The Pune rural police are ready to file two chargesheets detailing the evidence against Milind Ekbote, the Hindutva leader accused of instigating caste violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon on January 1, police superintendent Sandeep Patil told Scroll.in on Thursday. But no charges are being pressed against Sambaji Bhide, the other Hindutva leader named in the case, he confirmed.
On January 1, clashes broke out between Dalits and Marathas in Bhima Koregaon, around 30 km from Pune city, during a commemoration of a 200-year old battle in which a small contingent of Mahar soldiers trounced the vastly superior Peshwa army, which was noted for its casteist policies. The clashes left one dead and several injured.
Over the next few days, with residents making competing claims about the violence, several first information reports were filed in different police stations, seeking to pin down its cause.
A complaint filed by Pune resident Tushar Damgude alleged that the organisers of the Elgaar Parishad, a public meeting held in the city on December 31, had incited the violence through provocative speeches. He alleged that the organisers of the meeting had links with Maoist groups. Based on Damgude’s complaint, a case was registered in Pune city’s Vishrambaug Police Station on January 8. Ten activists and lawyers who work with Dalits and Adivasis have been arrested in this case – five of them this week. In court, Pune police claimed the activists were using the Elgaar Parishad to further a Maoist conspiracy, which extended to a purported plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
However, before the Pune city police filed this case, two investigations had already been initiated by the Pune rural police on January 3. One of them identified Ekbote and several unidentified people as responsible for instigating the violence, while the other named both Ekbote and Bhide, Patil said.
Bhide, 84, named after Maratha king Shivaji’s son Sambhaji, and also known as “Guruji”, is an influential spiritual leader who has founded the Shiv Pratishthan, an organisation that claims to be carrying forward Shivaji’s legacy. Bhide’s main following is in southern Maharashtra, largely in districts such as Sangli, Satara and Kohlapur, among members of the Maratha community. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed him as “most respected Bhide Guruji” in a public meeting in 2014.
Ekbote, 65, leads several organisations in Pune, such as the Samasta Hindu Agadi, the Pratapgarh Utsav Samity and the Gau Raksha Abhiyan. The groups engage in a range of activities from social work such as organising blood donation camps to criminal acts in the garb of cow vigilantism, the police said.
The police arrested Ekbote on March 14 and opposed his bail in the courts, ranging from sessions court, Bombay High Court and later the Supreme Court.
However, the police have not even questioned Bhide, let alone arresting him. Many like Ambedkarite leader Prakash Ambedkar have alleged that the lack of police action stems from a political bias, in view of the fact that Bhide is a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power in the state.
But the superintendent of police for Pune rural, Sandip Patil, denied any laxity in the case. He said the police had completed its investigation and was ready to file chargesheets in both the cases.
“Two chargesheets will be filed in a fortnight,” he told Scroll.in. “The chargesheets pertain to two cases – one of them was registered suo moto [on its own] by the police and the other was a zero FIR [first information report] which had come from Pimpri police station.”
Zero FIR is a provision under which an individual can lodge a police complaint at any police station, irrespective of where the criminal offence has taken place. When the complaint is turned into an FIR, it is transferred to the concerned police station to be investigated.
The FIR registered in Pimpri police station was based on the complaint of Anita Salve, a 39-year-old social worker, who claimed to have seen members of organisations led by Bhide and Ekbote participating in the violence in Bhima Koregaon, with some even firing bullets in the air. She did not explicitly mention the locations where she spotted the men. In the FIR, the police went on to identify Ekbote and Bhide as suspects, since their followers had allegedly turned violent, and pressed charges of rioting with arms, unlawful assembly and damaging a place of worship against them.
In the FIR registered suo moto by the police, Ekbote and several other people have been accused of hatching a criminal conspiracy that led to riots and vandalism in Bhima Koregaon. Bhide has not been named as a suspect in the case.
Thirty four people, including Ekbote, have been arrested in connection with the two cases taken together, the police said.
Asked why Bhide had not been detained, Patil said: “Arrests can be done only when the police find scientific evidence. When it comes to Ekbote, we traced his call detail records and it reflected that he was in touch with rioters arrested in connection with both the cases. This was not so in case of Guruji. Apart from that, no eye witness has so far testified about their physical presence in any of the areas that have witnessed violence.”
It is common for police officials in Pune to address Bhide as “Guruji”. In police stations in the district, officials could often be heard correcting each other in the event of someone accidentally addressing Bhide by his name.
Bhide has no past criminal record, the police said. Ekbote, on the other hand, has 13 cases including several pointing to his involvement in communal riots in Maharashtra in the last 15 years. Ekbote leads several gau rakshak or cow protection teams, which run extortion rackets and often indulge in violence, said Patil.
In 2003, while he was a municipal corporator, Ekbote was named as a suspect in Hindu-Muslim riots that broke out in Wai near Satara. “However, after coming out on bail related to the communal riots case several years ago, he has never played an active role in any incident that turned bad,” said Patil. “He is more of an expert in conspiracy.”
After his name surfaced in the Bhima Koregaon violence cases, on January 22, Ekbote applied for an anticipatory bail in the district and sessions court in Pune, which was rejected. Immediately, he approached the Bombay High Court, to be rejected again on February 2.
On February 6, the Pune sessions court issued an arrest warrant for Ekbote. He moved the Supreme Court for interim bail, which was granted. On March 14, the Supreme Court cancelled his interim bail relief and he was arrested by the police immediately.
On April 19, Ekbote got bail from the district and sessions court in Pune when public prosecutor Ujjwala Pawar failed to convince the magistrate that Ekbote had taken part in activities that disturbed social peace and harmony. Pawar was the same prosecutor who made arguments in Pune court on Tuesday to secure the custody of three of the five activists arrested on Tuesday – Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao.
As many as 502 cases were registered across Maharashtra in January in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence and hundreds of people from both the Maratha and the Dalit communities were detained.
Twenty two cases were registered in the Pune rural police district. Other than the two cases in which Ekbote and Bhide have been named as suspects, 20 cases relating to rioting and vandalism are being investigated, said officials.
The police are still in the process of identifying and tracking down suspects in these cases. So far, about 110 people, from both the communities, have been arrested in these cases, said officials.
“We are working on a tight deadline and chargesheets in most of them will be filed in a month’s time after the first two are filed in the sessions court,” said Patil, the police superintendent.