Bhima Koregaon: A chronicle of police raids foretold

In this excerpt from his new book 'Bhima Koregaon: Challenging Caste', Ajaz Ashraf recounts the moments that changed the lives of three activists

Ajaz Ashraf
First Published8 Jul 2024, 05:00 PM IST
Protests in front of Babasaheb Ambedkar statue following violence in Koregaon Bhima in Pune, in 2018.
Protests in front of Babasaheb Ambedkar statue following violence in Koregaon Bhima in Pune, in 2018. (Sanket wankhade/Hindustan Times)

We tend to recall vividly the moment life changes tack. And so Minal will never forget that on 17 April, at 6.30 am, she left her house at Misal Layout, in Nagpur, for a walk in nearby Dayanand Park with her friends. She will remember that her children were still asleep and her husband, Surendra Gadling, the Nagpur-based lawyer, was in the toilet. She will remember that a little after the group of friends entered the park, the phone of one rang.

She slowed walking to take the call, which lasted less than a minute. “Minal,” she called out, and took her aside. “There are police at your house.”

Minal will always remember her first thought: oh, a dead body must have been found at the house under construction on the adjacent plot. Murder? She had heard of many such cases. Then the friend said her husband was driving down to pick them up. Her heart began to beat faster: why were the police at her house?

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The friend, her husband and Minal reached her house in no time. She was stunned: there were policemen deployed all around the colony. It took a few minutes for Minal to persuade the constable at the gate to let her in. At the three-storied residence of the Gadlings, Minal and Surendra live on the first floor, the second floor serves as Gadling’s office and the ground floor is where Gadling’s brother resides. She bounded up the stairs to find a search was underway in full swing on the second floor. Minal asked, “Why are they searching our house?” Surendra Gadling replied, “I don’t know.”

She came down to the first floor to wake up the children. Posted there was a lady constable, whom Minal asked, “What is the search in connection with?” The constable said, “I don’t know.”

Once the police team was done with Gadling’s office, they came down to the first floor. Before the two terrified children, they rummaged through the cupboards and almirahs, looked under mattresses and poked the divan to check whether a document had been secreted there. The search on the ground floor was cursory. After five to six hours of having a free run of the house, the police took away Gadling’s mobile phone, laptop and his collection of CDs, some of which contained photos and videos of family occasions.

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“The funny thing is that Surendra would rarely use the laptop, for he types with just one finger,” Minal said to me. She didn’t know then that the laptop would alter her and Surendra’s life in fundamental ways.

A crowd had collected outside the Gadlings’ residence, a mix of friends and curious onlookers. They told her what they had seen on the TV: the raid was connected to the Bhima Koregaon violence. “I am embarrassed to confess that I barely knew about the historical significance of Bhima Koregaon until then,” Minal said. Sure, she had heard of the violence at Bhima Koregaon, but it was later, because of an interview of actor and folk singer Vira Sathidar, that she became aware of why the Victory Pillar of Bhima Koregaon arouses Dalit political emotions.

Over the next two months, as she worried over what lay in store for her family, often reminded about the police threats to fix her husband, Minal was politicised.

Bhima Koregaon: Challenging Caste: By Ajaz Ashraf, AuthorsUpFront, 496 pages, 795

Politicised Harshali Potdar already was when the police came calling at Room No. 707 on the seventh floor of Wing A, Sarnath Towers, a Slum Rehabilitation Authority construction at Govandi, Mumbai. Born to a middle-class Brahmin family, Potdar graduated in 2009. After a year or so in an NGO [non-governmental organisation], she figured out she did not want to work in that sector — or, for that matter, with any of the corporates either. She had, by then, gravitated towards Maharashtra’s flourishing anti-caste movement, to the shock of family elders. There were fiery arguments, at home, with snide remarks thrown in. Potdar preferred to leave home rather than compromise on beliefs dear to her, although her family subsequently chose to reconcile with her.

In 2011, she joined the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences, took a temporary withdrawal a year later, went to Gadchiroli district to research the area where big businesses exploit forest and mineral resources, and ultra-left groups and the State have been in conflict for long. In 2013, she returned to Mumbai, completed her master’s, and joined the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement, because they spoke of how class, caste and gender created overlapping systems of discrimination, exclusion and oppression.

In just four years, Potdar became a person of interest for the State.

On 17 April, at 6 am, Potdar was asleep in Room No. 707, which comprises a hall, a kitchen and a washroom. Asleep in the same hall was Vineet Vichare, a party activist. Room No. 707 was the office of the Republican Panthers; it also doubled as the residence of Sudhir Dhawale, who edited the bimonthly Vidrohi from here. With such meagre resources the party strove to alter India’s socio-political structure.

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Potdar would not know how many times the doorbell rang before she woke up. Bleary-eyed and groggy, she walked to the door and opened it. Her life, too, changed course.

A police team stood outside. They instantly switched on the lights to video-record the search, as an officer showed her the order authorising him to raid Room No. 707. She was dazed. The officer nudged her aside and barged in, with other constables following him. Reflexively, she dialled Sudhir Dhawale and informed him about the raid. Next, she started to call the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement’s lawyer, but even before she could speak to him the officer barked, “Give me the phone”—and promptly snatched it from her. Amid the ruckus, Vineet Vichare was able to call an organisation’s activist. “Come soon, police raid” was all he could mutter before his phone was also seized.

They spread out in the hall, without closing the front door, as if the police wanted to make a spectacle of the raid. “Where are your laptops?” the officer asked. He demanded that they tell him the passwords of electronic devices. She relented after a round of heated arguments. She was asked where Sudhir Dhawale was. He was, at that precise moment, undergoing a minor neck surgery at a hospital. They asked for his laptop. “Dhawale does not own one,” Potdar told the officer. There were no further questions regarding Dhawale. …

Also read: Rukhmabai—the child bride who dared to rebel

In the corridor, curious onlookers gathered, including party activists alerted by Vichare’s SOS call. ... Ultimately, after a stay of five to six hours, the police left — having confiscated laptops, phones, CDs, pen drives, and books, leaving behind Room No. 707 in complete disarray.

Potdar said the 17 April raid warned them of the repression to follow. ... “Once you decide to take them on, you have to be prepared for anything. Not for nothing do we use the term new Peshwai for them,” she said.

Excerpted from Bhima Koregaon: Challenging Caste by Ajaz Ashraf with permission from the author and publisher AuthorsUpFront.

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First Published:8 Jul 2024, 05:00 PM IST
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