Mahesh Raut is a 34-year-old land rights activist from Lakhapur village, Gadchiroli region of Maharashtra. He has worked for the rights of the Adivasi community in his district. Mahesh attended Navodaya Vidayalaya in Gadchiroli before moving to Nagpur for his graduation. He holds a degree in Social Work from one of India’s premier institutes, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. He was awarded the prestigious Prime Minister Rural Development (PMRD) fellowship in 2013. He travelled across villages in Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra to develop an understanding of and attempt to address the grievances of the villagers.
His friend and fellow activist, Sohini Shoaib, working in Bihar writes about her visit to Gadchiroli, “Mahesh was highly loved and respected in all these villages and one with the people I visited. They treated him as if he were a member of their own house! Some of them even tried to get me to convince him to get married: they thought he worked too hard and did not take care of his health enough. They hoped that finding a partner would help him feel less lonely and help him balance other aspects of life!”
Life and Activism
Mahesh has persistently pushed for laws such as the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Forest Rights Act, which defend indigenous communities’ democratic rights against illegal land acquisition by major businesses. He has continuously sought to safeguard and promote the rights of the marginalised within the framework of the Constitution. He wanted to continue working with the Adivasi population in the state after the completion of his fellowship. He organised and participated in mass movements for social welfare. He was a co-convenor of the Visthapan Vidrohi Jan Vikas Andolan (VVJVA), which advocates for the rights of Adivasis and other marginalised groups. As a VVJVA member, Mahesh organised the Tendu leaves workers from the region’s Adivasi villages to sell Tendu leaves directly in the market without intermediaries. Along with lobbying for the region’s Adivasis, he joined the Bharat Jan Andolan (BJA), an organisation founded by the late B.D. Sharma. Mahesh has been essential in organising people for participatory decision-making in places affected by mining projects, particularly the Surajgarh mining project, through his work with BJA. His efforts to expose the crimes committed by the police and other state officials resulted in multiple charges being filed against him.
Circumstances of Arrest
He is the youngest accused in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case. Mahesh was arrested for allegedly instigating violence in Bhima Koregaon. He was labelled an “Urban Naxal”, a propaganda term used to refer to activists advocating for the rights of Adivasis, by mainstream media and investigating agencies. At the time of his arrest in the year 2018, former PMRD fellows wrote a statement urging the government for his release. The statement is supported in its spirit by the undersigned former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows as on June 8, 2018, read, “To put matters into perspective, Mahesh has neither attended the Pune Elgar Parishad nor was part of the organising committee. So, it’s a pertinent question to ask how Mahesh has been named as an accused in this case.” The fellows and activists further highlighted that though Mahesh was never formally arrested before, the police have constantly harassed him for his involvement in fighting for the rights of Adivasis. Mahesh was arrested from his house in Nagpur on June 6, 2018, on charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a draconian anti-terror law which makes it impossible to get bail and puts the onus of proving innocence on the accused.
Charges & Allegations
Initially, Mahesh was charged under sections 153A, 505 (1), 117 and 34 of the Indian Penal Code relating to promoting enmity between different groups, intent to incite a community to commit an offence against another community, criminal act done by several persons with a common intention. Conspiracy charges were later invoked against him followed by the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
Mahesh is lodged in Taloja Jail in Mumbai, Maharashtra. His attempt to get bail along with the other accused was rejected. In 2018, he suffered from acute ulcerative colitis and is struggling to get medical attention in jail. In July 2021, 8 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, including Mahesh sought the Bombay High court to grant them bail as the judge who previously rejected their request was not authorised. He continues to remain in jail amid his deteriorating health conditions. The Bombay High Court on May 4 2022 rejected the petition filed by eight accused in the Bhima Koregaon caste violence case seeking default bail by challenging the Pune sessions court order taking cognizance of the charge sheet filed in the case. The Bench noted that no case was made for review as there were no factual errors in the bail order. A Division Bench of Justices S.S. Shinde and N.J. Jamadar heard the plea filed by Surendra Gadling, Varavara Rao, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Mahesh, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira.