Mumbai: The Pune police on Tuesday conducted simultaneous countrywide raids and arrests in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence on January 1 in which Maratha groups’ objection to a commemorative event by dalits led to violent clashes that spread across Maharashtra, leading to one death.
The raids at the homes and offices of nine activists began at 6 am and went on till evening when the arrest of five were announced — lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj from Faridabad, rights activist Gautam Navlakha from Delhi, activist Vernon Gonsalves and lawyer-activist Arun Ferreira from Mumbai.
From Hyderabad, 78-year-old revolutionary writer P. Varavara Rao was arrested.
The raids and arrests, police said, were based on names that emerged during the investigation of five other activists they had arrested in June in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon violence.
While Pune police termed Tuesday’s raids and arrests as a crackdown on “urban Naxals” who, they claimed were responsible for the violence, many reacted to the news with shock, describing the action as “absolutely chilling” and a “virtual declaration of emergency”.
The CPI(M) politburo called it a brazen attack on democratic rights and civil liberties and demanded the withdrawal of the cases against the activists and their immediate release.
All the activists have been arrested under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
While four have been arrested for their alleged Maoist links, 78-year-old Varavara Rao, police said, has been arrested for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The police has claimed that two letters exchanged by Maoist leaders recovered earlier indicated plans to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Home minister Rajnath Singh.
While a 2016 letter suggested that there were deliberations among Naxals to kill the three BJP leaders, a 2017 letter referred to a plan to carry out a Rajiv Gandhi-type assassination attack on the PM during one of his roadshows, they claimed.
The second letter was addressed to a “Comrade Prakash” and was allegedly found from the residence of a Delhi-based activist Rona Wilson in June.
“We could establish that they are members of core committee of banned Communist Party of India Maoist,” a officer said about Tuesday’s arrests on the condition of anonymity.
“Arrests have been made and the arrested are being brought to Pune,” said Shivajirao Bodke, joint commissioner of police, Pune.
However, Delhi high court directed that rights activist Gautam Navlakha should not be taken away from Delhi till further orders as police was not able to “satisfactorily” explain under what offence he had been arrested.
The raids and arrests of human and Dalit rights activists in June and on Tuesday mark a shift of focus away from the investigation of cases against Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, who have been accused of making provocative speeches that allegedly triggered the violence in Bhima-Koregaon in January.
Every year on January 1, lakhs of dalit citizens from across the country gather in Bhima-Koregaon, a village 30 km north-east of Pune, to commemorate the historic victory of lower-caste Mahar soldiers in the British Army over the Brahmin Peshwa-led Maratha Empire in 1818.
This year, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, a coalition of 260 non-profit organisations had held an event called Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, at Pune’s Shaniwar Wada. It featured speakers such as politicians Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mewani and dalit rights activist Radhika Vemula.
The next day some people waving saffron flags pelted stones at cars heading towards Bhima-Koregaon. This escalated into violent clashes between dalit and Maratha groups that spread across the state.
On January 3, the Pune police filed cases against Milind Ekbote, head of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and Sambhaji Bhide, chief of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan for allegedly instigating the violence against dalits. However, while Ekbote was released on bail soon after being arrested in March, Bhide has not yet been arrested, despite a Supreme Court order demanding his arrest.
In June, Pune police arrested activist Rona Wilson who is associated with the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners, dalit activist and editor of Marathi magazine Vidrohi Sudhir Dhawale, Nagpur-based lawyer and dalit and tribal activist Surendra Gadling, a professor at Nagpur University Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut, a Prime Minister Rural Development fellow.