Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar are no longer national icons. You can be arrested for reading them


By Rana Ayyub

Indicted icon Dalit students in front of an Ambedkar statue
Indicted icon Dalit students in front of an Ambedkar statue

BANDU MESHRAM’S schoolgoing daughter hides behind the curtain as she spots us. She tugs her mother Seema’s saree and tells her to send us away. Seema, a teacher, tells us the little girl has been afraid of strangers ever since the police took away her 38-year-old father. On 21 February, barely a few metres away from his home in Nagpur, a police team picked him up. It was only the next day his wife learned that the “abductors” described by neighbours were a squad sent by the Chandrapur district police.

Three days after his arrest, Bandu was charged with sedition under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). His arrest was based on “classified information” received by the police that Bandu was the absconding zonal secretary of a banned Maoist outfit. “He was working as a tailor in a reputed garments showroom,” says his wife. “They say he was in hiding whereas we stay in the lane next to the police station.”

When questioned by TEHELKA, Superintendent of Police Cherring Dorje admits the name in the 2008 chargesheet is not Bandu Meshram but alleged the tailor uses an alias. His wife says that even the literature the police showed as “seizure” was just a book on the Vidarbha farmers movement. “Will they hang him because he was a part of an agricultural movement? Next they should hang me because I am a follower of Ambedkar,” she says.

TEHELKA tracked many such stories — stories of arrests scattered across Maharashtra, told by people we met across districts, in blue-coloured houses, at rallies.

A book seller. A student. A lecturer. A wedding guest. All found, or so the police say, in possession of literature like an interview of Arundhati Roy, Maxim Gorky’s Mother, material on the Khairlanji atrocity or Bhagat Singh. “If you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist. If you are a Dalit, you are a Naxalite,” a Dalit rights lawyer and activist told TEHELKA.

That seems to be the twisted logic at play, for close to a hundred arrests have been made since 2007 under the UAPA, used by the government to label all kinds of political activity as ‘terrorist’, ‘anti-national’ or ‘seditious’. TEHELKA has details of 18 such cases, which demonstrate that the state seems to have no real understanding of the socio-economic conditions under which Dalits turn to activism. Or the fact that Bhagat Singh is a national hero who fought against the British and Gorky’s writings are inspiring but he did not advocate, like Chairman Mao did, that power flows from the barrel of a gun. This, in a country where state governments are wooing Dalit votes by building statues of Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, and school students are told they are national heroes.

Living hell Bandu Meshram’s wife and children await his return Mind bender Anil Mamane, sociology lecturer, accused of spreading radical ideas

EVERY YEAR, Dalits from across the world converge on Diksha Bhoomi, Nagpur, to commemorate the day Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with 15 lakh Dalits. In October 2007, four Dalit youths were headed that way:

  • Anil Mamane, 27, lecturer of sociology, MA (gold medallist)
  • Dinkar Kamble, 23, MPhil first year student, ranked 2nd in selection
  • Bapu Patil, 20, BA first year student
  • Babasaheb Saymote, 27, MCom.

Mamane wanted to awaken the collective conscience of people through his writing. Books like Ya Jagaat Dev Aahe Ka (Does God Exist?), Ramabai to Khairlanji were either written or distributed by him. So he and student Dinkar Kamble, who used to sell books in his neighbourhood, boarded the Maharashtra Express. The other two accused, Babasaheb Saymote and Bapu Patil, took the same train and were, unfortunately for them, in the same compartment.

At Ajni, two hours before Nagpur, the police entered the compartment and picked up the four. They were taken to Nagpur police station and a case was registered that they were part of a group carrying incriminating literature that asked Dalits to kill in the name of Khairlanji. The chargesheet said, “Literature seized from the applicants is highly objectionable and provocative, and was intended to provoke a large number of Dalits to join the cause of Naxals.”

