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Investigating the Violence in Koregaon Bhima

Kishor Dhamale (satyashodhakjagar@gmail.com) is with the Satyashodhak Shetkari Sabha, Maharashtra.

The violence that broke out on the occasion of the bicentenary celebration of the defeat of the Peshwas at Koregaon Bhima on 1 January 2018 was a systematic attack by saffron mobs, egged on by Hindu right-wing organisations, to incite caste and communal hostilities between the Marathas and Malis on the one side and Dalits and Muslims on the other, a fact-finding report has concluded.

This article is based on discussions with the residents of Vadhu Budruk, Koregaon Bhima, and Sanaswadi villages who witnessed the sequence of events beginning 28 December 2017 in the area. The author was also part of the civil society fact-finding committee that investigated the incidents at Koregaon Bhima, along with Bharat Patankar of the Shramik Mukti Dal, Bhimrao Bansod of the Sarv Shramik Sangh, Pratima Pardeshi of the Satyashodhak Jagar, and whose findings were presented in a press conference in Pune on 5 January 2018. The Marathi version of this article first appeared on the digital portal Right Angles on 6 January 2018.

Koregaon Bhima village is situated at a distance of 30 km east of Pune on the Pune–Nagar road. Four kilometres ahead and to the north is Sanaswadi village and to its north is the Chakan Shikrapur road. It is in this triangular area, within the vicinity of Pune city, that a “riot” took place on the first day of 2018, though it would be wrong to call the sequence of events described here as riots.

On the one hand was a well-armed and organised crowd of 2,000 to 3,000, fuelled by rumours and frenzy. On the other, was an unsuspecting and clueless population of around three lakh families (children and the elderly included), who came to the Koregaon Bhima war memorial to pay homage. This mass, which had congregated from all corners of Maharashtra and was spread across the above-mentioned triangular area, was attacked in a targeted manner. As news of the violence spread, the state was faced with a volcanic situation. Who were behind these attacks and what were their motives in pushing Maharashtra to the brink?

History and Immediate Context

Around 1990–91, as part of the celebrations of the death centenary of Jotirao Phule and birth centenary of B R Ambedkar, huge crowds of Ambedkarite Dalits in and around Maharashtra started gathering, to pay homage, at the sites visited by or associated with these two great men in their lifetimes. These sites include Bhide Wada, where the first girls’ school was started by the Phules, Naigaon, where Savitribai Phule was born, the Buddha Vihar at Dehu Road in which Ambedkar installed the Buddha idol, and the Koregaon Bhima memorial visited and lauded by Ambedkar.

The last battle between the Peshwa regime and the British colonialists was fought on 1 January 1818 at Koregaon, on the banks of the river Bhima. The 20,000 soldiers of the Peshwa’s army were led by Bapu Gokhale. However, they was defeated by the Bombay Native Infantry Second Battalion First Regiment mainly composed of the native, specifically Mahar, soldiers led by Captain Francis Staunton (Kumbhojkar 2012). This battle was decisive in ending the Peshwa regime.

Caste hierarchy and caste-based exploitation, especially of women and the Bahujans (lower castes), had reached alarming proportions during the Peshwa period. A few examples of these inhuman practices illustrate the insensitivity and brutality towards this section of society. When drought-stricken peasants defaulted on tax payments, they were brutally blown up, in front of the Shaniwar Wada, by stuffing dynamite in their navels; women were increasingly subjected to sexual exploitation; and the “untouchables” were forced to hang earthen pots around their necks to carry their spit and tie brooms to their waists to clean the streets of their footsteps. In a bid to prevent any kind of anti-establishment thinking or movement from taking root, the radical compositions of the Bhakti saint Tukaram were also banned during the Peshwa regime (Bhave 1976; Gavli 1981; Phadke 1991). Scholars like Gopal Hari Deshmukh, popularly known as Lokahitawadi (Parikh and Parikh 1988), Gangadhar Balkrishna Sardar (1981, 1986), and others have commented on this social history.

The Koregaon Bhima battle has been viewed from different standpoints. The participation of the Mahar soldiers in this battle is seen by one school of thought as a reactionary rage against the oppressive Brahminism of the Peshwas. The supporters of this viewpoint celebrate 1 January as Mahar Valour Day (Kumbhojkar 2012). Another viewpoint holds that the battle did not usher equality or abolish untouchability after the downfall of the Peshwas and that after 1857, the British disbanded the Mahar battalion in keeping with their promise to the Brahmins and Muslims of non-interference in religious matters. Thus, this opinion is sceptical about British policies being pro-equality (Ambedkar 2017; Teltumbde 2018). There is a third viewpoint, which looks at the celebration of the Valour Day as pro-British and anti-national. This third opinion is asserted time and time again by the current heirs of the Peshwas, namely right-wing Brahminical leaders Milind Ekbote from Pune and Manohar/Sambhaji Bhide from Sangli in Maharashtra. They went so far as to appeal for a ban on the celebration of Valour Day at Koregaon Bhima though the court has denied their plea.

