Tensions Brew on Eve of Bhima Koregaon Violence Anniversary

It is exactly a year since a mob, allegedly from the Maratha community and followers of Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, attacked Ambedkarite pilgrims.

Bhima Koregaon (Maharashtra): Tension is still palpable in the air as police vans zip through the streets of Bhima Koregaon, 30 kilometres north-east of Pune. Huge numbers of personnel, both from Pune and the state reserve force, have been deployed along the nine-kilometer stretch on both sides of the Vijay Stambh (obelisk), just outside the Koregaon Bhima village. The police administration says the situation is “peaceful” but the underlying tension is evident.

Every year, lakhs of Dalits gather here on January 1, the anniversary of a historic battle won by the British Army in 1818 – largely comprised of soldiers from the Dalit community – against the Peshwa regime ruled by the Brahmin King Baji Rao II.

The Third Anglo-Maratha war, of which the Battle of Bhima Koregaon was a part, helped the British establish their rule in large parts of Western India. For the Dalit community, however, this history is crucial to their struggle against untouchability.

Vijay Stambh (memorial pillar) inside the Bhima Koregaon Memorial site. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Exactly a year ago a mob, allegedly belonging to the Maratha community and staunch followers of Hindutva leaders – Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote – attacked the Ambedkarite pilgrims (followers of Dr B.R. Ambedkar) near the Vijay Stambh. Several vehicles were burnt, people were assaulted and houses in the five villages around the Vijay Stambh were set on fire. The attack triggered protests and shut-downs across the state, causing arrests of over 10,000 Bahujan youths.

The community, like every year, is expected to gather here in a large number this year too. For the first time, however, locals say the zeal that was felt each year has now changed into unnecessary stress.

“The five- six villages around Bhima Koregaon are a part of the long-standing Bahujan history. From what used to be a matter of immense pride and fervour has transformed into a burden,” says Latabai Shirsat, a local Dalit-rights activist belonging to the Jogendra Kawade-led ‘Peoples Republican Party’.

Shirsat is also a member of the district Mahila Dakshata Samiti (women vigil committee) and is required to closely participate in legal cases pertaining to women. But since the January 1 incident, she says, she and other political activists in the region are looked at with suspicion. “Police have been surveilling each of our moves; our conversations, travels, meetings… everything is tracked. Our people (people belonging to Dalit communities) were targets of the riot on January 1, but if you ask around, it is only our people who were criminalised and stigmatised,” she adds.

The police, this year, has taken “preventive action” and have restricted several political fronts from entering the space. Among them are the Samasta Hindu Agha President and Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote, Shiv Prathistan Hindustan leader Sambhaji Bhide and members of Kabir Kala Manch. Several local youths, who were externed from the village after the riots on January 1, have been warned against entering the village this year.

Pune police, over the past few months, has claimed to have unearthed a “Maoist conspiracy” to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ten human rights lawyers and activists, branded as “urban Naxals” by the Pune police, were arrested early this year, and have since been charged with sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for criminal conspiracy and terror activities.

Caste tension continues

As The Wire travelled across the six villages – Bhima Koregaon, Sanaswadi, Shikrapur, Perne gaon, Vadhu Budruk and Loni Kand village – on December 30, villagers shared stories of animosity and caste tension.  There is a clear difference in the narratives set by the Dalit and the rest of the villagers, especially the Marathas. The Dalit community insists that although violent attacks have not occurred since the January 1 riot, the village is no longer a safe place for them. Marathas and other OBC community people say a lot has been done to “improve bhaichara (brotherhood)” among different communities.

Latabai Shirsat (right) and other political activists of Peoples Republican Party at Perne Goan. Shrisat says Dalit rights activists have been unfairly targeted by the police. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

The “police action” is the main highlight of every conversation in the villages and newspaper coverage. Local papers have carried detailed reports about the arrangements made by the police this year – drone cameras, metal detectors, CCTV along the entire Pune-Ahmednagar highway where these villages fall, and prior permission for stalls and hoardings to be set up at the Vijay Stambh.

In Sanaswadi village, a few elderly men from the Dalit community – all Buddhists – gather at the Nalanda Buddha Vihara in the afternoon. A few moments later, some policemen and men from other communities also join the gathering. Such meetings have been common in the past month. One villager says even the district Superintendent of Police, Sandip Patil, had visited village twice to appeal to the villagers to maintain peace.

