23 May 2014
Aritra BhattacharyaSudhir Dhawale, a Dalit activist who had been arrested and put behind bars by the state in January 2011 on charges of being a Maoist, was released from jail on Friday afternoon after being acquitted of all charges by a court in eastern Maharashtra’s Gondia district on Thursday.
Along with Dhawale, the court also acquitted eight others. While four of them had been granted bail earlier, five, including Dhawale, walked free on Friday. All of them had been charged with Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy); Section 20 and Section 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), pertaining to membership of a banned organisation and abetment to terrorist acts.
The court, while acquitting the nine accused—Sudhir Dhawale, Bhimrao Bhoite, Sunanda Bhoite, Chintamani Walde, Sanjat Banjara, Dongaram Koreti, Shailesh Wakde, Bhaskar Kore and Srinivas Jonde—censured the state and the prosecution severely. Harshad Lingayat, who represented Dhawale in court, said the District Judge R G Asmar gave a 45-minute speech before reading out the judgement, during which he criticised the police machinery for not undertaking proper investigations and flouting mandatory provisions under law.
The court, among other things, inferred that evidence in the case had been tampered with. Hard drives and pen drives from computers and laptops seized from the accused were examined by forensic experts, who noted that the devices had been ‘opened’ after seizure. Also, the storage devices were sent for forensic examination after being removed from the machines, while the Evidence Act requires them to be presented ‘in toto’.
“The court inferred from this that the evidence had been tampered with after seizure,” said Lingayat.
The judge also mentioned that he had himself scanned the internet for some of the literature recovered from the accused, which was presented in court as evidence of their links with the Maoists. The judge mentioned that the material was available on hundreds of links online, and some of the material was also part of academic syllabi. Lingayat said as far as Dhawale’s own writings are concerned—this included writings on Charu Mazumdar, founder of the Naxalite movement, as well as translations of books by Suniti Kumar Ghosh (who died recently) and Arundhati Roy—the judge said the accused was simply exercising his Constitutional right to freedom of speech.
The court also came down heavily on the prosecution for failing to produce credible witnesses. In all, 39 witnesses were examined in the case, but many among these 39 were ‘interested witnesses’, belonging to various arms of the state like the home guards. “Their interest lies in siding with the state, and the judge mentioned as much,” said Lingayat.
Senior defence lawyer Surendra Gadling, who had defended Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, and Sridhar—all of whom had been arrested on charges of being Maoists and then acquitted after spending many years in jail—said the this case was among the “bogus cases” foisted upon those opposing the State. Apart from Dhawale, the other eight accused were also active in grassroots struggles in various parts of the state, he said.
In fact, said Lingayat, Justice A G Ramsar noted dissatisfaction against the government was justified on many grounds, and the government continues to ‘use’ some of these dissatisfied persons to reach out to the extremists.
Dhawale’s incarceration has often been compared to that of Dr. Binayak Sen, and it is only fair that the former has been acquitted of all charges, like the latter. On many occasions since his release from jail, Dr Sen has sought to highlight cases where the state puts activists behind bars on fabricated charges.
Dhawale, among other things, founded the Republican Panther (RP) Jati Antachi Chalwal (movement for the annihilation of caste) in 2007 and was the editor of the bi-monthly Marathi magazine Vidrohi prior to his arrest in 2011. Through Republican Panther, which works within a broad-based emancipatory political framework taking the nexus of caste and class as one of its primary issues, he had been trying to bring together grassroots activists and leaders following the massacre of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji.
The state’s interest in keeping Dhawale behind bars can be understood when one considers what his companion in Republican Panther Sharad Gaikwad has to say. Gaikwad, while speaking to this correspondent earlier, had said, “Sudhir wanted to form an organisation that would take up cases of caste atrocities and look at their connections with the class structure and the corporatised state.” This line is vastly different from the identity politics that has become the reserve of Dalit parties in Maharashtra. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Dhawale was arrested soon after Republican Panther concluded a state-wide campaign to expand its reach.
Although Republican Panther lost some steam after Dhawale’s arrest, the group of late has been involved in a campaign against the murder of a Dalit boy in Ahmednagar district, allegedly by Marathas. Republican Panther played a crucial role in forming a fact-finding team to inquire into the incident, of which this correspondent was a part, and which found that the police machinery tried to pass it off as a case of accidental death initially, and that the boy’s family fears for its life despite promises galore from political leaders.
Maharashtra faces assembly polls in a 4-5 months from now and it will be interesting to see what direction this campaign takes following the release of Dhawale.