A report released by a security think-tank in March into caste violence in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1 had foreshadowed the turn taken by the police investigation into the events. The report pinned the blame for the violence on a Maoist conspiracy – a conclusion that bears striking resemblance to the claims the Pune police has subsequently made in court.
On January 1, as lakhs of Dalits gathered in Bhima Koregaon to commemorate a victory of Mahar troops over the army of the casteist Peshwa regime in a battle in 1818, clashes occurred with members of the Maratha community. In the aftermath of the clashes, the police investigation centred on the role of two Hindutva activists who were alleged to have incited the violence by making inflammatory speeches.
But subsequently, the Pune police has arrested ten activists and lawyers who work with Dalits and Adivasis for their alleged role in the violence. The police has accused the activists of using the Dalit commemoration event at Bhima Koregaon to build support for a Maoist conspiracy to undermine the government. On Wednesday, the public prosecutor claimed in a Pune court that this conspiracy extends to an assassination plot targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Five of the ten activists were arrested in raids across India on June 6. The other five were arrested on August 28. The police had also raided the homes of several people in April, but did not make any arrests.
A month before the April raids, the Forum for Integrated National Security, which has offices in Pune and Mumbai, had released a report analysing the events leading up to the violence in Bhima Koregaon and the violence itself.
One of the two secretaries general of the forum is Seshadri Chari, a senior member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Executive Committee.
The author of the report, Captain Smita Gaikwad, a retired officer of the Indian Army, later led a fact-finding committee organised by Vivek Vichar Manch, a think tank backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and run by former Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Pradeep Rawat.
The report released by the forum put the spotlight on the Elgaar Parishad, an event spearheaded by Ambedkarite groups, which was held on December 31, 2017, ahead of the Bhima Koregaon commemoration. The report identified some of the organisers of the Parishad as activists with connections with Maoist groups.
It claimed that the organisers of the forum distorted history by presenting the Bhima Koregaon battle of 1818 as a fight against caste oppression, which, it said, was a Maoist strategy to lure people into joining “mass organisations” concerned about such issues as caste, justice and equality. These organisations help Maoists make recruits for the final armed struggle against the state, the forum’s report said.
Some of the activists named in the Forum for Integrated National Security report were subsequently arrested by the Pune police. In the court, the police has echoed many of the claims made in the report.
What explains the think-tank’s prescience?
The Forum for Integrated National Security, established in 2003, has a variety of interests, ranging from food and water security to defence spending and nuclear armament. Left-wing extremism is one of these interests.
Its president is Dr DB Shekatkar, a retired army Lieutenant General. His second PhD is on the impact of left-wing extremism on national security in India. In 2016, he headed a committee constituted by the Ministry of Defence to review India’s defence expenditure and combat capability.
One of the early focuses of the forum was nuclear energy and maritime security. Over time, the forum shifted its attention towards other matters of internal security, towards matters that affected what Shekatkar calls “psychological security”. Left-wing extremism that undermines confidence in governance is one of these, he said.
Vice presidents in the national executive include retired Lieutenant General VM Patil, retired Major General AB Gorthi and retired Bombay High Court judge RMS Khandeparkar. Seshadri Chari is one of the forum’s two secretaries general.
In October 2017, senior ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party, including Nitin Gadkari, Manohar Parrikar and MJ Akbar attended the forum’s conference SAGAR on naval security.
Shekatkar says that it is not accurate to make a connection between the forum and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh simply because one of its executive board members belongs to the saffron organisation.
“The whole nation knows Seshadri Chari,” he said. “He is an intellectual and writer. Do I go with him to the shakha? No. The point is do we belong to that organisation? We have nothing to do with anybody.”
Shekatkar added: “We are not affiliated to anybody. This is a think tank, like the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi, or the Rand Corporation and Brookings Institute in the USA.”
The report on the Bhima Koregaon violence was authored by Captain Smita Gaikwad, a retired officer of the Indian Army with an interest in researching left-wing extremism in Bastar. She also led a fact-finding committee organised by Vivek Vichar Manch, a think tank backed by the RSS and run by former BJP MP Pradeep Rawat.
This report, released on April 24, a month and half after the publication of the forum’s report and days after the initial round of raids, is in Marathi. It goes into far greater detail about the events that led up to the violence, the cases filed after, and the quality of police communication. It is more explicit in alleging links between Elgaar Parishad and Maoism.
The Vivek Vichar Manch has submitted this report to the chief minister and to the JN Patel Committee that is probing the violence, Rawat told Scroll.in.
The Forum for Integrated National Security report also dwells on the purported Maoist connections of the activists who organised the Elgaar Parishad. It describes the Kabir Kala Manch, one of the groups which organised the event, as “an alleged Maoist Front Organisation”.
It underlines the fact that another activist, Sudhir Dhawale, founder of the anti-caste party Republican Panthers, was “arrested for his alleged Maoist links in January 2011”. Dhawale, who was jailed for 40 months, was acquitted of all charges in 2014. While the report mentions the acquittal, it also says that this previous investigation is a possible reason for news reports linking the forum with Maoists.
Dhawale was named in the first information report filed on January 8 by Tushar Damgude, a resident of Pune, which became the basis of the police investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence. In his complaint, Damgude said he heard Dhawale make inflammatory speeches at the Elgaar Parishad.
The police raided Dhawale’s home in April. He was arrested in a second round of raids in June.
The report also mentions an event called “Friends of Sridhar”, organised by Dhawale
in September 2016. This event, which was not widely reported at the time, commemorated the first death anniversary of Sridhar Srinivasan, a former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), who had died of a heart attack the previous year.
Highlighting a speech made by N Venugopal, the report said he “talked about ‘blending the armed political struggle with the social and cultural revolution’ and also about ‘annihilation of caste’. Narrating incidents of the Cultural Revolution in China, he spoke about the need of the same in India. Venugopal called India as the unequal society.”
Venugopal is the nephew and brother-in-law of Varavara Rao, a writer who lives in Hyderabad. Rao is one of the five activists who were arrested by Pune police on Tuesday.
Subsequently, the police has also referred to this event in support for its contention that the organisers of Elgaar Parishad were connected to another group of people arrested in January for alleged Maoist links.
The report also seeks to make the case that many of those who attended the Elgaar Parishad had alleged links with Maoists. This includes Chhattisgarh activist Soni Sori, who was acquitted of six of eight cases against her in 2013, and Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor of the Kabir Kala Manch, members of which are facing investigations for alleged Maoist connections.
The report notes that Prakash Ambedkar, organiser of the Elgaar Parishad, is related to Milind Teltumbde, a central committee member of Communist Party of India (Maoist). Teltumbde is the brother of management professor and intellectual Anand Teltumbde, whose home in Goa was raided by the police on Tuesday.
‘Just a concept’
Did the authors of the report have access to the police investigation? Or did they have the prescience to anticipate the eventual turn the investigation might take? More significantly, did the report influence the police investigation?
Distancing himself from such speculation, Shekatkar said the report has not been submitted to the government.
“Unless the government authorities ask us, we do not submit our reports to them,” said Shekatkar. “We don’t volunteer ourselves because they will ask what we will do.”
They do, however, seek out the government for information. For instance, for a report on terrorism, the group approached the Intelligence Bureau for information.
“What you speak should be authentic,” Shekatkar emphasised. “You can’t have concocted stories.”
Referring to the uproar over the arrests of the five activists on Tuesday, he said, “We have nothing to do with this drama going on for the past two days in India. We had some background knowledge, we knew who the people were, but since [we] don’t have proof, there is no question of writing anything about anybody. We had just written the concept.”