Recalling the nightmare that haunts people accused of plotting the PM's assassination

As a lawyer of one of the accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, the writer recalls the recurring nightmare on the third anniversary of the controversial case

(From Left to RIght) Sudha Bhardwaj, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen
(From Left to RIght) Sudha Bhardwaj, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen

Nihalsing B Rathod

The accused in high profile cases, I earlier believed, played the victim card and falsely blamed the police for implicating them. Today I stand corrected.

Since the morning of June 6, 2018, I have been witness to several lives turned upside down by Pune and Nagpur Police following the arrest, vilification and detention of social workers, lawyers and academics in the Bhima Koregaon case.

While in prison Sudha Bharadwaj lost her father, Surendra Gadling his mother and Sudhir Dhawale his brother. Except for Sudha, courts did not find it proper to let others visit their bereaved families. Vernon Gonsalves lost his mother and Shoma Sen lost her mother-in-law. Many of their close friends and colleagues also lost their lives while they remained unaware.

The nightmare began on June 6, 2018, when Pune Police arrested five social activists from across the country. In the days to come, 11 more were to be implicated and placed behind bars. Additional Commissioner of Police Shivaji Pawar of Pune Police carried out the investigation till January 2020, after which it was taken over by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). NIA then made its own contribution to criminal law by summoning hundreds of people on witness summons. Of the witnesses summoned, at least four were then arrested and then listed as accused.

Surendra Gadling was arrested from his house, without being furnished an arrest panchnama; nor was he produced before the nearest magistrate. Neither his wife nor his family members were told about the reasons for his arrest, under which crime, where he would be produced, which is the investigating agency or if the arrest was under any warrant or without a warrant.

Surendra was taken to Amravati, a town about 150 kms from Nagpur and produced before the Magistrate there. Surendra argued himself and told the judge that he was not the nearest magistrate in any sense and could not authorise his detention. The Magistrate refused to pass any order and rejected the remand.

He was then brought back to Nagpur and taken to Pune in a plane late at night. A special judge sat at 6 a.m. and granted a transit remand. Even at that early hour, a legal aid lawyer was present there. Despite Surendra’s protests and his express desire to argue his case himself, the magistrate accepted this lawyer’s vakalatnama and allowed the detention. It was much later that we learnt that the judge was never designated as a special judge under the NIA Act, 2008.

Meanwhile, his wife filed a habeas corpus petition before the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court. I appeared before the Bench and appealed, “A prominent human rights lawyer practicing for years before this court has been taken away by the police without following any of the mandatory processes and we do not know his whereabouts…” The Bench asked, “Who?” I replied, “Advocate Surendra Gadling”.

The bench responded, “Must have been arrested, no urgency, not today”. I retorted, “But my Lords, the petitioner is entitled to know about the whereabouts and wellbeing of her husband. How can anyone be arrested without following due process?

The court later held that since the arrest was made by Pune Police, the matter could be heard only by the Mumbai High Court. We pleaded that we be told where he has been taken. The Bench looked at the ‘police prosecutor’ who also happened to know Surendra personally; he said he had no instructions on the matter and could not help without orders of the court. The bench convinced us to withdraw the petition by saying that transferring the matter to Mumbai would take a long time, and it would be faster if the petition was filed there directly.

Pune Police then held a press conference and made the sensational allegation that the arrested social workers were involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. This mischievous press briefing scared the sympathisers, tainted the public image of the accused and people and the media were manipulated into turning hostile.

Police officers Parambir Singh, Rashmi Shukla and Shivaji Pawar held multiple media briefings, giving away several documents which they claimed were email conversations. They were allegedly retrieved from the hard discs of computers used by the social workers.

It would take us two long years to obtain copies of these hard discs and have them examined by a digital forensic expert company, which confirmed that all these documents were planted by using a spyware called ‘netwire’.

When we, with the court’s permission, went to meet Mahesh Raut and Shoma Sen in police custody, we saw police officer Suhas Bawache sitting on the chair of the Investigating Officer. Although he was part of almost all actions that Pune Police took, his name appears nowhere on record. He gave us a thinly veiled warning. “Don’t take our names, don’t target us or else we will also have to take care of you!” He had threatened Surendra earlier and said that after Prof Sai Baba, it would be his turn. He had also told Mahesh Raut that all his lawyer friends would give him company in jail.

(IPA Service. Courtesy: The Leaflet)

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