ON AUGUST 17, hundreds of protesters at Nala Sopara, a town on the outskirts of Mumbai, marched from the Bhandar Ali locality to the nearby railway station, holding placards and raising slogans like ‘Jai Sri Ram’. They had gathered in support of a ‘local hero’—Vaibhav Raut, who was arrested on August 11 by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, and was charged under sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The protesters, who included members of the Bhandari community and cow protection groups, demanded that Raut be released immediately.
Raut was arrested along with two associates—Sharad Kalaskar in Nala Sopara and Sudhanva Gondhalekar in Pune. A day after the arrests, the police seized a huge cache of arms and ammunition from various places. It is not clear what the trio had conspired to do, but the charges against them are a grim reminder that hindutva terror is very much a reality.
Raut is convenor of Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti, a local cow protection group. Sources in the ATS told THE WEEK that the seizure of explosives and arms just ahead of Independence Day and Bakrid pointed to the fact that the module was up to something sinister.
Apparently, the arrests came after a tip-off from the Karnataka Police team investigating the case related to the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. The Maharashtra ATS, however, is reluctant to admit this. “All we can say is that we received information from very reliable sources,” said a senior officer. “We acted on the information by closely keeping watch on the activities of the accused. Only after we were sure that we would be able to nab the accused, along with material evidence, that we decided to arrest them.”
According to the officer, Raut was the nucleus of the terror module. “He is a hindutva activist and cow vigilante. Gondhalekar is an animator and graphic designer. Kalaskar, on the other hand, has no known area of expertise,” said the officer.
The raids after the arrests unearthed crude bombs and integrated circuits. “Integrated circuits are used to make improvised explosives devices, or IEDs,” said the officer. “This makes us believe that the accused were planning multiple bomb blasts. What is required now is a detailed questioning to identify their target.”
Investigators say the technical brains of the module was Gondhalekar, who had obtained a diploma in mechanical engineering from Pune before he became a graphic designer. Gondhalekar reportedly had links with Shri Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, founded by former RSS worker Sambhajirao Bhide, and the Goa-based Sanatan Sanstha. He has two children and lives with his parents at Karanja Peth in Satara.
According to the ATS, Kalaskar confessed during interrogation that he was part of the team that killed Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist, in 2013. On August 18, his confession led to the arrest of Sachin Andure, who was also said to be directly involved in the murder. After handing Andure over to the CBI, the ATS arrested another accused, Shrikant Pangarkar of Jalna. Pangarkar, who is accused of being a “facilitator and provider” for Raut and his associates, was a Shiv Sena corporator in Jalna from 2001 to 2011.
On August 21, the CBI and the ATS seized arms and ammunition from a house in Aurangabad, which belonged to Andure’s cousin. Part of the cache was a 7.65mm pistol and three live rounds of the same calibre, identical to the weapon and ammunition used in Dabholkar’s killing. The investigators said they were waiting for the ballistic report on the ammunition, which would help them shed more light on the conspiracy.