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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Meet Pradeep Bhalekar, the vada-pav seller who challenged Sanjay Dutt’s release

Mumbai city news: Defending his own criminal past, Pradeep Bhalekar said that poverty compelled him to join a gang, and he was implicated owing to his association.

mumbai Updated: Jun 23, 2017 20:08 IST
Debasish Panigrahi
Debasish Panigrahi
Hindustan Times
(Ht File)

Few would know that Pradeep Bhalekar — the man who filed the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the alleged leniency shown by the jail administration towards actor Sanjay Dutt— runs a Vada Pav stall in Thane for a living.

Still fewer would know that the 30-year-old Kurar resident was twice booked under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), and served more than four years jail term for various other offences, before he turned an RTI activist following his release.

It was in response to Bhalekar’s petition the Bombay high court asked the state government to justify the assessment of good behavior of Dutt that had paved way for his earlier release from jail, apart from the frequent paroles granted to him. Dutt had been awarded five years imprisonment for possession of arms, which was part of the consignment used in the 1993 serial blasts. However, last year, the actor was let off eight months prior to the completion of the term on account of good behavior.

“It’s my fight for justice for the hundreds of ordinary prisoners languishing in prisons all over the state for years without parole or remittance of sentence. I want to expose the system’s bias towards the high and the mighty. Sanjay Dutt is incidental, Bhalekar, who heads the Mahatma Gandhi Manavdhikar Forum and Samajik Karyakarta Sanrakshak Samiti, says. “Both my organisations fight for the protection of human rights and spreading Gandhian ideology,” he claims.

Read: Sanjay Dutt was out on parole half the time, why did govt still release him early: Bombay HC

Mention his own chequered past, Bhalekar protests. “People conspired against me. You know the poor are always helpless,” says the man who had his first brush with the law when he was barely out of his teens. He was booked in an extortion case when he was still to appear for his Class 10 exams. “I fell in bad company. Though I was no way connected to that crime, I was implicated just because I was part of the group that committed the crime,” he reasons. Bhalekar, originally from Ratnagiri district, grew up in the slums at Vakola. He lost his father when he was 6 years old and his mother raised him while working as a maid.

“Poverty compelled me to join a local gang. But I suffered a lot for my association,” he says.

Following his acquittal in the extortion case, Bhalekar’s family shifted to Kurar to start life afresh. However, his past continued to haunt him. Between 2005 and 2007, he was booked twice under the MCOCA.

“Some local politicians, police and builders conspired against me when I opposed illegal usurping of slum land. While in the first case I was discharged 15 days after the arrest, in the other case too, I was discharged after a while,” he says claiming that his that his fight against the abuse of law made him a marked man. “I started an “Andolan” against the wrongful use of MCOCA while in Kalyan jail, which later spread to Arthur Road and Thane jails.” A vengeful police, he says, booked him under the Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous (activities) Act (MPDA) following his release in the MCOCA case. “I was taken into custody soon after I stepped out of Arthur Road prisons.”

Read: No statement issued on Sanjay Dutt’s release: Maharashtra prison department

The incident, Bhalekar says, only made him renew his fight against the system. “Hundreds of MPDA detenues in jails all over the state joined me on a hunger strike. The strike continued for months and was widely reported in the media,” he claims.

Bhalekar is presently writing a book which, he claims, will expose the pitiable living condition in jails across Maharashtra. “I was the first to start Gandhigiri in jails,” he says while ridiculing Dutt’s reel life adoption of Gandhian values.

First Published: Jun 23, 2017 11:14 IST