On September 6, when the Supreme Court’s first bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra began hearing the matter related to the arrest of activists in the Bhima Koregaon violence case, heads turned briefly as senior lawyer Harish Salve walked into the courtroom and sat down next to Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

For a while, Salve sat quietly as fellow lawyers made their arguments. Then, as he rose to his feet, Justice AM Khanwilkar, one of the three judges on the bench, asked whether the former solicitor general was there for the Bhima Koregaon matter.

“I am representing the complainant,” one of the most sought-after lawyers in the country replied.

He was referring to Tushar Damgude. It is Damgude’s complaint that has led to the arrest of 10 rights activists and lawyers since June. The complaint, which the Pune 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 Maoists links who had spoken at a public meeting called Elgar Parishad the previous day. Five of the 10 activists who were held in August are currently under house arrest at the direction of the Supreme Court.

In August, Damgude told Scroll.in that he was “just a small person” running a “small construction business” in Maharashtra. On Monday, though, senior lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the five eminent persons who have moved the Supreme Court against the arrest of the activists, said Damgude was mentored by Manohar Bhide, popularly known as Sambhaji Bhide, one of the main accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.

A complaint filed with the Pune Rural police by Dalit social activist Anita Savale on January 3 claimed she saw the followers of Bhide and fellow Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote go on a rampage in Bhima Koregaon, throwing stones and assaulting people. They were carrying weapons and burnt Ambedkarite flags, she added. Based on her complaint, the police registered a first information report naming Bhide and Ekbote as suspects, and booking them for offences that include rioting with arms, unlawful assembly, defiling sacred objects and caste atrocities. Neither has been arrested yet despite a Supreme Court order.

Damgude publicly refers to Bhide as “guruji”, like most of his followers.

Asked how a “small businessman” like him could afford a highly expensive lawyer such as Salve, Damgude chose to parry the question and posed a counter. “How did this Varavara Rao and others get Prashant Bhushan as their lawyer? How did Yakub Memon get his lawyer?” he asked, referring to the 1993 Mumbai bombings convict who was hanged in 2015. “I got mine the same way.”

He went on to accuse the media of asking him too many questions for filing the complaint. “Has the media asked Anita Savale and others who filed cases against Ekbote and Bhide this same question?” he questioned.

Salve is being assisted in Damgude’s case by Devanshi Singh, who works with Mukul Rohatgi, the former attorney general known to be a close friend of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Singh has assisted Rohatgi in several high-profile cases, including the midnight hearing in the Supreme Court on the Karnataka floor test in May. Also assisting him is Anil Grover, who is the additional advocate general of Haryana.

Salve was India’s solicitor general from 1999 to 2002, serving the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

Scroll.in sent questions to Salve asking if he has taken up the matter pro bono – that is, without charge – and who it was that approached him to engage his services. This article will be updated if and when he responds.

Other lawyers

On the opposing side, Bhushan said he and Singhvi are representing the petitioners pro bono. Bhushan has a track record of fighting pro bono cases he believes to be in public interest.

Singhvi is a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha and a spokesperson of the party. He initially told Scroll.in that he would respond to all questions only after the hearing concludes. However, in a response late Tuesday night, he confirmed he was appearing pro bono. He said he was “missing many many paid matters for it” and had “missed many other cases on last two dates and will again miss tomorrow” – a reference to the hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

Other lawyers appearing for the petitioners and the activists include Rajeev Dhavan and Vrinda Grover.

Anand Grover is representing the five activists arrested in June who have intervened in this case.

The central and Maharashtra governments are represented by Tushar Mehta and Maninder Singh, both additional solicitors general of India.

With inputs from Aarefa Johari