It was an outright frame-up. If one were to go by the logic of the police that the material was incriminating, why not punish the writer and the publisher? They arrested two people who were going to sell books already in the market and two who were not even linked to them. While the police could frame a case against Mamane and Kamble, building up a case against Bapu Patil and Saymote was more difficult. Saymote’s house in his village and Patil’s hostel room were raided. “They picked up my BA books as proof,” says Patil. Saymote was shown to be a member of Kabir Manch, a cultural organisation, which the police claimed was under surveillance on suspicion of being engaged in subversive activities.

‘If you are a Muslim, you are a terrorist. If you are a Dalit, you are a Naxalite,’ remarks a Dalit rights lawyer and activist

When the matter went to trial, the two “alleged accomplices” got bail immediately. The judge said, “There is no prima facie evidence to even suggest that Dinkar Kamble knew what was written in the books. Bapu Patil, residing in a hostel, too just possessed some books. Mere possession of books is not sufficient to infer that the applicants are instigating armed revolution. Hence bail be granted.”

Mamane and Saymote were not so lucky: their bail applications were rejected. But where the law did not help, hunger strike did. A 14-day hunger strike by Saymote and Mamane ensured that the same judge gave them bail six months later on the same grounds mentioned in the earlier bail applications.

Activists from across the country including Anna Hazare came out to protest, forcing Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil to make a visit to the area and to the hostel. While the mainstream media largely ignored the case, processions were taken out with letters being written to the government by college professors and writers asking whether the state is scared of Bhagat Singh’s ideology. Students displayed placards outside the minister’s residence asking if the state was ashamed of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar.

Kamble says, “I was always proud of the fact that in spite of coming from an impoverished family, I had managed to clear my MPhil . But the taunts they threw at me in jail broke me. They would ask me if we Ambedkarites were trying another 1857.”

BAPU PATIL, now 23, has a 65-year-old ailing mother and a sister to care for. He works for an NGO that stages street plays to create awareness on medical issues. His hostel room still has a huge poster of Ambedkar adorning the wall. “I live in fear. They can still come and arrest me saying that in the name of spreading awareness on disease, I am helping the Naxal cause”. This college student also has to spend `600 from his meagre pocket money travelling two times a month to the Nagpur court to attend the hearings.

Students held placards outside the minister’s residence asking if the state was ashamed of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar

Usually, such arbitrary arrests break a man or destroy his livelihood. But Anil Mamane’s arrest and release meant a big leap for him, as he now has scripts from 75 authors waiting to be published and has the complete backing of publishing houses. When he came out of jail, he married a Brahmin girl whom he knew since college. People collected `2 lakh to give them a lavish wedding. He has written a book on Khairlanji and is re-publishing books on Bhagat Singh. “Truth can’t be silenced,” he says.

But two Dalits who paid a heavy price for being socially aware are journalist Dhanendra Bhurile and shopkeeper Naresh Bansod, residents of Gondia. When produced before the Nagpur magistrate, the policemen said they had been arrested along with two other alleged Naxalites — Arun Ferreira and Mahesh aka Murli Satyareddi — and that they had plans to go to Diksha Bhoomi to hatch a conspiracy.

The police stated that when arrested in May 2007, the four started throwing away their SIM cards, Naxal literature, envelopes and pen drives. Sessions judge RB Patil questioned how it could then be proved that this material belonged to them.

Grassroots Babasaheb Saymote back at his farm Heartbreaking news Dhanendra Bhurile and his wife Sarita

It was on the basis of this literature and ‘confessions’ from police witnesses that these two were accused under Sections 10, 13, 18 and 20 of UAPA, which amount to knowingly or unknowingly facilitating terror acts as well as recruiting people for terror-related activities, besides sedition.

The two were granted bail by the high court for lack of evidence to prosecute them under UAPA, giving the police two months to appeal against the bail. However, the police went to the Supreme Court to apply against the bail and got a stay. Thus, after spending three months in jail, the duo were rearrested and this time the police slapped an additional charge against the two of burning a police vehicle and killing police officials. Then started the rounds of torture and casteist insults, adding to the injury inflicted by the police. “One of the police officers who used to hang me upside down asked me to face the repercussions of trying to be another Ambedkar,” recalls Bansod.

