Mumbai: While the Pune police have made allegations of “urban Naxalism” and arrested social activists and lawyers from across India, accusing them of “masterminding” the violence at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, its counterparts from the neighbouring Pune rural police have discreetly watered-down charges against the Hindu hardliners named by the victims of the violence in their FIR.
In a chargesheet of the first of the 22 cases filed in the aftermath of the Bhima Koregaon violence, the Pune rural police have named Milind Ekbote, a Pune-based Brahmin Hindutva leader and also the founder of the Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti, as well as 49 others from Vadhu Budruk village, near Bhima Koregaon. The village is around 30 km from Pune city.
The January 1 violence on Dalit-Bahujan pilgrims travelling to Bhima Koregaon to visit the war memorial on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon had led to multiple FIRs across the state. Some of them were clubbed and the cases were all transferred to Shikrapur police station in Pune rural.
But this 120-page chargesheet, filed on the completion of investigation within less than 48 hours, contains only the statements of ten witnesses – all belonging to one family – and that of the complainant, Sushma Ohol. What is more, these statements seem copy-pasted, and are identical to one another. This, despite several other witnesses to the incident, none of whose versions are in the chargesheet.
The chargesheet, besides these identical statements, comprises of four panch witnesses and the investigating officer’s own statement.
Given the seriousness of the charges and the fact that Ohol’s complaint was the first to be registered with the Shikrapur police station on December 29, three days prior to the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon village, the Pune rural police could have investigated the case in more detail. While opposing Ekbote’s bail in March in another case of violence registered against him on January 2, the police had claimed that the incident of Vadhu Budruk was the tipping point in the Bhima Koregaon violence. However, the police have so far failed to record any independent statement or to gather evidence to establish the case.
This is the first of the 22 cases registered with the Shikrapur police station under which both Vadhu Budruk and Bhima Koregaon village fall.
According to Ohol’s statement, on December 29, while she and other member from her maternal family were sitting in the verandah of their house in the Dalit basti, a group of men had entered the open space where Dalit man Govind Gopal Gaikwad’s samadhi is built. These men, Ohol claims, had hurled casteist abuses at the Dalits and forcibly taken down the chattri (umbrella) built over Gaikwad’s statue.
As per 17th-century history, King Sambhaji Bhosale’s final rites were carried out by Gaikwad when others failed to come forward fearing the wrath of Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb. The villagers later built Gaikwad’s tomb next to that of King Sambhaji and it has been a pilgrimage spot ever since. Ohol claimed that Ekbote and his upper caste followers from the village have been angry at the Dalits for claiming Gaikwad’s legacy and wanted to “erase this history”.
On December 27, when the Dalit families (the village has only 12 houses belonging to Dalits as against over 200 houses belonging to the upper caste Marathas) decided to put up a flex board with history of Gaikwad’s valour, the upper castes got angry, the chargesheet claims. “They were so upset with the board that after seeing it put up next to the samadhi for a day, they decided to take the board down. On December 29, a mob suddenly gathered outside our house and started hurling abuses at us and brought down board. In the process, they also damaged the umbrella constructed over Govind baba’s (Gaikwad’s) statue,” 27-year-old Ohol told The Wire.
The incident, as described by Ohol and other witnesses, occurred around 11:30 am. It was in the open space and a large number of people had gathered hearing the commotion. But the police did not make any attempt to look for more witnesses. Additionally, the chargesheet does not have statements of the accused persons either.
Ganesh More, the deputy superintendent of police, who is heading the investigation in the case, refused to comment. “I can’t speak on anything pertaining to the Bhima Koregaon violence case,” he said. He further added that no other officer is authorised to speak to the media about the investigations into the violence.
Ohol’s lawyer Rahul Makhare points at the urgency with which the police completed the investigation. “In a case with 50 persons accused of caste atrocity, it is practically impossible for any investigation team to complete the probe in less than 48 hours. And more importantly, the Shikrapur police especially were busy preparing for the large gathering expected on January 1. How and when did they managed to conduct the probe and finish it in this record time is a big question,” Makhare told The Wire.
Ohol, who currently lives in Pune with her husband and children, says everyone there besides Ekbote were local villagers. According to her, Ekbote, the only “outsider”, has been coming to her village since she was in the school and has been organising the savarna youth. “His organisation worked closely with the young boys and men belonging to the savarna castes. The organisation was set up to instil Hindu pride in the minds of young men,” Ohol told The Wire.
The complainant has accused Ekbote’s organisation of having masterminded the attack. But at the time of investigations, the police allegedly did not try to establish his organisation’s role in the village, its presence and the activities they have been involved in over the past decade and half. Coincidentally, Ekbote and his organisation Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti is mentioned once in every statement in an identical way. “Milind Ekbote’s organisation Dharmaveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti was behind the attack,” each of those recorded statements say. The what and how of this allegation have not been probed.
When Ohol went to register her complaint on December 29, she says, the police were initially reluctant. Later, after an intervention from lawyers and activists from Pune, the police had to give in to the pressure and file an FIR. “I had named all those men I had seen at the spot. I have seen these men since my childhood, so identifying the miscreants was not difficult,” Ohol claimed.
Although Ekbote was not physically present at the spot, Ohol and other witnesses have named him as the man behind the attack. The police, however, had not made him an accused in the initial FIR and added his name only later in the chargesheet. Even their reasons to add him later to the chargesheet are unclear.
Ohol, in her complaint, has alleged that Ekbote is the prime accused. He, like another Hindutva leader Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide, has been named as a conspirator in several cases filed for violence at Bhima Koregaon. While Ekbote was sent to jail for a month in another case after the Supreme Court refused to grant him anticipatory bail, Bhide has not been arrested. Both leaders, especially Bhide, have a massive following in Maharashtra, and across India.
Lawyers and activists involved in the case claim that efforts were made to pressurise Ohol into taking her complaint back. Ohol claims that the gram panchayat including sarpanch Rekha Shivle had intervened soon after the incident and asked Ohol to compromise. “They forced us to sign an affidavit which claimed that the internal dispute between the communities have been resolved and that I would like to take my case back.” But since a cognisable case was registered, it was legally not possible to quash the FIR. A copy of the affidavit has been accessed by The Wire. Most members of the gram panchayat and Shivle’s relatives have been named as accused in the case.
At least five of the 50 accused persons are also accused in other cases of riots and destruction of public property that were registered on January 1 in and around Bhima Koregaon.
Ten months since the incident, Ohol says the atmosphere in the village continues to be tense. The upper castes, Ohol claims, don’t interact with the Dalits any more. “We too stay away from them,” she adds. Since the incident, the villagers say Ekbote has not entered the village. But the work of his organisation has continued in the village as earlier.
Although she lives in Pune, her parents and other relatives in the village have been provided with police security around the clock. “If things had returned to normal, we would not have needed police presence in the village. But the reality is we fear for our lives and have urged the police to provide the Dalit families in the village with security.”
Ohol’s case is scheduled for hearing later this week. She is presently in the process of consulting with her lawyers and moving an application for re-investigation in her case. “I want the police to carry out an independent and unbiased inquiry. I will move the court soon,” she added.