‘It’s as if they wanted to kill us’: How the attacks on journalist Nikhil Wagle unfolded

His vehicle was attacked four times last evening in what Wagle called a ‘narrow escape from death’.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal
Date:
Nikhil Wagle with a picture of his vehicle being attacked.
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Journalist Nikhil Wagle is no stranger to violence. During the course of his career, he’s been attacked six times. But the events of last evening in Pune were different.

“It was a mob lynching attempt on me. It was traumatic,” he told Newslaundry over the phone. “It was a narrow escape from death…I am still in shock because of the intensity of the attack and the hate.”

Last evening, Wagle and four others were on their way to a ‘Nirbhay Bano Sabha’ event when BJP and Shiv Sena (Shinde) workers attacked their vehicle at four different places. Days before, the journalist had been in the centre of a controversy for a social media post that criticised Narendra Modi and LK Advani. An FIR was filed against him and the BJP Pune unit threatened to disrupt the event if Wagle turned up to speak. 

Newslaundry learned that before Wagle left for the event, the Pune police unofficially detained him for four hours to try and convince him not to attend. Yet the police, who were well aware of the threats against Wagle, did not provide him with appropriate protection.

Newslaundry spoke to four of the five people, including Wagle, who were in the vehicle to piece together what happened.

The sequence of events

On February 4, Wagle on X criticised Modi and Advani over the latter receiving the Bharat Ratna. In Marathi, he wrote that the award was “from one rioter to another”. On February 6, BJP leader Sunil Deodhar filed a police complaint against Wagle. 

Meanwhile, the Nirbhay Bano Sabha event was organised by human rights lawyer Asim Sarode and social activist Vishwambhar Choudhary, among others, at Sane Guruji Smarak auditorium in Pune. Scheduled for February 9, it was aimed at protesting against the attack on Lalit Kala Kendra students at Pune University by ABVP workers last week. 

Speakers included Wagle, Sarode, Amol Palekar, Kumar Nage, Reshma Ramchandra and Shilpa Ballal. It was also attended by a plethora of opposition leaders from the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena (UBT).

On February 8, a day before the event, Dheeraj Ghate, the president of the Pune city BJP, submitted an application at Parvati police station. It said the event must not happen in order to “stop people who make anti-national comments”. “Pune city BJP will not remain silent unless this event gets cancelled,” the application said.

On the morning of February 9, an FIR was registered against Wagle at Vishram Baug police station on the basis of Deodhar’s complaint. He was booked for defamation, public mischief, and promoting enmity. Deodhar then tweeted that the event must not take place because the FIR had been filed.

From 5 pm onward, huge crowds formed outside the auditorium where the event was taking place. They included BJP workers, supporters of the event, and opposition party workers, each group raising their own slogans. 

The programme started at 6 pm. Wagle and others, who were attacked en route, arrived only after 7.30 pm.

imageby :
Dheeraj Ghate (beard, glasses) protesting outside the auditorium before the event took place.

Police ‘detention’ for four hours 

Wagle, who lives in Mumbai, arrived in Pune on February 8. On February 9, he went to Sarode’s house at noon to travel together for the event.

Sarode told Newslaundry they were chatting after lunch when he got two phone calls, one from the police commissioner’s office and the other from an additional police commissioner named Pravin Patil.

“They told me I can go for the event but Wagle sir should not go there,” he said.

At 3 pm, a group of cops – two ACPs, three senior police inspectors, some sub-inspectors – arrived at Sarode’s house.

“They sat with us and had a cordial discussion about politics and their jobs. While five or six of them were in my house, 30-40 of them were downstairs,” Sarode said. “They told us we should not go to the sabha as BJP workers planned to attack Wagle sir.”

According to Sarode, the police then suggested he call the organisers of the event and ask them to start the programme. 

“They said it would send a message that Wagle sir got scared and is not coming for the programme,” he said. “We said we have nothing to fear if they can provide protection but agreed to do so, thinking of it as a diversionary tactic.”

However, the police continued to insist that Wagle stay behind. Four hours passed in what Wagle described as a “kind of house arrest”.

“The police gave me a letter and said I must not say anything prakshobhak [provocative],” he said. “They also said I cannot speak anything against Advani and Modi. They told me to send a video message for the event instead of going. I reasoned with them and said I have not done anything wrong and it’s my right to go to the meeting and express my views.”

Wagle then asked the police to submit in writing that they would not permit him to attend the event – but they refused.

Finally, Sarode and Wagle got up to leave anyway. The police had blocked the entire lane leading to Sarode’s house, claiming some BJP workers were “hiding outside”.

“I asked them if they were arresting me,” Wagle said. “I was really agitated and said I was leaving. They could have easily given us protection and escorted us to the venue. But instead of doing that, they didn’t want me to go. Instead of arresting the goons, they were stopping me.”

Sarode said: “We got frustrated by their delaying techniques. We told them it’s their job to provide us protection. But even if they didn’t want to protect us, we were going to the venue. We sat in the car and started. A single police vehicle with six or seven cops followed us, whereas 40 cops came to my house to detain us!”

He added, “Instead of taking preventive action against the BJP workers threatening Wagle sir, the police tried to stop us who were holding a peaceful event.”

The drive and the attacks

The group finally set off – Wagle, Sarode, Vishwambhar Choudhary, Shreya Awale and Vaibhav Kothule, the driver. Awale sat in front next to the driver and the three men sat at the back.

The first attack took place near Dehati restaurant on Prabhat road.

