On Thursday afternoon, as Tushar Damgude juggled interviews with half a dozen journalists, he claimed he felt trapped by his “political neutrality”.
The 38-year-old businessman from Pune has been in the national limelight for the past two days, after a police complaint he filed in January led to a crackdown on human rights activists who now stand accused of being “urban Naxals waging a war against the government”.
“I did not realise things would go this far when I filed my complaint,” said Damgude, a history graduate with a small construction business. “I support anyone who is a nationalist and I am against anyone who is anti-national. But today I am being hounded by the media as if I am an accused myself.”
Damgude’s complaint, which the police filed as a first information report on January 8, alleged the violence that marred a Dalit commemoration at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 was instigated by leftist activists with alleged Maoist links who had spoken at a public meeting called Elgar Parishad the previous day.
Acting on his complaint, the Pune police raided the homes of seven activists across the country in April. Two months later, on June 6, the police arrested five activists – Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson – from Mumbai, Nagpur and Delhi. Labelling them “urban Maoist operatives”, the police claimed to have found evidence that they were plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On August 28, the police raided 10 more activists and arrested five of them – Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj. The Supreme Court stayed the arrests and ordered them placed under house arrest until September 5.
The police have made sweeping allegations against the activists, describing them as “active members” of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) who are involved in a “top-level conspiracy” to overthrow the “sovereignty and integrity of the country” by establishing a nationwide “anti-fascist front”.
For Damgude, the police’s allegations vindicate his complaint. “Their agenda is to mislead the Dalit community, to convert them to Maoist thought…and adopt the path of violence,” his complaint said. “Through their publications, books and speeches, they want to increase enmity in society.”
The controversial arrests triggered by his complaint have invited media attention, and Damgude has spent the past two days trying to convince people that he holds “open-minded”, neutral views.
‘They want Dalits to rise against upper castes’
“I am a writer,” Damgude told a string of reporters in a Pune restaurant on Thursday. “I write on social media about all kinds of issues because I have khule vichar [an open mind]. I believe in meeting and having discussions with everyone and I am open to talking to all the accused in this case as well. They are not my personal enemies.”
For the past few months, Damgude’s Facebook page has been full of posts attacking Sudhir Dhawale, Varavara Rao and other leftist figures for allegedly glorifying Maoism, spreading violent ideas and purchasing weapons. Both in his complaint and on social media, Damgude highlights revolutionary songs, pamphlets and speeches as proof of a violent conspiracy to attack the country.
“In 2014, Dhawale called for a ‘struggle on the streets’ as part of speech and in 2017, Jignesh Mevani used the same language – ‘struggle on the streets’ – in his speech at Elgar Parishad,” Damgude said. “These people want Dalits to rise against the upper castes. They have said things like, ‘August 15 is not our day, only January 26 is our day.’ That is the extent to which they go.”
August 15 is the Independence Day and January 26 marks the Republic Day, when India’s Constitution, shaped largely by Bhimrao Ambedkar, came into effect.
Damgude’s Facebook page has a picture of him with Sambhaji Bhide, a Hindutva leader accused of inciting violence against the Dalits at Bhima Koregaon. Fellow Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote is also an accused in the matter, but neither have been arrested yet despite a Supreme Court order.
Damgude claimed he has never met Ekbote while his picture with Bhide, whom he respectfully refers to as “Guruji”, has been needlessly played up in the media. “I had not met Guruji before April this year, and I went to meet him only because I read in the media that he had made a speech endorsing Manusmriti,” he said. “So when I met him, I told him it is more important to talk about other issues facing the country right now, like the plight of widows and farmers. And he agreed with me.”
Now that the picture has gained wide media attention, Damgude said he has been getting angry calls from Bhide’s followers. “They abuse me and ask me, ‘Are you so big that you can go tell Guruji what to do?’”
‘I have friends in all parties’
According to Damgude, few people understand his “neutrality” in political matters because he is both friendly with, and critical of, all parties. “I have photos with Raj Thackeray [of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena] also,” he said. “I don’t reject any political party because I have friends in all of them. I have done some campaigning for the Congress too.”
While he believes in Hindutva, Damgude emphasised that he is critical of extremism within it. “Just like the Maoist forces are trying to destabilise the country, Hindutva is being hijacked by some forces that are not truly Hindutva – like the Sanatan Sanstha,” he said. “Killing people in the name of gau raksha, beating people on Valentine’s Day – that’s not Hindutva. I have always written against all of this.”
Damgude claimed he has also vehemently spoken out against the Marathas’ demand for caste-based reservations in Maharashtra. “I am a Maratha myself, but I have critiqued the movement,” he said. “I have received threat calls from Marathas too.”
In spite of the media scrutiny, Damgude does not regret filing his complaint against people he believes are “Maoist forces” out to destroy India. However, he is wary of talking about his family. “I have two small children and now because of the FIR, my family is under threat,” he said, without explaining further. “They have been accused of a plot to kill the PM, and I am just a small person.”