Over the last week, the national spotlight has been on the claims of the Pune police that they have unearthed a Maoist conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and overthrow the government – evidence of which they say was discovered in the course of investigating the caste violence that erupted in a village in this western Maharashtra district on January 1.

The plot, as revealed by the police in a press conference on Friday, stretches far beyond India. Members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), which has been fighting a guerilla war in the jungles of central and eastern India for decades, have allegedly been meeting in Paris and procuring arms from Russia and China, while exchanging letters that reveal vital operational details and their own names.

These letters, the police claims, have been recovered from raids conducted in six cities. Ten human rights lawyers and activists have been arrested – five in June, another five on Tuesday.

Those arrested are actually “urban Naxalites”, the police told the Pune court on Wednesday, but they present themselves in public as human rights activists and lawyers. One of them has held photo exhibitions on mob lynchings to influence young people against the government. Together, they form “an anti-fascist front”. Their aim, the police read out from one of the letters, is to engineer “frequent protests and chaos [which] will gradually lead to a breakdown of law and order, and this will have significant political ramification in the coming months”.

The arrests have caused a furore, with eminent citizens approaching the Supreme Court to quash them. Their petition described the arrests as a “gross abuse of police power in the country which is intended to stifle if not kill independent voices and a differing ideology from the party in power”.

Forgotten in the din is a complex chain of events that began with Dalits flocking to a celebration of a 200-year old battleground victory. In this story, four journalists of Scroll.in reporting from Mumbai and Pune, piece together the events in great detail, based on more than 30 interviews, dozens of police and court documents, and stories done over the course of the year. The police investigation, they find, is marred by allegations of political bias, procedural lapses and highly questionable claims.

First, a quick recap of the events.

  • On New Year’s day, caste violence broke out in Bhima Koregaon village, 30 km from Pune, during a Dalit commemoration event. This event was preceded by a meeting in the city that brought together Ambedkarite organisations and Left activists.
  • Some have claimed that this nascent yet politically-potent combination held a threat to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which prompted its allied Hindutva groups to incite violence at Bhima Koregaon and cause a disruption. Others, however, blame the violence on allegedly incendiary speeches by activists at the meeting.
  • The competing narratives resulted in a series of police cases. While one case was filed against two Hindutva leaders who opposed the meeting, cases were also filed against activists who organised it, as well as those who spoke on stage.
  • The case against the Hindutva leaders resulted in one getting arrested briefly; the other has not even been questioned. Over time, the Pune police’s efforts have come to centre on a complaint that alleged the meeting was organised by Maoists to “mislead the Dalit community”.
  • In pursuit of this case, the police has conducted three rounds of raids across six cities, arresting 10 activists and lawyers who work on Dalit and Adivasi rights. The investigation has been marked by criticism of political bias, but also procedural lapses: search warrants were either not presented during the raids, or they were not translated from Marathi. The police took along witnesses from Pune which is illegal. The arrested activists were produced in court without their lawyers being given proper notice.
  • Letters purportedly recovered from the activists have been read out to the media, but have not been submitted in court. Experts say the letters stretch credibility.
The memorial pillar at Bhima Koregaon in January 2016 | Mridula Chari
The memorial pillar at Bhima Koregaon in January 2016 | Mridula Chari

Chapter 1: The Celebration

It all started on New Year’s Day in a village called Bhima Koregaon, 30 km from Pune.

Every year, lakhs of Dalits visit a memorial pillar here to celebrate the anniversary of a battle that took place in 1818 in which a small contingent of Mahar Dalit soldiers trounced the numerically superior army of Peshwa Bajirao II, whose regime was considered oppressive by lower caste communities. In 1927, BR Ambedkar led the first commemoration here.

Since 2018 is the bicentennial year of the battle, the anti-caste commemoration began early this time. In the last week of December 2017, hundreds of people, mostly Dalits, started to march towards the site from Nashik and Yeola. The marches culminated in a public meeting on December 31, held in the backdrop of Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort, the seat of power of the Peshwas. Called the Elgaar Parishad, it brought together 250 groups and, by the accounts of its organisers, around 35,000 people, although the police pegs the number at 4,500. Among its key organisers were two retired judges, activists of the Dalit rights organisation Republican Panthers, and members of the cultural group the Kabir Kala Manch.

