NEW DELHI—While the Pune city police have arrested prominent human rights lawyers and activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Surendra Gadling and Arun Ferreira as part of their investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence in January, their rural counterparts have actually been investigating two prominent Hindutva activists Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide.
Ekbote was earlier a Pune Municipal Corporation member from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The octogenarian Bhide has been active in Hindu right-wing circles for years.
And while the urban investigation into supposed Maoist links with the Elgar Parishad meeting — organised a day before the 1 January violence in Bhima Koregaon — seems to be picking up pace and making headlines, the rural investigation into prominent radical Hindu groups Samasta Hindu Aghadi and Shiv Pratishthan seems to have run aground, according to an eyewitness to the Bhima-Koregaon violence who filed one of the first police complaints.
The disjuncture between these two investigations has prompted some to question if the "Urban Naxal" angle pursued by the city police is an attempt to draw attention away from the Hindutva angle pursued by their rural counterparts.
"The police investigation [of Ekbote and Bhide] is questionable since Bhide was never arrested and Ekbote is out on bail now," said Anita Savale, the social activist who filed the complaint. "The Elgar Parishad has nothing to do with the violence at Bhima Koregaon. It was pre-planned violence at Bhima Koregaon and I witnessed it."
Urban vs. rural
In February this year, the rural police filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court to oppose an anticipatory bail petition filed by Ekbote. The submissions suggest the rural police was building against the Hindutva activists and probing if "other Hindu extremist organisations are involved behind the said violence", before the city police decided to probe the so-called "Urban naxal" angle:
[Ekbote] and his accomplice has created a law and order situation in the state. The petitioner is habitual in creating communal discord in past. The offences committed by the petitioner has created serious law and order problem wherein there is severe damage to public property worth crores and so also created fear of injury to life and limb. In the event the petitioner is enlarged on bail there might be occurrence of like situation in various parts of the state...
In the event of grant of anticipatory bail to the petitioner, the police will find a great difficulty to complete the investigation.
The affidavit, which was filed by Ganesh More, a sub-divisional officer with the Pune Rural Police, also recounted eyewitness Salave's account, and corroborated details of the police's initial invetigation:
[Savale] was proceeding towards "Vijaystambh" which is revered by Dalits in the country on the occasion of "Shourya Divas". The said "Vijaystambh" is the memorial which is praised and revered by the Dalit community in the memory of soldiers of Mahar regiment serving in the British Army. (Savale) was proceeding to said "Vijaystambh" along with her friend namely Anjana. At the relevant time, the mob instigated by the petitioner herein started indulging in stone pelting, arson and assaulted the people of Dalit community with deadly weapons like machete, stones and iron rods etc...accused were also damaging public property as well as burning vehicles of Dalit community parked on the nearby roads. Thereafter the complainant has filed complaint against the present petitioner and other accused named therein.
Based on this affidavit, the SC refused to grant Ekbote anticipatory bail in March. In the same month, the police arrested him, only for him to get bail from a session court a few weeks later. Bhide, in the meantime, was never arrested at all.In March, Fadnavis said on the floor of the Maharashtra assembly that there was no evidence against Bhide and "the woman" had complained on the basis of hearsay — a claim that Savale, the eyewitness denied.
Advocate and prominent Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, who closely tracks the legal cases related to the violence, contrasted the police's treatment of Ekbote, Bhide and their accomplices with the treatment meted out to human rights activists and lawyers — some of them are in jail since June, while others had to approach the Supreme Court to get temporary respite from incarceration.
In the case of Hindutva activists, Ambedkar said, the police "are arresting people at nine o'clock, producing people before the court at 11 o'clock and they (the accused) get bail the same day".
"So (if someone asks) whether you have taken action, (the Rural police can say), yes, I have taken action but the court has released them. The court is not with us," Ambedkar concluded.
Sandip Patil, Pune rural police's Superintendent of Police defended the trajectory of their investigation.
"So far, we have arrested about 100 accused and 22 crimes related with violent incidents from January 1 to 3 (at Bhima Koregaon) are registered with us," Patil said. "Among them (the accused) are Milind Ekbote and his accomplices as well as people from both communities (Dalits and Marathas) who were present there (in villages) during the time of occurrence of the violent incidents."