Pune: Dalits who were attacked or affected in the violence in Bhima Koregaon in January feel disheartened with the inquiry commission appointed to probe into it. Among their several grievances is dissatisfaction with the short time given to file their complaints – 30 days. Moreover, the procedure for filing complaints has been described by many as being too complicated, especially for those who are illiterate and economically marginalised.
An insider from the commission, which was set up by the government, accepted that several people may not be able to file statements of complaint. Till the last day, which was June 11, the office of the commission in Pune received only 170 statements even though hundreds were affected in the violence.
On January 1, lakhs of Dalits across the nation had gathered at Bhima Koregaon, 40 km from Pune, to commemorate 200 years of the battle of Bhima Koregaon in which the British army – which had a large contingent of Dalit Mahars – defeated Peshwas. Bhima Koregaon has a War Memorial where Dalits from all over the country assemble annually. This year, the crowd was attacked, allegedly by upper-caste mobs. One was killed and several were injured in the violence.
A month later, on February 9, the state government appointed a two-member inquiry commission comprising J.N. Patel, former Calcutta high court judge and Sumit Mullick, former chief secretary of Maharashtra, to probe the violence and the role of police and administration. The office of the commission is in Mumbai and a temporary office has been opened in Pune.
V.V. Palnitkar, secretary, Koregaon Bhima Inquiry Commission, Mumbai, said: “We inserted advertisements in Sakal, Lokmat, Maharashtra Times, Loksatta, Times of India and Indian Express on May 12, appealing to victims, those familiar with violence, concerned citizens, social organisations and political parties to submit statements in the form of sworn affidavit made in front of notary or a judicial magistrate (first class).”
Sangharsha Apte, a member of Association for Assisting Victims to Achieve Justice, Pune said, “We feel that the constitution of the commission is a farce. The commission had four months to probe police, administration, visiting sites and listening to affected people. The commission started its work in February but made an appeal to affected people only in May and gave only a month’s time to submit their statements.”
Arjuna Oval, one of the those affected by the violence, said, “We came to know about the appeal on May 20, a week after the advertisement was published. That was the case with many victims I came across. Many Dalits, especially from the villages, don’t read Maharashtra Times and Loksatta for they being for urban class and ToI and IE for being in English. We read Lokmat and Sakal but even then we came to know about the appeal through social workers.”
To make a statement on an affidavit at a notary or in front of a judicial magistrate is not an easy task. Mayur Gavane, a resident of Sanaswadi, one of the centres of the violence, said, “Skipping my daily job as a labourer, I travelled to Pune twice to make a statement on affidavit. I had to struggle to find a notary and then a lawyer who can help me to write the statement. Notaries and lawyers are reluctant to work for victims of Bhima Koregaon violence. Some who were ready were asking for over Rs 500 that I could not afford. Hence I decided not give a statement.”
Rahul Shirsat, one of the victims from Jalna, said, “Over 40 people from Jalna district had witnessed stone pelting and violence at Bhima Koregaon. They know that police slapped false charges against Dalits, even though Dalits were attacked. We had no hope that we would get justice. But when the commission made an appeal I thought we need to raise our voice.”
He added, “Our team of friends assured people here that they would get heard and tried to convince them to give statements. I was travelling to Pune from Jalna by Devagiri Express last Sunday with statements from over 35 people to submit to inquiry commission’s office in Pune. A bag with copies of statements was stolen when I got down at one station to have a cup of tea. I again went back to Jalna and appealed to the people. But by June 11, I could submit only 12 statements.”
Rama Athawale, a resident of Sanaswadi, said, “In a statement to the commission, I have narrated all the incidents. On December 31, villagers had a meeting asking all shopkeepers to close their shops on January 1. Vehicles coming from Pune to the village were being stopped. Around noon on that day, a mob first torched a vehicle and then began pelting stones. A mob of 500 people attacked our house, grocery shop and fabrication business. Ten to 15 people beat my husband till he fainted. His ear has been damaged. Though we lodged an FIR on January 1, police did panchanama only on February 1, by then several proofs had vanished.”
One of the victims from Nagpur said on the condition of anonymity: “I drove a bus having 37 women and three men to Pune on that day. The mob torched the bus. I had made up my mind to give a statement. But when police on June 6 arrested five activists, including three from Nagpur whom I know as a social worker, I got scared that police can book anybody for having Naxal links or they can arrest for false charges. Hence, I refrained from filing a statement.”
Aapte said, “We know over 350 people who were victims or witnessed violence who don’t want to file complaints due to fear of getting arrested in false cases by police – or they don’t want to be associated with the violence anymore.”
He added, “Police and administration have not helped us. Hopefully, the judiciary will help us to get justice.”
One of the officials from the commission in Mumbai said on the condition of anonymity, “We have been receiving many voices that they could not give their statements due to issues like short time frame. The commission might discuss whether the time to give a statement for people will be extended or not. But I am not sure.”
Varsha Torgalkar is an independent journalist based in Pune.