The Pune police on Tuesday conducted coordinated raids across the country on the homes of 10 activists, arresting five of them. While some television news channels suggested that the arrests were made in connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the search warrants and witness documents show the raids were linked to investigations into violence that occurred at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1.
Every New Year’s Day, lakhs of Dalits gather at Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the 1818 victory of a ragtag group of lower-caste Mahar soldiers in the British Army over the vastly superior forces of the Brahmin Peshwa-led Maratha Empire. This year, on the 200th anniversary of the battle, the event was marred by caste clashes.
In June, five other activists were arrested and accused of inciting the violence at Bhima Koregaon. They were charged under sections of the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Those arrested on Tuesday are also being investigated under this Act.
All the arrested activists have decades of experience in human rights work.
Here is a quick primer on the activists who were arrested and searched on Tuesday.
Human rights lawyer, arrested
Sudha Bharadwaj, 57, has worked for more than 30 years on human rights and labour rights cases in Chhattisgarh, frequently defending Adivasis accused of being Maoists. An alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, she cut her teeth as an activist working with Shankar Guha Niyogi’s Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha in the 1980s.
In an interview to Mint in 2015, she said: “We are fighting for a new Chhattisgarh…a Chhattisgarh for the toilers of the state. Here is a state rich in resources. It has water, forests and land in abundance, but its people are so poor. The state is witnessing disproportionate growth and there is no equitable distribution of benefits to everyone. If I am fighting for the marginalised communities, I have no choice but to fight against those oppressing them – from corrupt politicians and forest departments to companies not giving proper wages and safety to workers.”
P Varavara Rao
Revolutionary writer and poet, arrested
P Varavara Rao, 77, is a noted Telugu poet and a co-founder of the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), popularly known by its acronym Virasam. In 1966, he founded a magazine devoted to modern Telugu literature titled Srujana (creation). Three years later, he was among the moving spirits behind Thirugubatu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), a literary group that associated itself with the Naxalite armed struggle.
Rao has written 15 collections of poetry and has been closely involved with the Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh. Since the early 1980s, he had been arrested in at least 18 cases, one ending in an acquittal after 17 years. He has spent six years in prison.
During the movement for a separate state of Telangana, Rao shared the stage with the current Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao. Their relations have soured since Rao began to protest against the excesses of the Rao-led state government.
Former college professor, arrested
Vernon Gonsalves, who won a gold medal when he took his MCom exams at Bombay University, has been a teacher at Mumbai colleges, including HR College and DG Ruparel College. He was a management trainee at Siemens before becoming a social worker in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur area. In 2007, the police accused Gonsalves of being a former central committee member of the Maharashtra state committee of CPI (Maoist) and charged him in 20 cases. He was acquitted in all but one case, in which an appeal is pending in the Bombay High Court.
His wife Susan Abraham said Gonsalves did not attend the Elgar Parishad – the meeting held by a coalition of 260 non-profit organisations on December 31, 2017, at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada, the day before the event in Bhima Koregaon in which caste clashes broke out. The police claim that the violence was incited by the speeches of Dalit rights activists at the Elgar Parishad. Abraham is involved in the defence of lawyer Surendra Gadling, who was arrested in June in connection with the Bhima Koregaon investigation.
Political activist and lawyer, arrested
Arun Ferreira, who studied at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, is a lawyer and political activist. He developed a strong social conscience while still at college, and organised an agitation of the institution’s canteen workers to demand better work conditions. After college, he became a community organiser in Vidarbha.
In 2007, Ferreira was arrested on charges of being a Naxalite. Among the several accusations against him was that he was plotting to blow up Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, where BR Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Ferreira was acquitted of all charges in 2014. He later wrote an acclaimed book about his prison experience, which has been translated into several languages. After his release, Ferreira studied to become a lawyer and was one of a large group of legal professionals working for the release of the five activists arrested in June.
Soon after the June arrests, Ferreira and Gonsalves had written an article in the DailyO , calling a letter circulated by the police to the media that purportedly reveals a Naxalite plot to assassinate Modi “farcical”.
Human rights activist and journalist, arrested
Gautam Navlakha is a Delhi-based human rights activist, journalist and founder of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. He was a consulting editor at the Economic and Political Weekly for many years. Navlakha has been involved with human rights protests in Kashmir and Chhattisgarh for decades now. Ironically, in June, he organised an event to protest against the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, under which he has now been detained. The Delhi High Court on Tuesday granted a stay to the transfer order that would have permitted him to be shifted to Pune, saying that the documents produced by the Pune police did not have sufficient details. It said it will hear the case on Wednesday morning.
The police also searched the houses of five other activists on Tuesday but did not arrest them.
Catholic priest and human rights activist
Swamy, 83, who has a Master’s degree in sociology, has been working on human rights issues in Jharkhand for several decades. He is a founding member of the Vistapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, which describes itself as an “all-India level united platform of different movements from different parts of the country that are resisting the displacement of Adivasis, dalits, farmers and labourers by corporations in the name of various development projects”.
Swamy has supported the Pathalgadi movement, centred in Khunti district, where Adivasis have used traditional stone tablets to list provisions from the Indian Constitution that empower gram sabhas and village councils in Adivasi areas. Swamy’s home in Ranchi was searched.
Professor, Cultural Studies
Satyanarayana teaches at the Cultural Studies Department at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. As an academic in the field of Dalit studies, he has written extensively on caste, literary history, historiography and critical theory. Among his books are two compilations of Dalit writing from South India. He was state secretary of the Kula Nirmoolana Porata Samiti, a forum to annihilate caste, for 10 years. Satyanarayana is married to Pavana, the daughter of P Varavara Rao. Their home was searched.
Kurmanath lives in Hyderabad. He has been a journalist for more than two decades. Kurmanath won a gold medal when he did his Masters in Journalism at Andhra Pradesh University. He is now deputy editor with Hindu Business Line, where he covers information technology, startups, agriculture and the goods and services tax. He also writes short stories and poetry in Telugu.
He is married to Anala, another daughter of P Varavara Rao. Their home was searched.
Tekula lives in a suburb of Hyderabad. While initial reports suggested that Tekula was also arrested, Joint Commissioner of Police in Pune Shivaji Bhodke later confirmed that it was Varavara Rao who had been arrested, not Tekula.
Senior professor, author
Anand Teltumbde is a senior professor at the Goa Institute of Management. An engineer by training, he has a post-graduate diploma from the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad) and a Phd in Management-Cybernetics. He has held senior positions in the corporate world. Teltumbde is also a civil rights activist with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights. He is the author of several books, including Persistence of Caste, Republic of Caste and Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt.
According to reports, Teltumbde was not at his home in Goa when the police arrived to search it. The police then took the keys to the house from a security guard and searched it anyway.