The arrests of these activists were made on the basis of a First Information Report filed by Tushar Damgude, a former RSS activist and protégé of Bhide.
A peaceful event, Elgar Parishad was held on December 31, 2017. Over 35,000 people had attended it, where free speeches were given and people were informed they needed to be alert, remember their rights as free voices were being muzzled and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government needed to be toppled. It was organised by 260 non-profit organisations. The venue was Shaniwarwada, Pune. The only problem was, the Brahmin-dominated city of Maharashtra has a history of Peshwas, especially Shaniwarwada, and the event was held at a time there was a BJP government at both at the Centre and state. And this was an event organised to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima, in which Dalits who were in the British army, had defeated the Peshwa forces. There was a long line-up of speakers, educationists, judges, lawyers, professors and so on. The following day, there were riots at Bhima Koregaon, and then a Maharashtra bandh after and what followed was the most vindictive conspiracy by the Devendra Fadnavis-led government to completely finish the Naxal movement and ‘activism’ in the state. Having said that, the BJP student outfit ABVP continues to thrive and create a lot of trouble on various campuses. So basically, the message is clear – if you openly take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then be prepared to go to jail under absolutely stringent laws like UAPA and sedition and live the rest of your life in jail. However illogical it sounds, that is exactly what happened. 16 people were arrested and the death of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy is too fresh in memory. Meanwhile, Varavara Rao has got nail on medical grounds with innumerable restrictions and Professor Haney Babu is in Hospital. So much for our judiciary which most have looked upon as the only source for any semblance of justice. One look at their qualifications and their body of work and all you will find is self-sacrifice, working for the deprived and belief in upholding the Constitution of India. What is pertinent to note is that most of the accused in this case were neither named in the First Information Report over the violence, nor were they present at the Elgar Parishad. At that time, Fadnavis had, on the assembly floor admitted to saffron outfits being involved in the riots. Speaking of sedition and nationalism, this very ex-Chief Minister won elections in 2014 based on a promise for separate Vidarbha. Over 100 mill workers and Communist party laid their lives down for Samyukta Maharashtra in 1960. Now this is acceptable, but not when BJP challenged.
How the entire narrative changed and why the main BJP leaders namely Modi, Amit Shah and Fadnavis took a vindictive stand against the Left liberals definitely goes to show they were scared that the latter would definitely influence many right-thinking people from voting for the BJP. After the riots and the till now, we have seen double talk by the BJP leaders, false evidence being planted and an absolutely vilifying narrative being put out by the BJP, which must be held accountable for its protection of saffron activists Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide. Amazingly, both have been also well-protected by the Maha Vikas Aghadi government. Clearly, more than one party can do double talking. But let us start with the then CM Devendra Fadnavis, who, in an attempt to appease Prakash Ambedkar and the Dalit community, promised to investigate the two main culprits. As the various affidavits of the police, especially Pune rural, were filed, it was rather evident that the riots were between two groups, the saffron and blue flag groups, and there was NO role of the Elgar Parishad. Even the deputy mayor of Pune Municipal Corporation had clearly blamed the Hindu outfit for the riots. Superintendent of Police Mohammed Suvez Haq specifically stated in his affidavit filed with Bhima Koregaon inquiry commission that , “violence on January 1, 2018 was sudden and between two mobs”.
But what was put out to the public? The only thing people remember is that these activists wanted to kill the PM. Do they recollect how IPS Officer Param Bir Singh had held a press conference, flashing so-called printed copies of emails exchanged by learned professors and activists, asking for this murder. Till then NO such evidence had been submitted to the court. In fact, the arrests of these activists were made on the basis of a First Information Report filed by Tushar Damgude, a former RSS activist and protégé of Bhide. Now, compare these two Hindu activists, Milind Ekbote, head, Samasta Hindu Aghadi and Manohar Bhide, head, Shiv Pratishthan. In fact, six months prior to the Bhima-Koregaon violence, the Fadnavis government had withdrawn six cases filed against Bhide. What had he done? Apparently, only led protests on the sets of the film Jodha Akbar, against the director, Ashutosh Gowariker, and disrupted the film’s shooting. Later, he was charged by the district collector of making false claims that mangoes from his orchard would help couples procreate sons. His misdemeanours are plenty, but of course, he isn’t termed as anti-national or Naxal. Citizens do not even recollect that Fadnavis had tried to reach out to the Dalit leaders to appease them.
The reason one needs to harp on the facts is because after the death of Father Stan Swamy and the continuous denial of bail to the other 13 languishing in jail, the basic premise of the police and government is based on false charges. The fact is, Elgar Parishad had nothing to do with the riots on January 1, 2018, at Bhima Koregaon. The culprits are out free, while the NIA has refused to grant bail to those in jail. Even the restricted bail granted to Varavara Rao was after a lot of trials. The way the entire case and the investigations have been handled should actually shame the governments for pursuing the matter over Damgude’s allegations that “inflammatory speeches inciting hatred amongst society” were delivered. By this logic, half of our politicians should be put in jail, which includes the founder of the Shiv Sena, who was indicted by Justice B N Srikrishna for the Bombay riots in 1992. Recently, Anurag Thakur during the Delhi Assembly elections had said, “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko”. But we have double standards in our country and saffron extremism is never considered a crime. The main point being, if toppling of any government is a crime, then the BJP is the biggest criminal. Just last year, we saw the BJP meddling in Rajasthan, with CM Ashok Gehlot accusing them of toppling democratically elected governments. If it is a democratic right to topple the government, that is exactly what the Elgar Parishad speakers urged. Also, the 1qq5 arrested so-called ‘urban Naxals’ called for toppling the BJP government, then it was their constitutional right to do so.
The current dispensation is known to twist words and we have seen how people are called names. At the same time, certain terms have been distorted beyond imagination and anyone who opposes the divisive, right-wing ideology is termed as anti-national, Maoist and an urban Naxal. In the words of Father Frazer Mascarehnas, who said at Father Swamy’s funeral, “What I would like to remember him the most about him is the word he used for himself and for his friends, the word comrade. He said my comrades are important to me. Now, don’t think for a minute that comrade means the Maoist, violent type. Nothing to do with Stan, that’s an absolutely ridiculous an accusation. Stan was gentle.” Father Swamy was 84 years old and suffered from Parkinson’s. It was a struggle to get him treatment and at that time, Bombay High Court had appointed a committee to assess his health condition. He was immobile by the time he was brought to jail and the conditions in there terrible, which worsened his condition. Later, the judges expressed regret and the stark fact is, the arrest of Father Stan Swamy and others in the Bhima Koregaon case was a huge set-up.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)