Having spent close to three years in jail, justice finally opened its eyes for the two, who were acquitted and released in July this year. In a landmark judgement, the judge said the police had been simply unable to prove not just the provisions of UAPA but also discharged the other case of rioting that the police had slapped on them after their re-arrest. The judge observed that the police erred right in the beginning when it did not even obtain sanction under UAPA while filing the chargesheet.

Why did the police want to brand Bhurile and Bansod as Naxalites? Is it a caste war being waged by feudal elements under the cover of ferreting out Maoists? Bhurile hints it is prejudice and a desire to oppress those tasting liberation. “It’s simple,” he says. “A Dalit does not read Lenin or Gorky. If he does, unlike you, he is a criminal.” That he heard the word Naxalism for the first time in court is something nobody will believe, he says, as he shows us his collection of books on Ambedkar.

TEHELKA CAUGHT up with Bhurile and Bansod after their release from custody in January. The broken pieces of their lives will take a long time to put together, especially where their personal lives are concerned. The friends were nabbed at a railway station en route to a wedding. Bansod was employed by an organisation that opposed superstition and traditional beliefs. “I worked with the likes of Baba Amte, not just for the uplift of Dalits but also the poor, even amongst Brahmins. Our aim was to help people live a life of dignity”.

Bhurile worked for two of the bestknown Marathi newspapers. He still remembers the day the police caught him on charges of aiding Naxal activity and also of being a Naxal and produced him in a press conference. “All my friends and colleagues were there,” he recalls ruefully, hinting at he embarrassment and humiliation he felt. “A couple of them stole some glances at me while the rest pretended they didn’t know who I am. They dutifully filed reports for their newspapers that the police have nabbed two dreaded Naxals.”

If inside jail the husbands had to bear the brunt of an ideology taught in school, the wives had to suffer for supporting their husbands. Sarita Bedarkar taught sociology at a local college. Within days of her husband’s arrest, she was told by the college principal that her services were no longer required. “I started borrowing books on Indian law and decided to become a lawyer. The cops would come to my residence frequently and taunt me about reading law books,” says Sarita.

Bansod’s wife, on the other hand, could not take the police harassment and decided to leave her husband. She left for Chhattisgarh to marry again, leaving her school-going son behind.

‘I worked with the likes of Baba Amte, not just for the uplift of Dalits but also the poor, even amongst Brahmins,’ says Naresh Bansod

Bansod is yet to come to terms with the twists in his life. “It was a mockery of the law. We paid the price of who we were and what we represented. You can’t turn it all back.” He was self-employed before his arrest, running an electrical goods shop but the police ransacked it, looting most of the merchandise. Now he has lost his livelihood.

In another case, a group of 10 college students professing allegiance to the teachings of Bhagat Singh and Jyotiba Phule were arrested and charged with conducting covert operations for Naxalites in Chandrapur. The logic seems to be that since Bhagat Singh justified violence against evil-doers, students impressed by his revolutionary ideas are about to get violent.

Police is now on the lookout for Veera Sathidaar alias Vijay Bairagade. His home is a one-room residence doubling up as a library where local students borrow books and magazines. His wife Pushpa has a list of the publications seized by the police in a raid that scared her into telling her husband to avoid coming home. Among the seized books is one with the title Monarchy vs Democracy. We meet Veera where he is hiding. He tells us his son has been named in the FIR lodged by the police. A family is torn asunder.

So what can one say of the mentality of the state, symbolised by the constable who spat at jeans-clad Shantanu Kamble, “So, you sing? So come on sing for us, just like you sing for the Naxalites.” This softspoken college dropout who works as a labourer by day and pens his thoughts at night says that it is his poetry that helps him forget the trauma of being arrested. Fortunately, Additional Sessions Judge AA Khan could not help saying, “He is a poet, not a Naxalite. Release him.”

Photos:  Tarun Sehrawat



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