Fear is stalking the residents of Bhima Koregaon in Pune, Maharashtra, the seat of unrest over recent days. Following the attacks on Dalits on New Year’s day, the fear has also spread to neighbouring hamlets.
On January 1, thousands of Dalits had gathered in the villages to commemorate 200 years of a battle in which the Mahars, fighting for the British East India Company, defeated the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of Pune. But the celebration was cut short when Dalits were pelted with stones and number of vehicles were torched in Bhima Koregoan, Sanaswadi and Vadhu Budruk villages in Shirur and Shikrapur tehsils.
Even though the police claims that the situation is under control, many Dalits, fearing more attacks, are now fleeing their homes. When the Wire travelled to the villages, it found a similar story everywhere.
In Bhima Koregoan village, the epicentre of the violence, only 20-25 Dalit families live in the Buddha Vihar. Most of the 6,000-strong population are upper castes.
Burnt and damaged vehicles dot the villages. On January 2, heavy police presence helped villagers when several groups, despite the curfew, landed at the entrance of Buddha Vihar, shouting slogans. When the police refused to let them enter, the groups pelted stones. According to villagers, most of the Dalits locked themselves in their homes during the incident.
Afraid that the perpetrators could strike again, many have not left the colony to go work or buy their daily amenities. In most of the villages in the area, the population of Dalits is much lower than other castes, including Marathas. Most Dalit families live in clusters and are largely employed as cleaners, sweepers or in daily wage jobs.
The reports that it was Maratha groups that had attacked Dalits in the area have also been debunked. “We have friendly relations with the Marathas,” a local leader said.
Twenty of the 30 Dalit families staying at Nalanda Buddha Vihar at Sanaswadi have already fled to their hometowns. Those who have chosen to stay are tense. Most of Dalits who work at the Maharashtra Industrial Development Centre have not gone to work since the day the violence broke out.
“On January 1, a group of 10-15 people carrying saffron flags pelted stones at our houses and vandalised almost all the vehicles here. We are now afraid we will be compelled to leave our homes. A local Dalit who owns property and homes that he rents out has also disappeared, and has perhaps gone into hiding,” said Subhash Sonawane, a resident of the village.
“We aren’t sleeping in our own houses and are spending our nights in nearby houses without blankets,” says a woman who lives in the hamlet.
Many locals claim that only one PSI has been dispatched to protect over 10 families. “The police did not help Dalits who were being attacked on January 1. And now they have reduced security to just one policeman,” says a local.
This fact has been refuted by Ram Pathare, the deputy superintendent, whom the Wire found at the chowk in the village. According to him, the others had gone out for lunch.
The village has only 12-15 Dalit families as compared to a much larger Maratha population. Though the village is largely peaceful because of heavy police deployment, fear is streaked across the faces of Dalits living there.
In fact, three days before the unrest, on December 29, miscreants vandalised the grave of Govinda Ganapat Gaikwad, a Dalit hero from the 17th century. Gaikwad is said to have performed the last rites of Sambhaji, son of Shivaji, after the Mughals killed him. Dalits revere Gaikwad, something that does not sit well with many upper castes as they believe it was the Marathas who has performed the last rites. After am FIR was lodged against the vandals under the Atrocity Act, 49 Marathas were booked.
Over the following days, many upper caste groups gathered in the village and demanded that the FIR be withdrawn.
The blame for the whole debacle, according to prominent Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, can be laid at the feet of Hindutva forces. Ambedkar has blamed two leaders of Hindutva organisations as the masterminds behind the violence. In fact, according to him, contrary to the various rumours being circulated, many Maratha groups joined hands with Dalits to organise the bandh on January 3.
Varsha Torgalkar is an independent journalist based in Pune.