Pune: Hundreds of people, belonging to the dalit community from across Maharashtra, decked in ceremonial attire paid homage to the Vijay Stambh at Bhima Koregoan, 40 kms Pune, on January 1. However, this year’s celebration was markedly different in the absence of lakhs of people, multiple podiums, and the usual celebratory environment filled with music and stalls. In view of COVID-19, the Pune Police had issued passes to the few hundred people who were allowed to visit the war memorial.
On January 1 every year, lakhs of dalits visit the Vijay Stambh at Bhima Koregoan to commemorate their victory in the battle in which Mahars, supported by the British, defeated the casteist Peshwa’s army in 1818. With Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar paying homage to the memorial in 1927, it has become a tradition for lakhs of dalits across India to mark the occasion by a visit to the memorial.
Despite the dampening effect of the pandemic, logans like ‘Jai Bhim (Hail Bhim)’, ‘Bhima Koregoan Shourya Din (Bhima Koregaon Victory Day)’, ‘Hail Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’ rang through the air. The war memorial was garnished with colourful flowers and a Buddhist bhikkhu (monk) oversaw the program from the special podium.
“The lack of crowd showcases that the dalits are following law and order and have decided to pay homage from their houses for the safety of all against the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 300 members of the Samata Dal have been tasked with maintaining discipline among devotees,” Prakash Kamble, a member of Samata Dal – a security group founded by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, told NewsClick.
In addition to issuing limited passes for the visit, all the roads going towards Bhima Koregoan were closed by the Pune Police, with only those with passes being allowed to proceed. However, many who had travelled from other cities complained that they were not aware of the concept of passes.
Several people were also disappointed as could not access passes. A group of over 50 dalit visitors who travelled from Solapur had no idea about the passes. They were stopped by the police at Ahmednagar road on the way to Bhima Koregaon. Following an argument, passes were later arranged for the visitors.
“Police should have spread this information that passes were needed at least a week in advance across the state. People were told 3-4 days in advance. I had no time to go police station or approach any organisation to get the pass made. I am a resident of a nearby village and also a government servant and could get a chance to sneak in and come here. However, many more people could have visited if police had started the awareness campaign a week in advance,” said Nitin Gaikwad, who was one of the few who was present at the Vijay Stambha. Gaikwad, his wife Nita and two kids Atharva and Arya, were able to pay homage to the memorial, like every year.
Several people also told NewsClick that they miss the hundreds of book stalls, food stalls, podiums by various organisation that arrange many programmes and musicals about Dr Ambedkar and dalits.
Prakash Ambedkar, great grandson of Dr Ambedkar and founder of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, during his visit to the memorial criticised successive governments for their failure to develop Bhima Koregoan. However, he didn’t comment on the Bhima Koregoan violence saying that would be inappropriate.
Several political leaders including deputy CM Ajit Pawar; state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh; and Social Justice Minister Dhananjay Mundhe, among others paid a visit to the memorial.
2018 Bhima Koregaon Violence
On January 1, 2018, lakhs of dalits had gathered at the Vijay Stambh to commemorate 200 years of the battle of 1818. However, that year, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide alias Manohar Kulkarni, two accused in the cases, allegedly instigated Maratha youth to attack the dalits gathered to pay homage to Vijaystambh. In the ensuing violence, one youth died while several others were injured in the attack and many vehicles damaged. Since then, Pune police has been arranging heavy security on this day.
Proposal to file charge sheet against Ekbote and Bhide received: Anil Deshmukh
Addressing a press conference on the same day, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said that a “proposal to file charge sheet against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote has been received”, three years after the incident. Ekbote and Bhide have been named in an FIR lodged regarding riots. Even though Ekbote was arrested earlier, he is out on bail. Bhide has not been arrested yet.
Ambedkari organisations have welcomed the decision saying they have been demanding it for the last three years. “Now they should immediately file charge sheet and arrest both of them,” said Rahul Dambale, youth leader.
Also read: When Jail, Not Bail, Rules in a Pandemic