A Reporter Saw the Bhima Koregaon Violence Coming. Now, He Fears For His Life.

“If ever I decide to return to my village, I and my family will be killed by those caste Hindu men who are baying for my blood."

Mumbai: On the morning of January 1, 36-year-old Ramdas Lokhande was still in deep sleep when a few fellow Dalit youngsters from Sanaswadi village came frantically knocking at his door. They informed him that “around 200-300 people had gathered right outside the village”. Lokhande, a reporter with the popular Maharashtra-based newspaper Dainik Samrat – which has strong anti-caste leanings – immediately rushed to the spot. It was 8 am by then.

Seeing some familiar and several unknown persons, some sporting “saffron flags”, Lokhande says, he immediately knew that something insidious was brewing in his area and at Bhima Koregaon – around 7.5 km from Sanaswadi – where lakhs of Dalits congregate every January 1 to commemorate the anniversary of a historic battle that was won by the British Army in 1818, largely comprising soldiers from the Dalit community, against the Peshwa regime ruled by a Brahmin king Baji Rao II.

As the day progressed, the mob multiplied and violence broke out in villages along the highway leading from Sanaswadi to Bhima Koregaon. And Lokhande, an ordinary newspaper journalist, was also perhaps the only one who had made several calls to ministers and police officials seeking help.

Today, months later, Lokhande fears for his life and is in hiding in an undisclosed area along with his family. In a phone conversation with The Wire, Lokhande expressed apprehension about returning to his village. “If ever I decide to return to my village, I and my family will be killed by those caste Hindu men who are baying for my blood,” he told The Wire.

He claims the Maratha men from his village – whom he recognised – and others from nearby villages had participated in the “well-planned riot” and these men were responsible for the violence and property damage that occurred near Bhima Koregaon. He says these men had been a part of the Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti, an organisation floated by Hindutva activist Milind Ekbote in 2004 which has been accused of provoking Hindus, especially the Maratha youth, against the Dalit community. Most activities were carried under the banner of this organisation or the Hindu Janjagran Samiti, the parent organisation also headed by Ekbote.

While Ekbote has been named in three FIRs, in two of them, Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide, president of the Shiv Pratishthan and an influential Hindutva leader, has been named as a “co-conspirator of the violence” which led to the death of at least three youths, left scores injured and caused an estimated loss of Rs 1.5 crore to public property. Ekbote was arrested and let off on bail, but Bhide was not.

Lokhande says that in order to understand what happened on January 1, it is important to look at the events that transpired on December 27, 2017 at Vadhu Budruk village, around 3.5 km away from Bhima Koregaon. It is well-known for its 17th-century history, of King Sambhaji’s final rites being carried out by a Dalit man Baba Govind Gopal Gaikwad when others failed to come forward fearing a backlash from Mughal emperor Aurangazeb. The villagers later built Gaikwad’s tomb next to that of King Sambhaji and it has been a pilgrimage spot since. It is alleged that this spot belongs to Gaikwads but has been illegally occupied by Ekbote’s organisation. A legal dispute is pending in the court.

December 27 a ‘trailer’ for what was to happen in Bhima Koregaon

According to Lokhande, on December 27, he had received a call from villagers at Vadhu Budruk about a scuffle that had broken out between the members of Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti and the Dalit residents of the village. “The Samiti members, mostly belonging to Maratha community, were openly provoking other upper-caste men from the village to join to observe a “Black Day” on January 1.”

The call, Lokhande says, was to virtually socially boycott the Dalit community and to not provide any food for those visiting the Vijay Stambh (in Bhima Koregaon) on January 1. “The men were hurling abuses at the Dalit community and calling them ‘gaddaar (traitors)’ since their forefathers had fought the Peshwa regime along with the British,” he adds. When a few Dalits from the village approached the Shikrapur police station on December 28, the police did not register the complaint, he says. But eventually, after pressure from a few Dalit rights organisations, the police did so the next day. Initially, 49 persons were named as accused in this FIR and later Ekbote’s name was added as “principal conspirator” of the crime.

In another case registered by one Anita Salve, a resident of Pimpri-Chinchwad, Ekbote was again named as a conspirator and was taken into custody by the Pune Rural police for a brief period. Besides conspiracy charges, he was booked for rioting, unlawful assembly and attempt to murder. According to the remand application submitted by the police, Ekbote had been involved in instigating the Hindu upper-caste residents of Bhima Koregaon and nearby villages to boycott the celebrations on January 1. Although he was not “directly present” at the spots of violence on January 1, he had allegedly attended a “conspiracy meeting” at the Sonai hotel in the nearby Perne Phata village.