The meeting saw cultural performances, including Marathi hip-hop, and speeches by a galaxy of Dalit and Adivasi leaders. Newly elected Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani made a fiery speech, exhorting people to defeat the new Peshwai through street revolutions. “If there is ever to be a revolution in this country, it won’t happen through Parliament or Assembly, but through struggle on the streets,” he said. “Caste eradication will happen through struggle on the streets.” The day ended with the audience taking an oath of allegiance to the Indian Constitution.

Jignesh Mevani, Vinay Ratan Singh, Radhika Vemula, Soni Sori and Umar Khalid during the Elgar Parishad |HT Photo
Jignesh Mevani, Vinay Ratan Singh, Radhika Vemula, Soni Sori and Umar Khalid during the Elgar Parishad |HT Photo

But the Pune police now claim the Elgaar Parishad was part of a Maoist conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the Indian government. It has raided and arrested some of the organisers, accusing them of having links with Maoists, and using the meeting to foment public disorder.

The retired judges contest this. They say the meeting was organised to combat communalism and the rise in violence by Hindutva groups, particularly in the name of cow protection. “[The term] ‘Elgaar’ means loud invitation or loud declaration, and our main theme was to save the Constitution and the nation,” Justice PB Sawant told Aarefa Johari.

So how did the police discover a Maoist plot?

Chapter 2: The Violence

On January 1, like every year, lakhs of Dalits poured into Bhima Koregaon. The commemoration has a record of being conducted peacefully and the village’s residents have a history of social harmony. But this year, tensions had begun to build in a neighbouring village over the question of which community had conducted the last rites of Maratha ruler Sambhaji – the Mahars or the Marathas. The panchayat of Bhima Koregaon issued a notice asking residents to boycott the event by calling for all shops to remain shut that day.

On the morning of the commemoration, violence broke out. Dalit visitors said they were attacked by people carrying saffron flags, while local Maratha residents complained that they were targeted by the Dalits. One person belonging to the Maratha community was killed in the clashes.

The next day, when Mridula Chari visited the village, she saw flames engulf a biryani stall owned by a Dalit man. A group of Marathas confessed to having set it on fire.

An eatery was set on fire in Koregaon Bhima on January 2 |Mridula Chari
An eatery was set on fire in Koregaon Bhima on January 2 |Mridula Chari

The violence spread to other cities in western Maharashtra. Dalit organisations held protest rallies on January 3, which invited a police crackdown. More than 300 Dalits were arrested by the police in Mumbai alone – some as young as 14. Eight months later, many of them are still struggling to get legal aid. One family in the Mumbai suburb of Vikhroli said they were falsely booked for attempt to murder. The women were able to get anticipatory bail, but a male member spent 20 days in jail. “Lawyers wouldn’t touch us when we told them it was the Bhima Koregaon case,” he said, requesting anonymity.

In Bhima Koregaon itself, villagers find themselves saddled with police cases. The superintendent of Pune rural police, Sandeep Patil, said 20 cases of rioting and vandalism were filed in his area in the aftermath of the violence. As many as 502 cases were filed in western Maharashtra.

Even before the violence had abated, questions soon arose over who was responsible. Competing narratives emerged.

Chapter 3: The Complaints

On January 3, a 39-year-old Dalit social activist, Anita Savale, filed a complaint alleging that she saw the followers of two Hindutva leaders, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, go on a rampage in Bhima Koregaon, throwing stones and assaulting people. They were carrying weapons and burnt Ambedkarite flags. Based on her complaint, the police registered a first information report naming Bhide and Ekbote as suspects, with the offences including rioting with arms, unlawful assembly, defiling sacred objects and caste atrocities.

Bhide, 84, is a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and an influential spiritual leader, with a following in western Maharashtra. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed him as “most respected Bhide Guruji” at a public meeting. Ekbote, 65, is a former municipal corporator implicated in communal riots that took place in Satara district in 2003. The police said he now leads gau rakshak groups that indulge in extortion and violence in the name of cow protection. Both have denied the allegations against them. Bhide has maintained he was in another district when the violence took place.

