Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote used to be quite visible in public life till he was arrested in March for allegedly leading his followers in attacks on Dalits during the caste violence that broke out in January in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra’s Pune district.
Released on bail in April, Ekbote has now turned reclusive. Members of the Hindutva groups he leads, social activists in Pune, his neighbours in the city’s Shivaji Nagar, and journalists say they have hardly seen the former Bharatiya Janata Party corporator over the last four months.
He has even stopped taking phone calls. “If he talks to the media, his bail can get cancelled,” Ekbote’s older brother Gajanan Ekbote, a doctor, said over the phone last week. He, however, refused to say where Milind Ekbote could be.
January’s caste violence resurfaced in the national spotlight last week after five human rights lawyers and activists were arrested in police raids in six cities. The police said they were “urban Naxalites” who used an anti-caste commemoration event in Pune to whip up sentiments that resulted in the violence in Bhima Koregaon. This was part of a larger plot, the police claimed, to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and overthrow the Indian government.
However, before the police investigation came to focus on activists working with Dalit and Adivasi groups, the Pune rural police had started a probe into the role of two Hindutva leaders – Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide.
Bhide is a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and a spiritual leader with a large following in western Maharashtra. In comparison, Ekbote, 64, has a smaller footprint. He leads several organisations in Pune, such as the Samasta Hindu Agadi, the Pratapgarh Utsav Samity and the Gau Raksha Abhiyan, which, according to the police, are engaged in a range of activities from social work such as organising blood donation camps to criminal acts in the garb of cow vigilantism.
The cases against Ekbote
Like every year, lakhs of Dalits gathered in Bhima Koregaon on January 1 for a commemoration of a 200-year-old battle in which Mahar Dalit soldiers had trounced the vastly superior army of Peshwa Bajirao II, a ruler they considered oppressive. This year, clashes between Dalits and Marathas broke out during the gathering, leaving one dead and several injured.
On January 3, Dalit social activist Anita Savale filed a complaint alleging that she saw the followers of Bhide and Ekbote go on a rampage in Bhima Koregaon, throwing stones and assaulting people. They were carrying weapons and burnt Ambedkarite flags, she said.
Based on her complaint, the police registered a first information report naming both the leaders as suspects, with the offences including rioting with arms, unlawful assembly, defiling sacred objects and caste atrocities.
Ekbote subsequently moved several courts for anticipatory bail. A Pune district court rejected his plea in January, while the Bombay High Court turned down his petition in February. Ekbote got a brief respite when Supreme Court granted him interim relief from arrest till March 14, but he was arrested when it eventually rejected his plea.
“Each time he [Ekbote] moved from one court to another, we [the police] filed a plea not to grant him bail at any cost and finally we succeeded,” recalled Sandip Patil, the superintendent of Pune Grameen Police. Patil is monitoring all 22 cases registered in rural areas of Pune, including Bhima Koregaon, in connection with January’s caste violence.
A month after Ekbote’s arrest, on April 14, the district and sessions court in Pune granted him bail. Meanwhile, Bhide has not been questioned by the police. Patil attributed this to “lack of evidence”.
Karsevak to corporator
Since he was released on bail in April, Ekbote has turned reclusive. This has left his followers disappointed. “We continued with our work for weeks after his release but then we had to stop,” said Shiv Shankar Swami, 25, coordinator for one of the cow vigilante groups led by Ekbote. “How does one operate without a leadership?”
Swami joined Ekbote’s cow vigilante squad seven years ago. He said that Ekbote would meet the members of the groups he led quite regularly, but stopped after his arrest. “We thought they would resume once he was granted bail but that did not happen,” he said.
Ekbote has links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A profile of both Ekbote and Bhide published by the Mumbai Mirror in January said that Ekbote’s entire family is associated with the RSS. Several of his older comrades said that they were influenced by Ekbote’s role as a karsevak (volunteer) during the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992, an incident which led to communal violence across India.
Ekbote has built a small Ram temple at the beginning of the lane that leads to his home in Shivaji Nagar. A large board has been erected on the pavement facing the temple. It bears an image of Ram and the slogan “Mandir Wahi Banayenge”, the battle cry of the Ram Janambhoomi movement that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Ekbote was a BJP corporator in Pune from 1997 to 2002. Denied a ticket for re-election, he fought as an independent candidate and won a second term. He lost the corporation election in 2007 and, possibly to stay relevant, floated the Hindu Ekta Manch that year. The organisation has since been at the forefront of anti-Valentine’s Day protests in Maharashtra. In 2014, he contested Assembly elections on a Shiv Sena ticket and lost.
Ekbote’s sister-in-law Jyotsna Ekbote, the wife of Dr Gajanan Ekbote, is a BJP corporator in Pune.
A police report mentions there are 13 criminal cases filed against Ekbote. These do not include those filed in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence. The 13 cases are for offences ranging from hatching criminal conspiracies and rioting, to causing enmity between communities. He was convicted in at least five of them and has been to jail several times – once for his involvement in a communal riot in Maharashtra in 2003.
Last week, the Pune Grameen Police told this correspondent that it was ready to file two chargesheets against Ekbote in connection with two Bhima Koregaon cases. Ekbote did not respond to phone calls and text messages asking him for his response to this development.
Where is Ekbote?
This correspondent decided to visit Ekbote’s home in Pune’s Shivaji Nagar to see if he could locate him and get him to comment on the matter.
Ekbote’s home is in a building that stands on a lane that runs alongside the walls of the Indian Meteorological Department’s office. The Ekbotes own the entire building. On its ground floor is a branch of a cooperative bank and the office of Jyotsna Ekbote. Its first floor has been divided into two sections. Milind Ekbote, a bachelor, occupies one part, while Gajanan Ekbote’s clinic and home occupy the other.
Last week, entry to Milind Ekbote’s section was restricted with a locked gate. Jyotsna Ekbote was not in her office when this correspondent visited. Neither was Gajanan Ekbote in his clinic, which had no visiting hours mentioned and, the receptionist said, there was no appointment system applicable for Dr Ekbote’s clinic.
The ground floor of the building also houses one of Ekbote’s NGOs, which has a separate entrance. Above the gate that leads to the office of this NGO is a board with a photograph of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on the left. A message on the board called for “All Hindus to unite irrespective of their caste.” Several journalists and members of groups led by Ekbote said that he is known to be close to Adityanath.
The security guard outside the building, a contractor currently engaged in some construction work in the building, employees in the office of corporator Jyotsna Ekbote all said they did not know where Milind Ekbote was.