Updated: Jan 24
Gadchiroli: On 5 June 2017, World Environment Day, Mahesh Raut, an environmental and Adivasi rights defender working in the eastern Maharashtra district of Gadchiroli co-published an account of how the government was granting land and forests in the region to mining companies.
With knowledge gained from five years of living and working with rural communities in the district’s lush, forested villages, he narrated how resident Adivasis—including the Madia Gonds, an Adivasi community designated as ‘particularly vulnerable’—were fighting to protect their lands, resources and sacred sites, often facing state hostility and criminalisation.
Since the dawn of 6 June, 2018, when a team of the Maharashtra police raided his home in Nagpur and arrested him, Raut has spent every World Environment Day in prison.
On 1 July 2020, his 33rd birthday, he would have spent more than two years in prison, charged under 10 sections of two laws. The trial has not started, and he has been denied bail twice.
A former fellow of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Rural Development Programme of the ministry of rural development, the diminutive, bespectacled Mahesh Raut is the youngest of the ‘Bhima Koregaon 11’, a term used for 11 eminent writers, academics, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders arrested from across India over June and August 2018 and most recently in April 2020. The police have charged the activists under the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for inciting violence and communal enmity, “giving provocative presentations and speeches”, and said they had links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The accused include Sudha Bharadwaj, a prominent law professor, human rights lawyer, and trade unionist working for rural communities in Chhattisgarh, Varavara Rao, a radical poet, and most recently, Anand Teltumbde, a former IIT professor, writer and one of India’s leading anti-caste intellectuals, and Gautam Navlakha, a former editor with the Economic & Political Weekly.
In mid-2018, when the first nine arrests took place, the police accused the activists of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and with delivering speeches, sending emails and circulating pamphlets which sparked violence in January 2018 against Dalits in the town of Bhima-Koregaon, 28 km northeast of Pune city. Faced with questions and criticism, the police held a press conference in September and said it had seized thousands of letters that implicated the activists.
In December 2018, however, as the Mumbai Mirror reported, the chargesheet filed by the police in court contained scant specific information about the alleged crimes on the basis of which it had arrested people like Mahesh.
Monali Raut, a Mumbai-based engineer and Raut’s younger sister, recalled the time her brother was arrested in June 2018.
“TV channels ran a big media trial accusing him and others of plotting to assassinate the PM, and of (the violence in) Bhima Koregaon. In the first hearing after Dada’s (elder brother) arrest, when he and the others were produced in court, I remember the public prosecutor Ujwala Pawar made such damning statements about them,” said Monali. “But after that I have never heard any prosecutor mention this assassination plot.”
“In fact, he told me that after he was arrested, the police did not ask him a single question about Bhima Koregaon, only about mining projects in Gadchiroli,” said Monali.
A Long Fight
In December 2019, after the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance took power in Maharashtra, NCP leader Sharad Pawar asked the government to re-investigate the Bhima-Koregaon cases, accusing police of having falsely targeted the activists.
“They have attacked the basic freedom of people, and one cannot be a mute spectator to all this,” said Pawar.
The very next month, in January, the Modi government transferred the Bhima-Koregaon investigation from the Maharashtra police to its own agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
“I strongly condemn the decision to transfer the investigation of "Koregaon-Bhima" case to NIA, by the Central Government without any consent of Maharashtra State Government,” Cabinet Minister for Home Affairs in the state government Anil Deshmukh said then.
“That was the first time since his arrest that I saw Dada (elder brother) look depressed,” said Monali of the transfer to the NIA. “When I met him in jail then, he said ‘Monu, ‘This might be a long fight.’ I cried that day.”
NIA Investigating Officer Vikram Khalate told Article 14 over the phone that he could not comment on why a trial had not yet begun. Asked when it might begin, he said, “Investigation points are still pending.”
Khalate said his agency had taken over the case months ago and since made further arrests (of Teltumbde and Navlakha). Asked what was the specific evidence investigators had found against Mahesh, Khalate directed us to read the chargesheet.
“I do not know if there is any fresh evidence,” said Khalate. “You are asking questions about the investigation. How can I answer that?”
