Rural police named two Hindu leaders in FIR but never filed a charge sheet. Urban police arrested 10 activists, blamed Maoists for violence
For decades, Bhima Koregaon was a sleepy cluster of shops and brick houses off the Pune-Ahmednagar highway, a blip on the map that would light up every New Year’s Eve as millions of Dalits gathered to celebrate a British-era war.
A war memorial at the spot had engraved on it the names of 22 Mahar (a Dalit sub-caste) soldiers who died fighting for the British army, which defeated the forces of the Peshwa, erstwhile Brahmin rulers who were notorious for having instituted oppressive caste practices.
To the community, Bhima Koregaon was a symbol of Dalit assertion, history and pride.
But over the course of the past year, the village of 5,000 people has burst onto the national stage and its name has become synonymous with Maoism. First, violence rocked the Dalit celebrations and left one person dead. The next day, Dalit groups clashed with police and security forces across Maharashtra, angry that their commemoration had been targeted.
Over the next few months, the Pune Police conducted raids across at least seven Indian cities and arrested prominent activists on charges of Maoist activities. And as the year ended, police produced a 5,000-page chargesheet that blamed the activists and alleged Maoist sympathizers of orchestrating the violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, charging them with sedition and waging war against the state.
To be sure, there are two police probes. One is conducted by the Pune (Rural) Police and looks into the violence on January 1 in Bhima Koregaon. The other is by the Pune (Urban) Police and is investigating an event held in Pune on December 31, called the Elgaar Parishad, that was organised by Dalit and Left groups.
The day after the clashes, Pune (Rural) Police filed an FIR against Samastha Hindutva Aghadi president Milind Ekbote and Shiv Chhatrapati Pratishan founder Sambhaji Bhide, both prominent Hindu leaders, on charges of “orchestrating violence” at Bhima Koregaon on a complaint by Dalit activist Anita Ravindra Savale. Both Bhide and Ekbote were booked for attempt to murder, unlawful assembly and rioting, among others, and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act. By the end of the month, Ekbote was arrested.
But since then, nothing has moved. Ekbote soon made bail and the police made no attempt to arrest Bhide. In March, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said investigation had cleared Bhide. No charge sheet has been filed in the case. In its report before the Bhima Koregaon inquiry commission, the rural police did not name any individual or outfit and said the violence was a “sudden clash” between two groups, one carring “blue flags” and another with “saffron flags”. “Investigation in case related to Ekbote and Bhide is still on. We will file chargesheet in the case at an appropriate time,” said Pune (rural) superintendent of police Sandip Patil. Bhide and Ekbote have both denied the charges.
But while one probe flagged, the other one gained traction. In April, the Pune (Urban) Police introduced the Maoist violence angle by conducting multi-city arrests in Pune, Mumbai and Delhi. On June 6, five activists were arrested: Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale, lawyer Surendra Gadling, activist Rona Wilson, activist Mahesh Raut and former professor Shoma Sen. In a second wave of arrests in September, poet P Varavara Rao, activists Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and trade unionist and rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha, were picked up. In its affidavit submitted before the inquiry commission, the urban police claimed “provocative speeches” made at the Elgaar Parishad along with “related objectionable programmes” triggered tension. Police have told the court that the Elgaar Parishad put the “unity and integrity” of the country in danger. All activists have denied all charges and blamed the police of muzzling free speech.
But activists say the focus on Elgaar Parishad is an attempt to steer attention away from the violence at Bhima Koregaon, which had angered Dalit groups across India because the memorial is seen as a part of the community’s history – one that was made popular by BR Ambedkar, often called the architect of India’s Constitution, in 1927. “By solely focusing on the so-called Maoist angle, the police wants to distract peoples’ attention from involvement of Bhide and Ekbote in the riots,” said PB Sawant, a retired Supreme Court judge who was one of the organisers of Elgaar Parishad.
Others don’t see a contradiction. “I don’t see any contradictions in two probes. The city police investigation is being monitored by Bombay high court and Supreme Court and if they have solid evidence, their case will stand to the scrutiny of judiciary. As far as the rural police probe is concerned, its ambit is limited to the January 1 incident,” said former DGP Jayant Umranikar.