Eight months later, the police has completed the investigation in this case and is ready to file a chargesheet. While Ekbote was arrested in March and later released on bail, Bhide was not even questioned by the police. The superintendent of Pune rural police, Sandeep Patil, told Abhishek Dey the police will press charges against Ekbote, but not Bhide, because of lack of evidence.

But the Hindutva leaders were not the only ones who were accused of provoking the violence. Another complaint was filed on January 3 in Vishrambaug police station in the city by Akshay Bikkad, a 23-year-old final year student of Political Science in Pune University, who was associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS, but is now distancing himself from it. He claims to have attended the Elgaar Parishad in the company of his friend Anand Dhond, a member of ABVP. In his complaint, Bikkad alleged that “provocative speeches were delivered” at the meeting “to create disturbances between two communities”. His complaint led to a first information report naming Jignesh Mevani and student leader Umar Khalid as suspects for the promoting enmity between groups and giving speeches that could incite people to commit offences against the state.

Neither Mevani nor Khalid have been questioned by the police in the last eight months. But the joint commissioner of Pune police, Shivaji Bodakhe said, “Investigation of the matter is underway.” Mevani dismissed the case as “frivolous”. “Anyone can run my speech by any constitutional expert, any eminent criminal lawyer or High Court or Supreme Court judge,” he said. “If they are of the view that any single word of mine is of provocative nature, without uttering a single word in response, I will quit my public life.” Khalid said: “The videos of the speeches are still in the public domain – the public should go watch them instead of believing these politically-motivated allegations.”

A third complaint was filed on January 4 by Tushar Damgude, a businessman from Pune, who also claimed to have heard inflammatory speeches made at the Elgaar Parishad. Going one step ahead of Bikkad and Dhond, he alleged some of the organisers of the meeting had Maoist links. “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.”

Based on Damgude’s complaint, on January 8, the Vishrambaug police station in Pune city registered a first information report – labelled case no 04/2018 in the records. It names six activists who were among the organisers of the Parishad as suspects for the offences of promoting enmity between groups and giving speeches that could incite people to commit offences against the state.

It is the police investigation in this case that has resulted in three rounds of raids in several cities, the arrest of 10 activists, and the unearthing of an alleged Maoist plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi.

Chapter 4: The Report

The first outline of the purported Maoist conspiracy in Elgaar Parishad did not come from the police. It came from a little-known security think tank in Pune called the Forum for Integrated National Security. One of its two secretaries general is Seshadri Chari, a senior member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Executive Committee.

In a report released in March, it said the organisers of the Parishad had 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 caste, justice and equality. These organisations help Maoists make recruits for the final armed struggle against the state, the forum’s report claimed.

The report was authored by Captain Smita Gaikwad, a retired officer of the Indian Army, who later led a fact-finding committee organised by Vivek Vichar Manch, a think tank backed by the RSS and run by former Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Pradeep Rawat.

Read more about the think tank and its report here.

Chapter 5: The Raids

On the morning of April 17, Sagar Gorkhe, a member of the Kabir Kala Manch, who lives in Wakad in Pune, woke up to find policemen at his door. They did not have a search warrant from a magistrate, but insisted – incorrectly – that a section of the criminal procedure code gave them suo moto powers to raid Gorkhe’s house.

“They took away my phone as well as my wife’s, even though her name is not in the FIR,” he told Shone Satheesh. The police particularly went after any books that had the words vidrohi (rebel) or kranti (revolution) in the title. They also seized pamphlets on the Elgaar Parishad event, pen drives, and memory cards.

Similar raids took place at the homes of other activists of Kabir Kala Manch in Pune and Mumbai. Sudhir Dhawale and Harshali Potdar of the Republican Panthers were raided in Mumbai. The house of lawyer Surendra Gadling was searched in Nagpur. A team of the Pune police even landed in Delhi to raid the house of activist Rona Wilson.

No one was arrested.

The next day, the commissioner of Pune police Rashmi Shukla said the raids were part of the investigation in case no 04/2018 registered by Vishrambaug police station, relating to the Bhima Koregaon violence.

But Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis contradicted her, attributing the raids to a nationwide operation by central investigative agencies which were probing the activities of people considered close to Maoist groups.

