Why Sudhir Dhawale’s acquittal in a 2014 case of Naxal involvement is relevant to the Bhima Koregaon arrests

15 June 2018

On 6 June, in a joint operation across Delhi, Nagpur and Mumbai, the Pune Police arrested five individuals for allegedly being “top urban Maoist operatives” who incited the violence in Bhima Koregaon—a town in Maharashtra—this January. Sudhir Dhawale, one of the five accused, is a prominent Mumbai-based activist who has worked extensively on Dalit rights. He has previously been arrested, and subsequently acquitted, in another case of alleged involvement with Maoist rebels.

Dhawale was one of the organisers of the Elgar Parishad, an event held on 31 December last year, on the eve of the two-hundredth anniversary of a battle at Bhima Koregaon. The battle culminated in the victory of a small British battalion, largely comprising soldiers from the oppressed Mahar caste, over an army of dominant-caste Peshwas. On the day of the bicentenary celebrations, mobs of people carrying saffron flags attacked the predominantly Dalit gathering at Bhima Koregaon. A week later, the Pune Police registered a first information report in relation to the violence, in which Dhawale was named as an accused. Following this FIR, Dhawale and four others were arrested early this month.

None of the other four persons arrested—Rona Wilson and Mahesh Raut, both prominent activists, Surendra Gadling, a Nagpur-based lawyer known for taking on political cases, and Shoma Sen, an activist and professor at a Nagpur university—were named in the FIR. All five have been booked for serious offences under the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, including on charges of being a member of, providing support to and raising funds for a terrorist group. Two days after the arrests, the police seized a letter from Wilson’s house, which opens with the declaration, “Red Salutes!”—an unusually literal translation of the customary communist greeting “Lal Salaam”—and mentions a “Rajiv Gandhi style” plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In 2011, the Maharashtra police arrested Dhawale on charges of sedition and being a member of and providing support to a terrorist organisation. In May 2014, after Dhawale had spent 40 months in incarceration, RG Asmar—a judge presiding over a special UAPA court in Gondia, a district in Maharashtra—pronounced the judgment acquitting Dhawale and eight others of all charges. The judgment was strongly worded, and the court came down heavily against the state police for its investigation. Asmar noted, “The investigating agency has not only failed in observing and following the procedural aspects contemplated for arrest, seizure and collection of evidence in the matter, but also failed to comply the mandatory formalities on their part which were the incurable lapses in the investigation.”

The judgment illustrates concerns about the standard of evidence and the necessary procedure in UAPA cases that are pertinent for the ongoing case against Dhawale. Several prominent social activists were the prime accused in both cases. Incidentally, Gadling represented Dhawale in the 2011 case, where he argued that the prosecution’s case against Dhawale “appears to be a concoction.” Noting the nature of work of the arrested individuals, the court stated, “How can the highlighting the wrongs prevalent in the society, and insisting that there is a need to change the situation, be considered as evidence of they being members of a terrorist organization?”

Arshu John is a former assistant editor at The Caravan. Prior to that, he was an advocate practising criminal law in Delhi.

Keywords: Maoist rebels Naxalism Pune Nagpur Sudhir Dhawale Bhima Koregaon Dalit activism Dalit rights