“The police have been keeping vigil and ensuring no untoward incident happens in the village again. The situation was terrible last year. Several houses of Dalits were set on fire. One Maratha boy and two Dalit men were killed too,” says Sudhamrao Pawar, an elderly man in his 90s. Pawar carries the legacy of having met Ambedkar when he visited the Vijay Stambh in 1927 – the first notable commemoration at the Vijay Stambh.

Sudhamrao Pawar (second from left) along with his sons at Nalanda Buddha Vihara on Sanaswadi. This village was the worse affected in January 1 riots. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

The Maratha boy, Pawar mentions, is 28-year-old Rahul Fathangale, who was killed by a mob. While his mother continues to live in the village, other members of his family have already moved to Pune. When this reporter was visiting the village, Pathangale’s mother too had gone to Pune. “She was afraid reporters would come looking for her. So, her elder son took her away to Pune,” a local said.

Pawar’s son Nitin, who lives in Mumbai but travels to the village every year during this time, says: “It is not so much about the possible attack but the animosity and the brimming hatred towards our people that worries us.” Small skirmishes and disputes over land, water and other basic amenities continue to happen and they have only increased over the past year, he elaborates. “Each time a Dalit makes even negligible progress, they (Marathas) find ways to pull him down. They can’t see us flourish,” he claims, further adding that there have been regular disputes at the village Panchayat level.

‘External forces’ provoked the Marathas

Niwrutti Yadav, a Maratha man from the village, however, says “Those were external forces who influenced the Maratha men and who caused riots in the village last year. Every community co-existed without any tension and since that unfortunate incident, people have become wiser. We are trying to not let people from the outside meddle with out village peace,” Yadav said.

Yadav was hinting at the intrusion, felt by most other villagers, by Bhide and Ekbote. The riots, as most independent fact finding teams and locals have claimed, were “well- planned” and allegedly orchestrated by men belonging to 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.

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

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.

Both Ekbote and Bhide have been restricted from entering the region. But at Vadhu Budruk, the place where the actual tension began, villagers says Ekbote has visited the village on several occasions, discreetly.

New police chowkies have been built outside Bhima Koregaon and neighbouring villages which saw severe violence on January 1, 2018. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Vadhu Budruk, around 3.5 kilometres from Bhima Koregaon, 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  King Sambhaji’s and it has been a pilgrimage site since. It is alleged this spot belongs to Gaikwads but has been illegally occupied by Ekbote’s organisation.

On December 29 last year, a group of men belonging to Ekbote’s organisation had allegedly desecrated Gaikwad’s tomb. While a case has been registered, and the police filed a charge-sheet following a shoddy investigation, Sushma Ohol – the complainant in the case – says her family is living under constant threat. “I have been pressurised to take the case back. All those men who attached the tomb and hurled casteist abuses at us roam around freely. They try to provoke us. But we have been trying to stay calm. We really hoped the police carries out an investigation in the case, but it never bothered,” Ohol says.

Also read: Bhima Koregaon Has Become a Pretext to Arrest Innocent Workers

Ohol’s brother, Pandurang Gaikwad, has been actively following up with developments at the state, which set up a two-member judicial commission to inquire into the riots. Pandurang says the violence was not so much to hurt his community physically, but “take over their history.” “Vadhu Budruk, over past years, has been slowly undergoing ‘saffronisation’. It is more evident now. You will see more saffron flags on Maratha houses, at Sambhaji Maharaj’s tomb, and even a clear change in the body language of the Hindus of the village.”

Burnt remains of Pooja Sakat’s house that was attacked by an unruly crowd belonging to the Maratha community. A few days after the attack, 19- year-old Sakat committed suicide. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

As villages talk of the changes they have seen in the past year and the efforts undertaken to “normalise the situation,” one can’t miss the charred, tin-shed house of Puja Sakat on the main road leading to the Vijay Stambh. Sakat’s house is a grim reminder of the attack and the loses borne by the Dalit community.

Following the attack, 19-year-old Pooja had allegedly committed suicide. The family has since moved to Pune – to a rehabilitation project set up by the state administration. Nine persons, all belonging to the Brahmin and Maratha communities, have been charged with abetment of suicide.