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In jail for 5 years, activist Mahesh Raut gets bail in Elgar Parishad case

Originally published: The Wire on September 21, 2023 by Sukanya Shantha (more by The Wire)  | (Posted Sep 23, 2023)

Five years after 36-year-old tribal rights activist Mahesh Raut was arrested for his alleged role in the Elgar Parishad case, the Bombay high court on Thursday, September 21, granted him bail.

The National Investigating Agency (NIA), which is handling the investigation in the case, sought two weeks’ time to appeal in the Supreme Court. The HC, however, granted a week’s time.

A division bench comprising Justices A.S. Gadkari and Sharmila Deshmukh granted him bail. The court has expressed the view that many sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) applied against Raut were not tenable. The court also took his long incarceration into consideration and the fact that Raut has no criminal antecedents, the division bench granted him bail.

Raut, one of the first five persons to be arrested on June 6, 2018, has already spent 1,930 days in jail. He becomes the sixth person out of 16 arrested in the case to have been granted bail.

In the case, first handled by the Pune police, Raut was accused of “funding” the Elgar Parishad event organised on December 31, 2017 in Pune’s Shaniwarwada—considered to be a Brahmin hub—and which according to the state police had triggered violence a day later at Bhima Koregaon, 30 kilometres away from Pune. Taking over from the Pune police, the NIA had simply replicated the investigation.
The allegations against Raut were entirely based on letters allegedly procured from the laptop of his co-accused—Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson. In this letter, the agency claims a man named Mahesh had allegedly paid “5L” to organise the event. There is nothing more to substantiate the authenticity of the letter or that the said Mahesh mentioned in the letter is really Raut. The high court termed the letter as “hearsay evidence” that cannot be relied upon.

The high court, relying on the recent bail order passed in Raut’s co-accused Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferriera’s case, observed:

The documents have not been recovered from the appellant (Raut) and therefore, as has held by the Supreme Court in the case of Vernon (supra) these communications or contents thereof have weak probative value or quality.

On another claim by the NIA that one Com. Prakash claimed to have handed over some money to Ray, the order says:

Assuming for the sake of arguments, Com. Prakash had handed over Rs. Five Lakhs to the Appellant for its onward transmission or handing it over to Com. Surendra and Com. Sudhir, then there is no corroboration at all to it, that the Appellant in fact received the money and handed it over to co-accused. Merely because Com. Prakash says that he handed over the said amount to Appellant, it ipso-facto does not make Appellant recipient of it, for want of basic corroboration for it.

The high court also noted that there was no evidence has been produced on record showing that people had been recruited or joined the banned organisation [CPI (Maoist)] through Raut. “…therefore we are unable to prima-facie accept the contention of Respondent-NIA that, the Appellant has committed the offence relating to recruitment of persons into the said organisation,” the order says.

Before Raut, senior advocate Mihir Desai had represented academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde in the case. Raut’s case too was largely argued on the grounds of parity.

Desai submitted that the allegations against Raut are three-fold: (i) membership of a banned organization, (ii) given the task of recruiting persons to the said organisation and (iii) handling of funds of the organisation.

Desai argued that his client was not a member of the banned CPI (Maoist) outfit as claimed by NIA. Additional solicitor general of India Devang Vyas, representing the NIA, countered Desai and claimed that “the material relied upon by the NIA clearly indicates the activities of the banned Organization of which Appellant (Raut) is an active member”.

Raut, who completed his master’s in social work from the coveted Tata Institute of Social Sciences was a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship. As a part of the fellowship, he began working in Gadchiroli, also his home town. On finishing the fellowship stint, Raut continued to work in the region and was vocal against the rampant mining and displacement of Adivasi communities here.
The NIA claims that his social work in the region was only a “cover” for his Naxal activities in the conflict-prone areas of central India. The chargesheet claims that he operated under a fake name, “Rohit Verma,” here. Desai argued that there is no material at all on record to substantiate the said allegations and to indict him in the present crime.

Just last month, two of his co-accused Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira were released on bail. The NIA claimed that Raut, along with Ferreira had been involved in “influencing youths” in places like TISS and Mumbai University to join the armed Naxal movement. These allegations are entirely based on statements of witnesses and there is no other direct evidence to substantiate these claims.

The prosecution also accused Raut of being a member of one ‘Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan’ (VVJVA), which according to the prosecution is a “frontal organisation” of the banned CPI (Maoist). The court, however, stated that “from the material on record it appears to us that, no covert or overt terrorist act has been attributed to the Appellant”.

The prosecution had also relied on alleged electronic evidence gathered from the hard disk of Nirmala Kumari @ Narmadakka, an alleged Maoist leader. Narmadakka was accused of carrying out an IED blast in Jambhulkheda village, Kurkheda, Maharashtra on May 1, 2019. She was later arrested and died in custody.
Raut is one of 16 rights activists, scholars and lawyers arrested in the Elgar Parishad case.

The case has been widely criticised in India and abroad as an attempt by the Union government to curb dissenting voices, instead of holding the real culprits of the 2018 violence against Dalits in Bhima Koregaon responsible. Five of the accused—lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, poet Varavara Rao, academic Teltumbe, lawyer Ferreira and activist Gonsalves—are currently out on bail. Father Stan Swamy, a tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest, passed away while in custody.

The prosecution has relied on 336 witnesses in the case. The trial, however, is yet to commence.

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