Curiously, two weeks before the raids took place, on March 26, Dhawale and Potdar had met with Fadnavis as part of a delegation led by Prakash Ambedkar, the leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and grandson of BR Ambedkar, who had participated in the Elgaar Parishad. The delegation urged the authorities to investigate the role of Hindutva groups in the attack on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon on January 1.

A protest meeting in March was led by Prakash Ambedkar asking for action against Sambhaji Bhide | Shone Satheesh
A protest meeting in March was led by Prakash Ambedkar asking for action against Sambhaji Bhide | Shone Satheesh

Vira Sathidar, an activist with the Republican Panthers, said Dhawale, Potdar and others submitted evidence that they had collected in the form of social media posts, photographs, selfies and location shares, which pointed to the suspicious movement of cadres from right-wing organisations in the last week of December.

Gorkhe of the Kabir Kala Manch said, “We had footage of Ekbote’s cadre organising a rally called Durga Daud on December 31 at Koregaon Bhima, in which members were marching with weapons and swords.” In the aftermath of the January 1 violence, Sathidar claimed members of Hindutva groups had put up Facebook posts expressing regret for not meeting the targets set by the leaders for attacks on Dalits. These too had been collected.

“But shockingly, on April 17, the police raided us and confiscated all the evidence,” Gorkhe said. “Thankfully, we had made copies.”

These copies, the activists say, were submitted on July 16 to the Koregaon Bhima Commission of Inquiry set up by the Maharashtra government, under the leadership of former Calcutta High Court judge JN Patel, to investigate the violence in Bhima Koregaon.

By then, however, Dhawale, Gadling and Wilson were in Pune jail. The police had arrested the three in a second round of raids on June 6, along with two others – Mahesh Raut, a forest rights activist who has previously been a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow, and Shoma Sen, an activist who was the head of the English Department in Nagpur University. This report published in June profiles their work.

Of the five arrested, only Dhawale’s name featured in the original FIR – case no 04/2018, based on Damgude’s complaint. Over the months, not only had the police widened the net, it also expanded the scope of the investigation. Susan Abraham, the lawyer for Gadling, said the police added another offence against the accused before making the April raids: Section 120(b), which relates to criminal conspiracy.

Even more serious offences were added in May under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The anti-terror law allows the police to detain people for six months without filing charges in court.

On September 1, the police sought an extension of 90 days to file the chargesheet against the five activists. They were brought to court, without proper notice, which meant their lawyers did not have the time to prepare their defence. “They were served notices when they were still in van after reaching the court,” said Rahul Deshmukh, the defence lawyer who found out about their appearance in court through the crowds that had gathered around them.

Chapter 6: The Letters

But the most shocking charge burst into the public spotlight on June 8.

“Maoist letter revealing sinister plot to assassinate PM Modi recovered,” said a headline on Republic TV.

On June 7, deputy commissioner of Pune police, Ravindra Kadam, told reporters that several documents had been recovered from the laptop of Rona Wilson, one of the five activists arrested the previous day. Republic TV claimed the letter was one of them.

In the letter addressed to ‘Comrade Prakash’, a writer who goes by the initial R laments the BJP’s success at winning elections under the leadership of Modi, and says it could threaten the “party” – a reference to the Communist Party of India (Maoist), claimed Republic TV.

The writer then goes on to consider the possibility of “another Rajiv Gandhi type incident”. “It sounds suicidal and there is a good chance that we might fail but we feel that the party PB/CC [Politburo/ Central Committee] must deliberate over our proposal.”

This letter was leaked to the media but was not submitted in court. The public prosecutor later read it out while opposing the bail application of the arrested activists.

Security experts seriously doubt the letter’s credibility. “Anyone familiar with the patterns of communication adopted by the Maoists would immediately reject this letter as an obvious fabrication,” said Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management.

A second letter, said to have been recovered from Wilson’s laptop, was also discussed threadbare on Republic TV. It was purportedly written by Sudha Bharadwaj, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, who has worked as a labour activist and human rights lawyer in Chhattisgarh for 30 years. The letter discussed Maoist activities and the need for creating a “Kashmir like situation” across India.

On July 16, Bharadwaj sent Republic TV a legal notice for making “false, malicious and defamatory allegations” against her.

Both the letters were sprinkled with references to human rights lawyers and activists, often by their first names: Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, among others.

As the events that followed showed, these letters were a warning.

