On June 6, 2018, the Maharashtra police arrested five social activists from across the country on charges of instigating caste violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in January 2018.
One year later, the five accused – lawyer Surendra Gadling, retired English professor Shoma Sen, poet and publisher Sudhir Dhawale, and human rights activists Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson – are still serving jail time as undertrials in Pune’s Yerawada jail.
There has been no progress in their cases even six months after the Pune police filed the first chargesheet against them. Bail applications for the five activists are still pending.
Their families are grappling with repeated delays in court hearings, financial difficulties and the uncertainty of their fate.
“So far, the police have not presented any evidence in court to match all their claims and accusations about my brother and the others,” said Monali Raut, Mahesh Raut’s sister. “The hearings keep getting postponed for some reason or the other.”
On January 1, 2018, violence erupted near Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra’s Pune district, where lakhs of Dalits had converged to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, in which Dalit Mahar soldiers fighting for the British army defeated the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire.
The police investigations first focused on Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide – two Brahmin Hindutva leaders who were accused of stirring up anti-Dalit sentiments in the region in the last two weeks of December. Ekbote was briefly arrested and granted bail, though Bhide was neither detained nor questioned.
By April 2018, however, the police completely changed the focus of their investigations, claiming that the Bhima Koregaon violence was incited by several Dalit rights activists in their speeches at the Elgar Parishad, an event organised by a large coalition of Dalit and human rights organisations in Pune a day before the Bhima Koregaon commemoration.
The Pune police conducted raids on several activists in April 2018, followed by two rounds of arrests that targeted ten activists. On June 6, 2018, they arrested Gadling, Sen and Raut from Nagpur, as well as Dhawale from Mumbai and Wilson from Delhi. On August 28, 2018, the police arrested five more activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha.
By this time, the accusations against the activists had grown from inciting the violence in Bhima Koregaon to alleged involvement in a nationwide “Maoist” conspiracy to destabilise democracy, overthrow the government by setting up an “anti-fascist front” and plotting to assassinate Narendra Modi. All of the activists were labelled as “urban Naxalites” and accused of being members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
A year since the first round of arrests in this elaborate case, Scroll.in spoke to relatives and friends of Gadling, Dhawale, Sen, Raut and Wilson. Despite their fears, many of them were hopeful about that their loved ones would be released.
Surendra Gadling: Not allowed to study
In his 25-year career as a human rights lawyer in Nagpur, Gadling ha defended many political prisoners accused of propagating extremism and Maoism. In jail over the past year, Gadling has continued to help other prisoners with legal advice, according to his colleague Nihalsingh Rathod. “Even though his own bail plea has been pending since July 2018, he has helped at least nine inmates get bail,” said Rathod, one of several lawyers at the Nagpur High Court who have taken over Gadling’s many human rights cases in his absence.
According to Rathod, Gadling’s appeals to be allowed to study cyber law and human rights have been rejected by jail authorities. “With cyber law, they claim that Gadling might learn to manipulate the jail’s computer systems,” said Rathod. “They are also monitoring the books he is allowed to read, because they want to ensure there is nothing seditious in what he reads.”
For Gadling’s wife Meenal, her husband’s health has been a major source of worry in the past year. Gadling had blood pressure and heart problems soon after he was arrested, but jail authorities have not yet shared his medical reports with his family. “He is supposed to eat dry fruit and other healthy things, but the jail authorities do not allow me to give it to him,” said Meenal Gadling, whose family has also been struggling financially since Surendra Gadling’s arrest.
She added: “For us, this has been a very difficult time emotionally too. For the past two months, hearings have been scheduled in his case but the police don’t produce him in court. I don’t know how much to hope anymore.”
Shoma Sen: Fighting for basic rights
A former English professor Nagpur University, Shoma Sen is affiliated to several women’s rights organisations in India and is a member of the Committee for the Protection of Domestic Rights. Since her arrest, her daughter Koel Sen claims the family has had to constantly fight with jail authorities to ensure that Sen was given her due rights as an undertrial.
“After a whole year of complaining, the jail has finally given my mother a chair in her cell,” said Koel Sen, a filmmaker who lives in Mumbai. So far, said Koel, Sen has been forced to sit and sleep on a thin mattress on the floor, despite her arthritis.
“The jail does not treat people humanely,” she said. “Undertrials should be kept separately, but in the initial months of her arrest, my mother was kept with convicts.”
While Sen has been trying to keep her spirits high in jail by reading and writing, Koel Sen has been frustrated by the rejection of Shoma Sen’s first bail plea and the overall delay in the second bail plea hearings since then. “In the past three weeks itself, the judge who had heard all the bail application arguments and was expected to deliver a judgement was transferred, and the new judge is now hearing the arguments all over again,” said Koel Sen.
Mahesh Raut: Not allowed his medicines
As an Adivasi rights activist from Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, Mahesh Raut was known for his work in movements demanding forest land rights for indigenous communities. His colleagues from the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vilas Andolan and the Bharat Jan Andolan are now carrying forward his work. But for his family, his arrest has meant grappling with a degree of social ostracism.
“People’s behaviour towards us has definitely changed, both among friends and relatives, and some people even stopped talking to us for a few months,” said Raut’s sister Monali, a research and development professional in Mumbai.
Since Mahesh Raut’s mother and sister live in Gadchiroli, a 20-hour journey from Pune, Monali Raut is the only family member able to make frequent visits to him in jail. “Mahesh already had ulcerative colitis when he was arrested, and he has been recommended Ayurvedic medicines,” said Monali Raut. “But jail authorities don’t allow us to give him those medicines.”
While he waits for the trials in his case to begin, Mahesh Raut has been reading books sent by family and friends. “He is hopeful about the outcome of his case.”
Sudhir Dhawale: Friends not allowed to meet him
The founder of Dalit rights organisation Republican Panthers, Sudhir Dhawale is also a well-known poet, political commenter and the publisher of left-leaning Marathi magazine Vidrohi. In the past year, while his children and other family members have been allowed to meet him in jail, his closest colleagues and friends have not been allowed because they are not blood relatives.
“But because of all the protests we organised against his arrest, Sudhir has not been mistreated in jail, even though his bail plea has been postponed for the past nine months,” said Shyam Sonar, Dhawale’s colleague at Republican Panthers and a member of the editorial board of Vidrohi.
In 2011, Dhawale had been arrested on similar charges of Naxalism. After 40 months in prison, he was acquitted. This time, Sonar believes Dhawale might be released faster.
“We are confident that he will be acquitted soon, and once he is out, we know he will once again be ready to speak out for the marginalised,” said Sonar. “Meanwhile, we are keeping his work alive by continuing to publish Vidrohi with the help of small donations.”
Rona Wilson: Exchanging letters with his family
A PhD scholar, Rona Wilson was working as a public relations secretary of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Delhi at the time of his arrest. His family is proud of the cause that he had been standing for, even though his arrest has been a setback for them. “His arrest has been unbearable for the whole family, and all the media attention has been difficult,” said Roy Wilson, Rona’s brother.
Wilson’s family lives in Kerala, and visiting him in Pune has been tough. “My parents have not been able to see him at all, but we are exchanging letters and sending him books,” said Roy. “We are positive that it is just a matter of time before he is acquitted.”