In 2002, Amarnath Chandaliya of Pune formed a Kabir Kala Manch that was, on the surface, a cultural platform where those so inclined could study, discuss and raise various social issues through mediums ranging from literature to drama.
By 2008, police had listed the Manch among a list of organisations with suspected Naxal links, though its president Sheetal Sathe insisted its members were mainly college students who took up democratic, non-violent movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan or raised issues such as the Khairlanji killings.
Then, in April and May 2011, seven of the Manch’s members were among 14 booked by the Anti-Terrorism Squad for spreading Naxal ideology. One of the seven, Dhawale Dhengle, 36, has been arrested, along with six not of the Manch.
What the six other Manch members have been up to, and who they are with, is under investigation as the ATS tries to unravel what it calls the growth of Naxals into an urban network where frontal organisations spread Maoist ideology in cities and help route equipment, mostly electronic, to camps in the jungles.
Naxal sympathisers served a reminder of their presence in Pune last month when posters appeared in several areas demanding the release of seven comrades including Kobad Ghandy, Angela, Vikram and Vijay, names that have come up in connection with the current probe.
The issue has come up in the Maharashtra Assembly too, after The Indian Express recently reported that Naxals are suspected to have held a “study camp” in the city in 2010. The Speaker has asked the Home Minister to make a statement.
The ATS has questioned Manch founder Chandaliya and his statement reveals who he was dealing with, though he claims he has since snapped his links with them. He met Kobad Ghandy’s wife Anuradha a few times before she died at 54 in 2008, the statement says, adding she used to give him Rs 4,000 every month, telling him that the money came from “tax” collected by Naxals.
Chandaliya says the money stopped coming after Anuradha Ghandy’s death. He has told the ATS that he left the group, too, and stopped all contact with alleged Naxals due to differences between them. When The Indian Express contacted him, Chandaliya refused to comment.
Available Maoist literature names Anuradha Ghandy as a member of the CPI(Maoist) central committee. Known as “Janaki Didi”, she served the outfit for 35 years. The man who reportedly introduced her to Chandaliya, Dalit activist and Vidrohi magazine editor Sudhir Dhawale, was arrested from Gondia in 2010 on charges of sedition.
Dhawale is said to have introduced Chandaliya to at least two other Naxal operatives. One was Vijay alias Srinivasan, arrested in August 2007 along with Varon Gonsalves alias Vikram, named in the posters.
The other introduction, reportedly made after Anuradha’s death and Srinivasan’s arrest, was to Sadhana alias Angela, arrested last year and also among the prisoners in the wish-list for release. According to Chandaliya’s statement, which refers to her as Sadhana, they met in Kalyan near Mumbai, after which she shifted base to Pune where he helped her find a room on rent.
Police say Angela and her husband Jyotirao, or Milind Teltumbde, secretary in the CPI(Maoist) state committee, made Pune the centre for a so-called golden corridor project to spread Maoist ideology in urban areas. Many Manch members allegedly fell under their influence, with the police naming Sheetal Sathe, Sachin Mali, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaychor and Dhengle, the member arrested last year. Sheetal, Sachin, Sagar and Ramesh, along with Prashant Kamble and Santosh Shelar, are those wanted.
According to Dhengle’s statement, he met Rahi — another alias for Angela — in June 2008 at Nigdi, where she praised his singing and poetry, explained Maoist ideology and asked him to join. When he hesitated, she allegedly made him a “part-time member”of an outfit that operated secretly, with members given codenames — Sheetal was Vandana, Ramesh was Satyajit, Sachin was Shiva and Chandaliya was Indrajit, says Dhengle, who was Pratap.
Help was allegedly recruited from outside Pune, too. Anuradha Sonule alias Asmita alias Aditi Kadam was allegedly in a Naxal unit in Gadhchiroli before Milind asked her to work in Pune in 2007. Nandini Bhagat of Chandrapur, police say, was studying at a Pune college under the alias Mona Umap; she and Sushma Ramteke of Nagpur allegedly worked with Angela in Pune. All three have been arrested.
The group staged street plays and musical programmes and this was allegedly to lure in other youths, mainly tribals and Dalits, from colleges, slums and social organisations. Angela is said to have formed two cells — Dhengle says he was in Cell “A” with Sheetal and Sagar and they performed in slums; Cell “B” for students, which included Sachin and Ramesh, focused on colleges.
Some students have told the ATS about campus visits by members of the group, who distributed literature and allegedly provoked students to agitate against the administration.
Siddhartha Bhosale, then a student and since arrested, is suspected to have joined the CPI (Maoist), taken arms training in jungles and given the task of recruiting members from Pune and Nashik.
HS student Jyoti Chorge, 20, of Dhankwadi was allegedly brainwashed by Anuradha Sonule after meeting through common contacts in Unity Students Federation, a group formed by Wadia College students. On April 9, 2011, Jyoti left home. On April 29, she wrote to her family that she had gone for higher studies. The next day, she was arrested.
Others allegedly influenced include slum residents Prashant Kamble, Santosh Shelar and Rupali Jadhav. Police suspect the first two are undergoing arms training while Rupali too is missing.
Police also mention a 15-day camp held at Kude Budruk village by Angela and Milind, who reportedly called it a “training programme” for teachers on tribal issues.
“These youths came from poor families and were working against social and economic inequality,” says socialist leader Bhai Vaidya, who adds he knows some Manch members and has attended a few of their programmes. “It is very difficult to believe they have joined an armed movement. I believe the government is falsely portraying them as extremists.”
In his statement, Dhengle insists he is not a Naxal but joined the Manch as an artiste for its programmes. His lawyer Asim Sarode says Dhengle has been falsely implicated.
And Sheetal Sathe’s mother Sandhya says, “My daughter cannot be a Maoist. She was interested in social work.”
The so-called golden corridor includes Pune, Mumbai, Thane and Nashik and Ahmedabad. “Pune proved to be a suitable city for them to operate in, because of its large student population and strong cultural identity. It also has a large labour population,” says Maharashtra ATS chief Rakesh Maria.
Maoist literature often refers to cities as enemy bastions and centres of power, an officer said.“The Pune-Ahmedabad belt is one of the fastest growing industrial areas, and also has a large labour base and middle-class population.” From cities, sympathisers also send medical help to injured comrades, he said. “The Maoist movement has been getting a large chunk of its leadership and expertise from urban areas.”
There have been pointers to apparent efforts to set up urban arms bases, too. Last month, an alleged arms unit was busted at Neral in Raigad, being run under the name Neral Engineering Works by suspected Naxal Aseem Bhattacharya, 63, who was arrested with three others from Mumbai.
ATS sources said Maoist leader Solipeta Kondal Reddy alias Tech Ramana alias Srikanth had a base in Pune in 2009-10. He was, according to some reports, killed in an alleged encounter in Andhra Pradesh in March 2010. Maria would not comment about Reddy.
V D Mishra, DIG (anti-Naxal operations), said intelligence units and special branches are keeping a watch on Naxal movements in cities.