Nihalsinh Rathod, a Nagpur-based lawyer who represents Raut characterised the evidence presented by the police against him in the chargesheet as “nothing”.
“Among the documents allegedly seized from (co-accused) Rona Wilson’s computer, the police say they have a letter which mentions a ‘Mahesh’,” said Rathod. “Another claims that through some unknown channel he passed on 5 lakh rupees for the Elgar Parishad event to Sudhir Dhawale (a co-accused, and Dalit rights activist and a Marathi journal editor).”
An investigation by the Caravan magazine reported in December 2019 that the evidence produced by the police in court as extracted from Wilson’s computer suggested that it had been tampered with after the police took his devices and the purportedly incriminating emails were typed documents.
“If it was not for the UAPA, the prosecution has not shown any evidence on the basis of which Mahesh can be arrested, let alone kept in prison for two years,” said Rathod.
As lawyer Abhinav Sekhri argued in an April 2020 analysis in Article 14, the provisions of the UAPA that are at the heart of the Bhima-Koregaon case are “criminally overbroad, excessively vague, and amount to a legislative carte blanche to state-sponsored violations of fundamental rights”.
UAPA undertrials, such as Raut, and families face long periods of incarceration, with no end in sight and repeated denial of bail because they are charged under UAPA. For example, the NIA opposed bail for Sudha Bharadwaj this week saying her release would hamper the investigation.
“The state has put such serious accusations against these people. Is it not important to present the evidence and try them?” said Monali. “Two years have passed without trial. How can we not believe that people like my brother are being victimised for their human rights work?”
A Compassionate Mind
At his home in Gadchiroli, Raut’s mother, aunt and other sister Sonali remember him with fondness and anguish. Mahesh’s aunt Rekha Kuthe, who raised him, recalled amidst tears: “From his early days, he was strikingly sensitive and concerned about the less fortunate. Once I wanted to buy a washing machine, and he said, what will happen to that lady who works for us, whose wages you will reduce?”
Raut’s mother Smita said, “Is this how this country rewards those who work for the marginalised? By putting them in jail for years?”
At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, where Mahesh studied for a masters degree in Community Mobilization and Development Practice between 2009 and 2011, Manish Jha, a professor of Social Work, recalled the young man “as a compassionate and committed person, with faith in the idea of equity and justice; his orientation was always towards the marginalised, and working among them in the field.”
A classmate Tushar Ghadage recalled that even though Raut was from another backward classes (OBC) community, he was conscious of the fact that Adivasis and Dalits were even more marginalised, and often reflected on his position and privilege.
“He would say that if you are from a Dalit or Adivasi background, your life is treated as worthless in this country,” said Ghadage. “If you die you are reduced to a mere statistic.”
Raut's former classmates and friends released this video a few days ago.
The Fight For Justice
After graduating from TISS, Raut won the prestigious PMRDF fellowship (2012-14), which placed youth to work alongside communities and the local administration in marginalised districts witnessing the state-Maoist conflict.
Raut found himself in Gadchiroli district, which sprawls 14,000 sq km over dense forests, mountains, and rivers. It is home to several marginalised and alienated Adivasi communities, and is the site of a long-running armed conflict between state police and paramilitary forces and Maoist rebels.
In Gadchiroli, Raut thrived as a community organiser, helping Adivasi villages mobilise as gram sabhas (village assemblies with statutory powers), so that they could secure formal community land titles to the forest, and assert their rights to forest management and conservation under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). For example, Raut helped communities secure FRA rights to harvest and market lucrative forest produce such as tendu and bamboo, which had long been strongholds of the forest department and upper-caste contractors.
The experiences cemented Raut’s commitment to environmental and social justice, and brought him into confrontation with the police on occasion. As he told the Hindu in 2014: “When you speak of rights and resources in these areas, you are perceived as taking sides. The police regularly question us on how we can travel to interior areas.”
Lalsu Nagoti, a Madia Gond lawyer and zilla panchayat member in Gadchiroli recalled how their paths crossed when Raut was a PMRD fellow. “Over the years he became a close friend and ally, and taught us so much about how to strengthen our struggle for forest rights and against mining using social justice laws,” said Nagoti. “Very few activists cared about us the way he did.”
