on Dalits. However, while Ekbote was released on bail soon after being arrested in March, Bhide has not yet been arrested, despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest.

Crowds in Bhima Koregaon on January 1. Credit: HT Photo
Crowds in Bhima Koregaon on January 1. Credit: HT Photo

Shift of focus

In April, the Pune police investigating the Bhima Koregaon violence raided the houses and offices of Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling and others who were connected with the organising of the Elgar Parishad event. The police claimed that it was the speeches made by activists at the Elgar Parishad that incited the January 1 violence.

These raids were followed by the arrests of Wilson, Dhawale, Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut in June. The activists were labelled as “top urban Maoist operatives”, and the Pune police joint commissioner, Ravindra Kadam, claimed that the Elgar Parishad was funded by Maoist organisations.

Of the five arrested, Gadling is a leading Dalit rights activist in Nagpur and a lawyer known for defending several political prisoners accused of being Maoists or extremists. He is currently representing GN Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor jailed for alleged Maoist links. Gadling had also represented Arun Ferreira when the latter was arrested for five years in 2007 for alleged Maoist activities. Ferreira was eventually acquitted of all charges.

Sudhir Dhawale is a well-known writer and political commentator best known as the publisher of Vidrohi, a left-leaning Marathi magazine focusing on issues relating to labour, land, education, health and caste. He is also the founder of the Dalit rights organisation Republican Panthers. In 2011, he was arrested and jailed on charges of Naxalism for 40 months, but was acquitted of all charges later. Dhawale was on the organising team of the Elgar Parishad.

Mahesh Raut is a prominent Adivasi rights activist from Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. He is one of the conveners of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vilas Andolan, a national organisation that that fights the displacement of marginalised communities, and also a member of the Bharat Jan Andolan, a human rights NGO. Raut has also been at the forefront of the anti-mining and anti-caste movements in his district.

Shoma Sen, an English professor at Nagpur University, is a women’s rights activist affiliated to several well-known feminist organisations in the country. She is also a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights.

Rona Wilson was working as the public relations secretary of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Delhi. He has worked closely with political prisoners who he claims have been falsely implicated in cases of terrorism.

Alleged Modi assassination plot

A day after the arrest of the five activists in June, the Pune police leaked two letters to some sections the media, which they claimed to have recovered from Wilson and the others. The letters appeared to discuss a plot by Maoists to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The authenticity of the letters has not yet been verified, but activists have pointed out that by sharing these alleged pieces of evidence with the media before actually presenting them in court, the police was blatantly violating the law.

While the cases against Wilson, Gadling, Sen, Raut and Dhawale are still being investigated, the arrests and raids on Tuesday have thickened the plot.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story said that Kranti Tekula had also been taken into custody.