“The BJP workers pelted heavy stones on our car. Somehow, we drove away,” Sarode said. “When we neared Deccan, a large crowd was present. The police tried to disperse them but the mob attacked the vehicle. They banged on the car, some of them climbed on the bonnet. It went on for eight to 10 minutes. The police asked us to reverse.”

The vehicle then took a different route through Karve road and Patrakar Bhavan but “the mob caught us again at Lal Bahadur Shastri road near Dandekar bridge”.

“They were in big numbers,” Sarode said. “Some of them were wearing knuckle-dusters and used them to break the rear windshield. The police was not able to manage the mob. But what surprised us was that despite us taking an impromptu route, the BJP workers came to know about it.”

He added, “It was a scary situation. The mob was uncontrollable. They were attacking as if they wanted to kill us. Those 25-30 minutes were dangerous. In normal times, most of us usually say we are not scared of anything. But the way those guys were attacking us…What is most unfortunate is the police was a mute spectator.”

Awale told Newslaundry the attacks started with “throwing ink” and then graduated to “attacking the car with stones and knuckle-dusters”.

“They were jumping on the bonnet, banging on the glass. It was a complete failure on the part of the police to protect us,” she said. The mob also shouted that Wagle must be taken out of the car.

Meanwhile, Wagle received phone calls from activist Rahul Sakpale and NCP leader Prashant Jagtap asking why they hadn’t arrived at the event yet.

“When I told them about the attacks, they sent NCP workers to rescue us,” he said. “This was the most horrific incident I have experienced in my 45 years of journalism. I have been attacked by the Shiv Sena and BJP in the past but I have never experienced anything like this. The mob was shouting to get me out of the car. It was just like a mob lynching.”

Ink being thrown on the car.
Wagle speaking at the event.

He also came down heavily on the police.

“The police was definitely hand in glove with the BJP,” he said. “They could have at least taken preventive action against the BJP president who threatened to disrupt the event. Secondly, the mob knew exactly where we were passing. We just escaped death.”

Balkrishna Nidhalkar, a lawyer and the owner of the damaged vehicle, told Newslaundry he had also been attacked by the mob at one point. Nidhalkar had been driving an Innova just ahead of Wagle’s vehicle to try and clear the way.

“I initially asked the police to give us protection by placing two of their vehicles in the front and back. But they didn’t do it,” he said. “So I myself piloted the car in front of Wagle sir’s vehicle. The mob was very furious and violent. Somehow, we all managed to escape.”

‘5-6 cops and mob of 70-80’

Wagle credited Vaibhav Kothule whose “presence of mind saved us”. Kothule told Newslaundry how events unfolded.

“The first attack took place near lane 4 of Prabhat road. The attackers pelted stones and were hitting on the car,” he said. “I sped up from there. When we reached Shailar Mama Chowk, a mob started throwing eggs and ink. Some of them climbed on the car and started hitting it. They were banging on the glass.”

Kothule managed to turn left and drove to Khandoji Baba Chowk.

“There, a mob pelted stones and eggs on us. The glass of the left window got cracked,” he said. “The windshield became blurred because of the eggs. I took a u-turn, went towards Garware College, and took the route via SM Joshi bridge. There was a traffic jam ahead of Patrakar Bhavan so I drove through the crematorium gate and came out the other side.”

Near Senadatta, a group of  NCP workers escorted the vehicle towards Dandekar bridge. But the car then got stuck in a traffic jam, Kothule said, and they were attacked again.

“They broke the rear shield with knuckle-dusters and hit the car from all sides,” he said. “There were hardly five or six policemen while the mob was about 70-80 people.”

Meanwhile, Pune city BJP Dheeraj Ghate described the attack as an “appropriate reply”. “We do what we say,” he tweeted.

The Pune police issued a press release today that said an “offence has been registered” against those involved under sections like rioting and damage to property. “The process of arrests have started and strong action shall be taken,” it said.

The statement added that the atmosphere in Pune had been “surcharged” thanks to Wagle’s “controversial post”. Given the “large number of agitators around the venue”, the police advised Wagle not to leave for the event.

“He was told that he should leave only after the process of detention of the agitators was complete. A group of approx 25 agitators were detained till around 6 pm and the process to detain more was on. He still insisted on leaving though the police tried to convince him to hold on for some time till we secure the area,” the statement said. 

The press release accused Wagle of leaving for the venue “against our advice” and “dodging the police by changing routes”, though a group of plainclothesmen followed. Due to “heavy traffic and bystanders, it was not possible to use force or evacuate him and his car on an immediate basis”.

Newslaundry contacted Pune police commissioner Amitesh Kumar for comment. He reiterated points raised in the police press release.

“He was provided proper protection, just that we had clearly advised him to leave when we tell him to leave, because the traffic was very heavy and we were in the process of detaining BJP workers,” said Kumar. “We detained 25 [workers] along with BJP chief Ghate. But other splinter groups were also to be picked up. As the traffic was very heavy, it was taking a long time to detain the agitators. But he ignored our advice and took a route which was different than what we advised.”

Update 

The Indian Express reported that a second FIR was filed against Wagle today for allegedly “disobeying the legal notice issued by the Pune city police” to him and the event’s organisers. It was lodged by a constable and also names Ghate and his party workers and attendees of the event from the NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena (UBT).

Deputy commissioner of police Sambhaji Kadam told the newspaper: “Permission was not granted for the programme. We had issued notices to the organisers of the programme and Nikhil Wagle. But they violated the notice. Hence, they have been booked in an FIR.”

Update at 7.30 pm, Feb 10: This story was updated with details on the second FIR against Wagle.

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