Pune police carried out a seven-hour-long search early on Tuesday morning at the residences of prominent human rights lawyers and activists across Nagpur, Pune and Delhi to probe their role in the Elgar Parishad and alleged links with Naxals.
The police raided the homes of Rona Wilson in New Delhi, Surendra Gadling in Nagpur, and Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) members Sudhir Dhavale, Harshali Potdar, Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Ghaichor and Deepak Dhengle in Pune. Mr. Gadling was the lawyer of G.N. Saibaba, a former Delhi University professor who was accused of having links with Maoists.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said in Mumbai that the raids were part of a nationwide operation against people believed to be associated with Naxalism, and had no relation to the Bhima-Koregaon clashes. While authorities who conducted the searches refused to comment, police sources said that the raids were aimed at finding out if the participants of the Elgar Parishad had or retained any links to Naxals or Maoists.
Victory over oppression
The Elgar Parishad was organised at Shaniwarwada Fort on December 31 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon, in which about 500 soldiers of the untouchable Mahar community fought alongside the British Indian army to defeat over 20,000 soldiers of Peshwa Bajirao II. The organisers believed that the battle was a victory over caste-based oppression. Thousands of participants gathered at Shaniwarwada for the event and then marched towards Bhima-Koregaon village, 40 km from Pune. However, on January 1, violent clashes between two groups marred the bicentenary celebrations, resulting in the death of one person, Rahul Phatangale of Sanaswadi village.
Mr. Gadling said the search was an attempt to terrorise activists standing up to the “fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh”. He said, “They [government] are not punishing the culprits in the rape of a child in Kathua, but are targeting participants of the Elgar Parishad.They have left out people like Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote and are targeting activists associated with the Dalit movement. Those who openly oppose the RSS’s fascist agenda are being pressured. This is a clear attempt to muzzle democratic voices in the country.”
Mr. Gadling, who has represented many people accused of having links with Naxals during his 25-year-long practice, said, “Our country is divided into two faction. One is the RSS and the other the anti-RSS. Those who are standing up to the RSS or helping others who are fighting this fascist organisation are being crushed with the help of government agencies. The message is loud and clear. They won’t touch you if you do not say anything against the RSS, but they will trouble you if you say a word against it.”
Mr. Gadling also alleged that the police took away CDs related to a project work done by his children. He said, “I am a simple lawyer. I did not even participate in the Bhima-Koregaon protest or programme. They have taken away my research work and important documents related to my practice. They even took away CDs of projects done by my son and niece, and pen drives belonging to my wife. They also confiscated CDs of weddings, birthdays, songs and Bollywood movies. They came to my home in 10 to 15 vehicles.
“The attempt was to terrorise my family and the people in my locality. This is an attempt to terrorize us, but we won’t buckle under this pressure. We are sons of [Dr. B.R.] Ambedkar. We are being targeted as we talk of Ambedkar and oppose [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi and the RSS.”
The KKM, a radical Dalit and working-class cultural troupe, has alleged that it has been made “a scapegoat” to divert attention from the real perpetrators of the clashes. KKM activists have condemned the State’s ‘pressure tactics’ and claim that they are being “unjustly targeted” for demanding the arrest of Sambhaji Bhide, the octogenarian Hindutva leader of Shiv Pratishthan who is the prime accused in the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
Ms. Jagtap said, “Why are we being searched now, months after the FIR was lodged against us? Each time, we are ‘soft targets’ for the government and the police machinery, who accuse us of promoting Maoist-Naxalite ideology.” Ms. Jagtap said that the searches began at 6 a.m. and went on till noon. She said, “The search team especially marked out literature, which included pamphlets on Ambedkar’s thoughts and those of progressive activists like Annabhau Sathe. There is nothing sinister about these tracts. We did not attempt to hide, print or distribute anything inflammatory during the Elgar Parishad.”
Ms. Jagtap said that the KKM was not the only outfit that had participated in the Elgar Parishad, which saw more than 200 liberal and Ambedkarite groups taking part. On the night of January 8, Vishrambaug Wada police had lodged an FIR against six KKM members for making “inflammatory” speeches and delivering “socially divisive” presentations during their troupe’s performance at the Elgar Parishad on December 31, which lasted nearly eight hours from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Booked for ‘hate speech’
On January 3, Vishrambaug police lodged a case against newly elected Gujarat Assembly MLA Jignesh Mevani and Jawaharlal Nehru University Umar Khaled for allegedly promoting enmity between two groups by making provocative speeches at the Elgar Parishad.
Mr. Mevani, Mr. Khalid, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar and Radhika Vemula, the mother of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. scholar who hanged himself at the University of Hyderabad two years ago on January 17, were among the speakers at the event.