Raut also became an active member of the Community Forest Rights Learning and Advocacy Network and the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, nationwide networks of grassroots groups working on resource rights for forest-dwelling communities. While there, he helped produce assessments of the FRA in Maharashtra.
Raut’s work on environmental justice and Adivasi resource rights inevitably brought him up against powerful corporate interests seeking control of the mineral-rich forests of the district, as he stood with communities opposed to damaging mining leases, auctions, and forest clearances.
Raut helped spotlight these violations nationally, joining the Bharat Jan Andolan, a grassroots group started by a former Indian Administrative Service officer, B D Sharma, to work in Adivasi areas, and the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, an advocacy network focussed on the forced displacement of marginalised communities for development.
“To do human rights work in a conflict-torn district like Gadchiroli, and to ask questions about mining projects and forests, and the violence against Adivasis is to run the constant risk of being called a Maoist and being criminalised and arrested,” said a Nagpur-based colleague of Raut, who requested anonymity. “Raut knew this all too well and yet stood with local struggles.”
It is such sustained and empathetic work by Mahesh that led 300 gram sabhas (village assemblies) in Gadchiroli to pass a resolution in his support weeks after his arrest, as they called on the government to release him. “Mahesh believed that Adivasis have rights,” said Rathod, his lawyer. “That they should not be crushed for mining projects. That is the real reason behind his arrest.”
Since his arrest, TISS classmates and former Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh have spoken in support of Raut. Nogoti, Jha and Ghadge are among the many who second that Raut has been framed.
“How is it possible that he would plan the Bhima Koregaon violence or a plot to kill the PM?” said Ghadge. “Mahesh believed in democracy. He was a writer and a thinker, and someone who engaged critically with everything, even with himself.”
“Naxals are against elections. But Mahesh encouraged me to contest elections, which is why I am a Zilla Panchayat member today,” said Nogoti. “He helped me make a successful application to attend a session of the United Nations Indigenous Peoples Forum in 2018, and connected us to many official forums like the Maharashtra Governor’s Office, where we could describe how mining causes our destruction, not development.”
“He traversed from a childhood as the son of a police patil (a quasi-judicial village-level officer) in rural Gadchiroli to win one of the most competitive fellowships in the country, the PMRDF,” said Jha. “His values and his personality were always of debating, engaging and persuading, of invoking the law and the constitution.”
On 14 February 2020, after the court passed an order to transfer the case to a NIA court in Mumbai, all the 11 undertrials are held in prisons in Mumbai, including the Taloja jail, where Raut is currently incarcerated. Since the lockdown, none of them have been able to meet family members or lawyers.
Nogoti said he has been able to meet Raut only once since his arrest. “The second time I went to meet him, the police started questioning me and investigating my links with him. Is this how things should happen in a democracy?”
Rathod said his formal request to the authorities to meet Raut has not yet been accepted. The last time Monali met her brother was on 14 March, before the lockdown.
“The jailor does not permit visits. Raut is allowed to call us once a week or so for 1-and-a half to 2 minutes,” she said. “He is suffering from acute ulcerative colitis (a painful bowel ailment), and has specific Ayurveda medicines, which we have struggled to get to him amidst the lockdown.”
Incarceration has not diminished Mahesh’s passion for justice, his family and friends say. He is pursuing a diploma in human rights from Delhi’s Indian Institute of Human Rights and is also trying to enrol in a doctoral program in political science through distance learning.
Raut’s spirit remains unbroken, says his family. An avid reader and artist, he sends pencil sketches from prison to friends and relatives. “These two years, he has kept telling us that one day the truth will come out, and we all will be released,” said his sister Sonali.
“Through my youth, he would always ask me, ‘What are you planning to do next?’” recalled Monali. “When I would say, ‘I will study this or I will work there’, he would say, all that is okay, but what will you do to help society? Do something so that people miss you when you are gone.”
(Chitrangada Choudhury is an award-winning journalist and member of the Article 14 editorial board, and works on issues of the environment, indigenous and rural communities)