The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) on August 10 arrested three men associated with radical Hindu outfits from Nalasopara and Satara following multiple raids merely days before Independence Day and Bakrid. Major terror attacks at multiple places had been averted after a recovery of a huge cache of explosives, including live crude bombs and gelatin sticks had been made by the ATS.
The three arrested have been identified as 40-year-old Vaibhav Raut, 39-year-old Sudhanwa Gondhalekar and 25-year-old Sharad Kasalkar, the Indian Express reported. Raut is an alleged member of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti and also a sympathiser of the right wing Sanatan Sanstha. Suspects affiliated with the Sansthan were allegedly behind the murder of rationalists including journalist Gauri Lankesh.
Sudhanwa Gondhalekar the second accused belongs to Satara and is a member of the Shri Shivapratishthan Hindustan, spearheaded by Sambhaji Bhide. Sharad Kasalkar, the third accused, was nabbed along with Raut from the latter’s Nallasopara residence. Sources informed that the ATS recovered a note on making bombs from Kasalkar and that Gondhalekar had knowledge of explosives and trained the others on assembling them.
The three were arrested under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sections of the Indian Penal Code and Explosives Act. The ATS has recovered 22 items including 20 crude bombs, two gelatin sheets, a note on how to prepare bombs, one six-volt battery, a few loose wires, transistors and glue.
It was reported that the bombs recovered from Raut’s house were “ready” for use. “They were up to something sinister and the bombs were active and ready to be used. Such a huge cache recovered before Independence day and Bakrid is reason enough to worry. Our probe is now focusing on the purpose behind assembling so many bombs, were they planning a coordinated attack or otherwise, who trained them and related questions,” an official stated.
The close affiliations of the three arrested men and the murders of three rationalists and Gauri Lankesh are also being probed by the ATS. “While there is no doubt that they were closely affiliated to Sanatan Sanstha, we think these are two different modules that co-existed but worked differently. While the four murders were executed using weapons, in this case, crude bombs have been recovered, we suspect that this is a different module,” added the official.
“During the course of the investigation into the murder of Lankesh, a diary was recovered, this dairy was shared with the Maharashtra Police. However, the names of the arrested are not mentioned in the diary,” a senior official asserted.
“He was a self-proclaimed cow vigilante and was under our watch. Prohibitory orders were issued against him,” Superintendent of Police, Palghar Manjunath Singe told The Indian Express.
Raut resided in a two-storey Nalasopara bungalow with his wife and two children. Raut was reportedly a “gau rakshak” and actively carried out raids against beef traders in the locality.
While ATS sources have alleged that the accused frequently visited Sanatan Sanstha offices and are considered to be close affiliates, the Sanatan Sanstha has denied any association. “Raut is not a seeker of Sanatan; however, he had been actively involved in numerous rallies and processions organised by devout Hindu organisations. Although Raut is not a seeker of Sanatan, we believe that any Hindu working for the cause of Hindutva and for Dharma, is Sanatan’s own,” a press release by Sanatan Sanstha stated. Raut shall receive legal aid by the organisation’s advocate Sanjeev Punalekar.
“If the ATS officers can place RDX in the houses of devout Hindus, as has been seen in the Malegaon bomb blast case, what’s to say that the same has not been repeated in the case of Vaibhav Raut? There has been absolutely no evidence yet. Therefore, accusing Raut of being guilty would be hazardous,” the release said.
Representative of the ATS and special public prosecutor, Sunil Gonsalves, sought 15 days custody of the three men. He said that the ATS had received secret information on Tuesday about the three men saying that they were conspiring to carry out “terror activities” in Mumbai, Pune, Satara, Solapur and Nallasopara.
“The information received also was about weapons, arms and ammunition being stored by the suspects at a particular place. Based on that, we inquired with them and checks were conducted at their premises. At the house of accused number 2 (Raut), we seized 22 articles including two crude bombs and two gelatin sticks,” Gonsalves asserted in court.
“After seizing the phones of the arrested accused, the role of the third accused (Gondhalekar) emerged as he was in constant touch with the other two, he too was arrested,” he added.
Sanjeev Punalekar represented the three accused and claimed that the police had detained the men illegally and conducted the raids without a warrant before the FIR was filed.
Special Judge Adkar said that there was evidence to show that the accused were involved in a conspiracy. He further said the allegations were “very serious” and that “incriminating articles were found”. However, he said that he was not inclined to grant custody for 15 days and sent the three men to police custody till August 18.