Ramdas Lokhande’s criticism of Ekbote

Lokhande says he wrote a long, critical piece on December 30 in his newspaper Dainik Samrat against Ekbote, describing his direct involvement in the conspiracy and the role of other Maratha men in the skirmish of December 27. Lokhande says December 27 incident was only a “trailer” of what was to happen later on January 1.

Since Dainik Samrat does not have an e-paper, The Wire could not access the archive. However, Lokhande’s Facebook page has a photocopy of the article that was printed on the newspaper’s front page with the date December 30 printed on it. Also, the newspaper’s deputy editor Deepak Barahate confirmed that Lokhande had written such an article that was widely read and had a “deep impact”. “Lokhande has been reporting on the issue for several years. The said article (that Lokhande describes) was printed on the front page of the newspaper. He narrated the entire incident in great detail in that piece,” Barahate told The Wire.

An article written by Ramdas Lokhande on December 30 and published as a front page news in Dainik Samrak’ gives details of the incident that transpired at Vadhu Budruk on December 27.

Besides this news piece, in the past too, Lokhande had written several articles questioning Ekbote’s interest in the land and his organisation’s alleged role in causing communal disharmony in the area. On September 9, 2015, Ekbote had allegedly removed the nameplate which bore Govind Gopal Gaikwad’s name on the tomb. Lokhande says he had reported on that incident as well. Another story of land grab that he had written on December 23, 2009, accusing Ekbote had pushed several Dalit organisations into mobilising their resources and challenging the land usurping allegation in court.

Newspaper cutting of one of the old stories that Ramdas Lokhande wrote on land grab issue of Bhima Koregaon.

Findings against police, Bhide and Ekbote

Independent, unofficial inquiries conducted by anti-caste activists and political fronts soon after the incident have pointed at rumour mongering and circulation of WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts as early as December 16, a good two weeks before the riot.

A former Hyderabad high court justice, B. Chandra Kumar, and two other sessions court judges have meticulously chronicled the incident and backed it with victims’ testimonies to concluded that “there was collusion between rioters and police” in allowing a procession from Vadhu Budruk to the victory pillar in Bhima Koregaon on January 1. The report has also directly implicated the then superintendent of police Mohd. Suvez Haq for inaction. Haq has been twice transferred since then and has now been sent on a deputation for four years with the Anti-Corruption Bureau of CBI, which is considered as a highly coveted position.

Another report compiled by a ten-member committee headed by RPI leader and deputy mayor of Pune Siddharth Dhende has also accused the police, Bhide and Ekbote for the riot. Similar findings were made by another group of Satyashodhak Shetkari Sabha’s leader Comrade Kishor Dhamale, professor Pratima Pardeshi, Shramik Mukti Dal president Bharat Patankar and Lal Nishan Party’s secretary Comrade Bhimrao Bansod who had visited the spot within days of the incident. These reports have been submitted to the judicial commission and are expected to be examined in the course of its hearing.

‘Everything was systematically planned’

According to Lokhande, and also mentioned in the testimonies of several other victims, around 9 am on January 1, he travelled from Sanaswadi to Bhima Koregaon on his bike and saw to it that all the shops and roadside houses which would otherwise be open providing food and refreshments for those visiting Bhima Koregaon, were shut down. Men carrying saffron flags were moving around in motorbikes along the stretch, Lokhande claims. He further adds that “The mob was chanting ‘Jai Bhawani, Jai Shivaji’ – a slogan in praise of a Maratha King Shivaji, as they moved around aggressively on the street.”

“This was too unusual a scene. January 1 was a crucial day for most shops as they made a lot of profit selling stuff. Unless they were asked to and pressured to stay shut, they wouldn’t have done it,” he adds. On sensing tension in the air, Lokhande says he made a call to the social justice minister Rajkumar Badole and apprised him of the situation and asked for police force to be sent to the area.

“Badole knew me as a journalist and he agreed to help. A few local policemen were already at the spot, but I felt things might go out of control.” The Wire tried contacting Badole several times, but his phone remained switched off after that first call. Interestingly, Badole, who announced a visit to the Vijay Stambh on January 1, had visited the day before. This last-minute change in the schedule has been questioned by anti-caste activists.

At 10 am on January 1, as Lokhande headed to Bhima Koregaon, the situation had worsened. “Burnt tyres were lying on the road. Stones were strewn all over. Men were seen setting parked vehicles on fire. I also saw Ganesh More, who is the deputy superintendent of police, Daund at the spot and went to him to urge him to stop the violence. He did not pay any heed to my pleadings,” Lokhande claimed. More has been investigating most of the 22 FIRs filed post-riot, especially those in which the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) has been applied.

