There is no doubt that Ambedkarites would throng the streets of Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2019. The wounds of last year’s assault are still fresh in the memories. On top of that, some BJP ministers tried to ensure that crowds do not gather in large numbers this year. Local police attempted to pressurise activists as well. The tactics have not worked. Instead, it has made the Ambedkarites more determined to make their presence felt.
According to Mumbai High Court orders, the police will take charge of the area around Bhima Koregaon from December 30 to January 12. Every cultural programmme would take place under their supervision. The local residents have also promised to cooperate. The provocative bandh they observed last year seems unlikely this time around. There is a reason to believe the proceedings would be peaceful, which begs the question why the police could not do it last year. But those who know how our police work know the answer.
The state government had promised to nab the culprits behind Bhima Koregaon violence. But it has not lived up to it. Prakash Ambedkar had accused Hindutva extremists Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote of being main conspirators. But Bhide has not even been questioned, and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis even declared in legislative assembly that there is no evidence against him. The moot question is whether the police have the permission to gather the evidence against him. Because they are well aware of Bhide’s infamous past. He has been poisoning the minds of Maratha and OBC youngsters by using the influence of Shivaji Maharaj for a long time. The police had even detained him after Miraj riots in 2009, but NCP leaders protected him back then, just like Fadnavis is doing now. I wonder if it has anything to do with Bhide’s close proximity to Narendra Modi and RSS.
Prakash Ambedkar had carried out a huge march in Mumbai demanding Bhide’s arrest. He even threatened to gherao the assembly. But he later decided to resolve the matter electorally, and the demand got sidelined. The Congress-NCP leaders didn’t even take it up in the assembly. Their apathy towards dalits is infuriating, yet not surprising. We have witnessed it during the renaming of Marathwada University, Khairlanji or other incidents of dalit atrocities.
Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote, though, had been arrested by the Pune cops, but only after Supreme Court rejected his anticipatory bail. Until then, how the police delayed the probe against him, for how long was he absconding, or the kind of impunity he enjoyed is well known. A former BJP corporator and an RSS worker, Ekbote, received bail within a month, and is now trying to distort Bhima Koregaon’s history in front of the inquiry commission with the help of a high-profile lawyer.
Did Ekbote muster this audacity without the tacit backing of those in power? Both Bhide and Ekbote are accused of instigating the attack on dalit pilgrims at Bhima Koregaon. Eyewitnesses have claimed that these two held meetings ahead of the January 1, 2018 violence. But if the police are under pressure, and unable to gather substantial evidence against culprits, Ekbote, along with other accused persons, would be acquitted, and it would not be surprising.
Six months after the Bhima Koregaon violence, the police started peddling the theory of Maoists financing Elgar Parishad, which was organised on the occasion of 200th anniversary of Bhima Koregaon battle. Police alleged that organisers of Elgar Parishad were responsible for the Bhima Koregaon violence. In a nationwide crackdown, the Pune police arrested 10 human rights activists over two different operations since June, and slapped them with UAPA, which prevented their bail. In a bizarre twist, the police said they were plotting the assassination of the prime minister. Legitimately, observers are wondering if it is a tactic to shield Bhide and Ekbote. See the irony: Ekbote was out on bail within a month. The activists, who have spent their lives fighting for the marginalised, are still rotting in jail.
In the meantime, the inquiry commission set up by the state government to investigate Bhima Koregaon violence is working at a snail’s pace. And the victims have little hope from it. The two-member commission headed by retired judge J N Patel has got 400 affidavits, and has cross examined only three witnesses in first three months. One of the witnesses even alleged that the lawyers of the commission do not provide them any kind of protection.
Most importantly, while the time calls for pacifying the caste tensions, there is a sinister attempt to whitewash the history of Bhima Koregaon altogether, adding salt to the wounds of dalits. The Bhima Koregaon war memorial marks the valour of Mahar soldiers. On January 1, 1927, Babasaheb Ambedkar visited the memorial, and since then, it has become a symbol for the dalit movement in Maharashtra. For several decades, Ambedkarites across Maharashtra have been paying their tribute on January 1. It is a matter of tremendous pride for them. Mainstream politicians and media have been almost ignoring it for years.
Surprisingly, now after the Elgar Parishad meeting on Shaniwar Wada in Pune, a pervert attempt at painting Mahar contingent seditious is playing out. Some members of Sangh Parivar are leading this campaign. They argue that because Mahar soldiers fought for the British against the Peshwas, it was anti-national! The same brahminical minds do not utter a word about the discrimination that the untouchables endured at the hands of Peshwas. The Bhima Koregaon inquiry commission has received affidavits from activists disguised as researchers, which say, there were soldiers from other castes along with Mahar contingent in that battle. It is an attempt to strip Mahar soldiers of their credit. Nobody has claimed that the Mahar contingent was the only contingent here. But one has to shed casteist egos to understand why it became story of Mahar bravery.
These are the same elements which objected to the dalits’ celebration at Pune’s Shanivarwada. The same poison that led to the assault on dalit pilgrims on January 1, 2018. It was an open attempt to fan tensions between Marathas and dalits, which did not spill over into a state-wide riot due to sensible leadership on both the sides. But more caution is needed in 2019. It is an election year, and the sharks are merely waiting for an opportunity.