Chapter 7: The Anti-Fascist Front

Early morning on August 28, teams of Pune police fanned out across the country to raid the homes of activists in six cities: Delhi, Faridabad, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Goa.

Five activists were arrested. Four had featured in the leaked letters: Bharadwaj, Navlakha, Ferreira, and Gonsalves whose son described what happened that morning. The fifth arrest was of Varavara Rao, a writer and poet who lives in Hyderabad. Read about the background of all five here.

The search warrants presented by the police said the raids were part of the investigation into case no 04/2018 of Vishrambaug police station. But the documents were in Marathi. Bharadwaj, Navlakha and Rao claimed they were not provided translations. Before they could be whisked away, Bharadwaj and Navlakha petitioned the High Courts, which prevented Pune police from taking them into custody, and placed them under house arrest.

The next day, the Delhi High Court took note of Navlakha’s allegations of procedural lapses. One of them related to the witnesses who signed the panchnamas or memorandums of arrest. While the law says witnesses should be family members or people who live in the same locality, in all five arrests, the witnesses were Pune residents taken along by Maharashtra police.

On Wednesday, Rao, Ferreira and Gonsalves were presented in Pune court where the public prosecutor Ujjwala Prakash made arguments to secure their custody. She said they were part of an “anti-fascist front” which aimed to overthrow the government. The claim invited ridicule.

“I wonder if the prosecutor has received proper instructions,” said Yug Chaudhary, a lawyer in Mumbai. “How is being anti-fascist illegal? If anything, it is a virtue. Is the government admitting that it is fascist by booking anti-fascists under UAPA [the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act]?”

The prosecutor went on to make other dramatic claims, none of which were reflected in the remand petition – a document submitted to the court outlining the police case against the accused. In an interview to Scroll.in, security expert Ajai Sahni explained the problems with each one of the claims.

Did the claims stick in court? Before the Pune court could rule on the matter, the Supreme Court, in a near-simultaneous hearing of a petition filed by five eminent citizens challenging the arrests, ordered that all five detained activists should be held under house arrest until September 6. While doing so, it said: “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy.”

Chapter 8: The Paris connection

Despite the Supreme Court’s comments, criticism of the arrests, and experts questioning the authenticity of the evidence put forth in court, the Maharashtra police has stuck to its claim that the activists are part of a grand Maoist conspiracy.

On Friday, Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Parambir Singh addressed a press conference where he gave more details of this alleged plot. “There was a larger conspiracy by Maoist organisations to overthrow the lawfully established Indian government using weapons procured from Russia and China,” he said. “The arrested accused played an active and crucial role in this conspiracy.”

He described a grand conspiracy that had been hatched not just in India but abroad as well. “The meetings of the arrested accused were held even in Paris,” he said, “and funds were being organised from there.”

Singh read out from several letters that, if they are to be believed, spells out portions of this conspiracy in no uncertain terms. “Frequent protests and chaos will gradually lead to a break down of law and order, and this will have significant political ramification in the coming months. Please coordinate with our friends in America and France,” said one letter allegedly addressed to ‘Comrade Anand’ from Prakash.

Singh also read out from the letter leaked to the media earlier, which he claimed was written by Rona Wilson to ‘Comrade Prakash’. “I hope by now you have received details of the meeting and requirement of 8Cr [crore] for annual supply of M4’s with 4000000 rounds.” Singh claimed that M4 was a reference to a grenade launcher.

But, for all the dramatic claims made by the public prosecutor and the police, the letters are still not part of court record. In a handwritten note released through her lawyer, Sudha Bharadwaj called the letter “totally concocted”. The oral submissions made by the public prosecutor in court, meanwhile, provoked scathing criticism from Sahni, one of India’s foremost experts in internal security matters:

“Obviously, not a single charge will actually stick, but that is clearly not the intention. The case will drag on in what I have described as a process of “punishment by trial”. The judicial system is slow, and is willing to pretend that it does not notice the utter silliness of the prosecution’s submissions. The accused will either continue to languish in jail or, even if enlarged on bail, will be harassed for years by the judicial process. This alone is the objective.” 

Visualisations by Anand Katakam and Sanjana Venkatesh.

This story was updated on September 5 to include information on the witnesses who signed the memorandums of arrest.