Lokhande alleges that More was “protecting the rioters and letting them run amok on the road”. More when contacted by this reporter said he would not like to speak about the incident since the matter is pending before the judicial commission. “I can’t speak on this. It is sub judice,” More said. Lokhande’s claim, however, corresponds with claims made by other victims, who have also said that the police who were on the spot had refused to help them. Most victims of the violence who have filed an affidavit before the judicial commission has said that the police stood there as mute spectators letting the rioters go on a rampage.

Between 10 am and 12:30 pm, as Lokhande continued to shuttle between Sanaswadi, Shikrapur, Kondhapuri and Bhima Koregaon on his bike, he claims, the riot had intensified and by now vehicles with “blue flags” and panchasheel (Buddhist) flags were stopped by the mob. “As soon as the passengers got off the vehicles, stones were pelted on them from building rooftops,” Lokhande states. Again, similar claims have been made by other witnesses too. “Everything was systematically planned. Food and water supply were stopped. Stones were stocked at one spot and hurled at the visitors from above as soon as they walked in the direction of Bhima Koregaon.”

Law enforcement lapses

In one such stone-pelting incident, Dileep Kamble, minister of state (MoS) for social justice, was also attacked when stones were hurled at his vehicle. The police had rushed to the spot and moved him safely to a gram sabha member’s house nearby. Kamble says although he was not particularly the target of the attack since he was travelling in the area, his vehicle too was attacked in the ongoing stone pelting. “I was there since 7 am and was moving around the area. As I was headed towards the Vijay Stambh (in Bhima Koregaon), a stone hit my vehicle. The police took me aside and a woman let us stay there for a couple of hours. A few reporters were present there too,” Kamble confirmed to this reporter.

Here, Lokhande says, he had urged Kamble to call the police and the chief minister for additional force. “It was past 1 pm by then. I told him the existing police would not be able to handle the situation and additional force was required. I insisted he call up the chief minister. Kamble waited for 30 minutes and finally made the call,” claimed Lokhande. Kamble confirmed Lokhande’s claim. “Yes, I did call up the chief minister and asked for additional forces to be sent to the spot.”

This claim is crucial since the state has tried to underplay the violence that was unleashed on the Dalits on their way to Bhima Koregaon, hence indicating that additional reinforcements were not required to get the violent mob under control. At the hearing at the judicial commission, state government’s lawyer Shishir Hiray had grilled one of the victims, Manisha Khopkar, and had accused her of lying to the court that the vehicle she and 48 others were travelling in was ever attacked. The state has claimed before the commission that required police reinforcements were available and the situation was kept under control.

Also, the independent committees have concluded that additional reinforcements were not provided even when requests were directly made to the chief minister. So far, the chief minister has not been considered as a witness who is needed to depose before the judicial commission. An application demanding this has been made by social activist and Congress party supporter Sanjay Lakhe-Patil.

As Lokhande was trying to get the riot situation under control, back home in Sanaswadi, Maratha men from the village had allegedly already started attacking the Dalit houses. One such attack was on Ashok and Rama Athawale’s house who had dared to defy the diktat and instead provide food and water to the Dalit pilgrims. Their house was set on fire and the couple just about managed to escape. They have since been living in Pune in a state-sponsored house. Lokhande says the mob had visited his home too but only smashed the door and left. “It was a rented house and the owner is a Maratha, so they did not burn the house down. I had already moved my family to a friend’s place in the nearby village, so they were saved,” Lokhande said.

Lokhande, at present, besides continuing to work with Dainik Samrat, is also working on one of the several projects of the state’s social justice ministry. This job, he says, was arranged by Badole, a few months after the riot. The Wire has independently confirmed this part of the information with the registrar of the department. The name of the department, location and the nature of work is withheld since that could jeopardise Lokhande’s security.

Lokhande is one of the 474 persons who have filed an affidavit before the two-member judicial commission. Of these, the commission has so far decided to summon only 13 witnesses during its hearing in Mumbai and another 17 persons for the Pune hearing. Anti-caste activists following the commission’s proceedings closely feel this is a deliberate attempt to keep all the key witnesses away from the court. If these witnesses come to the commission, they would expose the modus operandi followed by the police and how they have been saving the prime culprits Ekbote and Bhide,” said lawyer Rajendra Thorat who has been representing several victims in Pune. The commission’s lawyer Aashish Satpute told The Wire that, “This is only the first list of witnesses and should need be, we will call more witnesses.”

Lokhande says if he is not summoned by the commission, he would move an application seeking that his statement is recorded. “I have put my life in danger for the cause of my community. I won’t back off now,” he added.