Three Hindutva activists carrying 25 crude bombs and explosives were arrested on Aug. 10 by the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Indian state of Maharashtra.
Vaibhav Raut, Sudhanwa Gondhalekar and Sharad Kalaskar had enough explosives to make more 35 bombs, authorities said.
The arrests are being touted as the first during the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself a champion of Hindutva politics. With the arrests being made in a BJP-ruled state, police claim to have uncovered a major network that could be linked to other groups involved in the murders of rationalists and journalists.
Vaibhav Raut was a co-founder of a cow protection group, Hindu-Govansh Raksha Samiti, set up in 2014. The group is allegedly associated with Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha, both radical Hindutva organizations.
They are also suspects in the murders of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 and Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi in 2015 as well as journalist Gauri Lankesh in 2017.
By Aug. 13, the Anti-Terrorism Squad had uncovered 10 pistols from Raut’s house and seized a laptop, many mobiles and SIM cards and hard disks from Gondhalekar’s house. The Anti-Terrorism Squad is also investigating if the group had an arms manufacturing unit or were in touch with any illegal arms suppliers. According to the Anti-Terrorism Squad, the trio was planning blasts in multiple cities across the state.
However, more than 5,000 residents of Nala Sopara, a suburb in Mumbai, are expected to walk two kilometers in a silent march demanding the release of Raut. They demanded the state government drop the charges against Raut. They claim Raut is a social activist who works within the limits of the law and could not be involved in anti-national activities like carrying or planting bombs.
Following the arrests, more than 700 neighbors and residents of Nala Sopara gathered outside Raut’s house on Aug. 12 demanding his release before organizing the two kilometer march.
Diptesh Patil, a partner of Raut’s on the cow protection committee, said: “We wanted to call for a bandh (strike), but that would affect schools, colleges and businesses. We did not want to disturb anybody. Besides, Raut has been following constitutional ways while carrying out his social work.
“Hence we have decided to walk for two kilometers in which 5,000 people are expected to come. We want government to release Raut, scrap charges against him and also find out who is behind his arrest.”
Harshad Raut, his neighbor and a municipal legislator, said: “Vaibhav Raut has helped the police to catch transportation of beef 30 times and saved many cows from getting to slaughterhouse. He has lodged over 30 complaints against those who commit crime of slaughter of cow. He would do social work but by following laws only. He works within the limits of law then how can he get involved in antinational activities? If he cannot see cows getting killed how can he see people getting killed using bombs?”
Raut, a 40-year-old real estate broker, had 100 associates in his informal cow protection group who would inform police of anybody transporting the animals. They started their operation before 2014 when Maharashtra state passed the Cow Protection Act, making the killing of cows illegal.
“If there was noise pollution, he would inform police and concerned authorities,” added Raut. “If he came across Urdu signboards he would inform authorities. He never took the law into his hands. How can a person who works within the limits of laws do anti-national activities like carrying bombs and planning bomb blasts?”
His neighbors, mostly from the Bhandari community which Raut belongs to, are worried. When the Anti-terrorism Squad was raiding Raut’s house on Aug. 10, his neighbors did not go to work or leave their houses. They were not allowed to go inside Raut’s house.
Diptesh Patil, his friend and partner in cow protection committee, said: “He led many raids and hence police issued prohibitory orders against him. Now on the evening of Bakri Eid, police arrested him.” However, police said that before Bakri Eid (Aid Al Adha), Raut created problems for the Muslim community by obstructing the killing of goats for the festival and prohibitory orders were issued against him.
Chetan Rajhans, a member of Sanatan Sanstha, said: “He no longer works with us. But his work for the Hindu religion and cow protection is commendable.”
Sudhnawa Godhalekar has also been associated with Shiv Pratisthan, another radical Hindutva group run by Sambhaji Bhide. Bhide is the prime suspect for starting riots at Bhima Koregaon in the state in January. One man was killed and several injured. However, Nitin Chougule, of Pratishthan, said: “He was with us for a few years but he no longer works with us.”