When the Koregaon Bhima battle ended, the British erected a monument on which the names of all soldiers who died on the battlefield were carved. A fourth opinion claims that this battle included soldiers from the Maratha, Kunbi and other castes as well as British troops. Local residents of Koregaon Bhima point to the names of soldiers listed on the Vijay Stambh (victory pillar) at the war memorial in support of this assertion.

Two centuries after the battle, the caste system continues to flourish in the country. State policies are nowhere just towards the Bahujan sections, as can be seen from the agrarian crisis, declining employment opportunities, and the unabated violence against women and Dalits. The state, which is a reincarnation of the Peshwa regime, is trying to dilute and alter the Constitution that safeguards the interests of the downtrodden. The verdicts in the Kharda caste honour killing and Kopardi rape cases are recent examples of the continued influence and dominance of the caste system to date.

Huge numbers of people peacefully congregate at Koregaon to reaffirm the message of social equality every year. Each year sees stalls selling emancipatory and progressive literature, greetings being exchanged, and New Year resolutions being made, and local residents of the surrounding villages welcoming the visitors. Considering that this is the centenary year, a higher number of visitors were expected, but the police completely failed to take note of this and make suitable arrangements.

Vadhu Budruk

According to diverse accounts, Sambhaji, son of the Maratha king Shivaji, was brutally killed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The shrines of Sambhaji and his associate Kavi Kalash located on the outskirts of Vadhu Budruk village, close to Koregaon Bhima, were discovered in 1939 by the famous historian V C Bendre.

There are many accounts of the reasons that Sambhaji was tortured and killed by the Mughal emperor. One of them states that Sambhaji was a Sanskrit pandit, which had upset the Brahmin pandits of the time as this was in violation of the caste code of Manusmriti that forbade non-Brahmins to learn the scriptures. The Brahmins went on to advise Aurangzeb to punish Sambhaji according to the laws of Manusmriti. Thus, as a punishment for reading the Vedas, Aurangzeb had Sambhaji blinded, beheaded and his corpse chopped into several pieces. Aurangzeb also ordered that no religious rites would be performed after his death. However, it so happened that Sambhaji’s remains were discovered and collected by Govind Mahar, an outcast “untouchable,” who sewed them together and performed the last rites of the deceased king. Historians like V C Bendre (1960), Kamal Gokhale (1971), Sharad Patil (1986) and Jaysingrao Pawar (1990) have shed light on this forgotten history in their works. Right-wing leaders such as Ekbote and Bhide have been indulging in questionable politics for many years in the rural pockets of Pune, Sangli, Kolhapur, and Satara districts by playing up the Maratha caste identity and inciting them against Dalits and, on other occasions, building up anti-Muslim sentiment by elaborating the brutal killing of Sambhaji by a Muslim ruler (Gadgil and Dhupkar 2018; FirstPost 2018b). The discovery of Shivaji’s shrine in Raigad by Phule and then that of Sambhaji in Vadhu Budruk by Bendre must undoubtedly have proved to be a dampener for such politickers.

On 28 December 2017, Rajendra Gaikwad, a descendant of Govind Mahar, put up a placard in Vadhu Budruk saying “towards the shrine of Govind Mahar” to direct visitors. It was removed by some residents of the village, who gathered and razed the shed that covered the shrine (Indian Express 2018). A police complaint was filed and 49 people were arrested. Soon after, a rumour began to circulate on 1 January 2018 that something would happen around Sambhaji’s shrine in Vadhu Budruk. It is pertinent to point out here that Ekbote and his Samast Hindu Aghadi have been active in this area since a few years now. Three weeks prior to the bicentenary celebration at Koregaon Bhima, Ekbote had publicly propagated that all those who assemble at the memorial are anti-nationals and enemies of the nation. On 28 December 2017, Dilip Prabhakar Joshi, leader of the Brahman Mahasangh, held a press conference at the Pune Shramik Patrakar Bhavan, stating that India must be the only country where a few anti-national elements gather to celebrate the victory of their foreign rulers and that the government, instead of posing questions, was providing security for the programme. The rumour predicting trouble at Vadhu Budruk gained significance following this statement.

There were no untoward incidents between 29 and 31 December 2017 in Koregaon Bhima, Sanaswadi or Vadhu Budruk, though the presence of a few outsiders tended to raise the tension. On 30 December 2017, the gram panchayat of Koregaon Bhima passed a resolution registering a protest against the incident at Vadhu Budruk and declared a bandh on 1 January 2018 to mark their discontent. A copy of this resolution was submitted to the Shikrapur police station, but the police refused to take serious note of it.

Unfolding Events of 1 January

The New Year began with crowds streaming into Koregaon Bhima since dawn from Pune, Nagar road and Chakan. Those headed for the Koregaon war memorial had parked their vehicles in an open ground nearby and walked nearly 4 km to the memorial. It must be noted here that the police action in the case of the vandalism at the Govind Mahar shrine at Vadhu Budruk on 30 December 2017 had heightened tensions, and with the ominous rumours having spread far and wide, a huge crowd with saffron flags began gathering on the morning of 1 January. Bhide and Ekbote’s supporters held meetings and addressed the assembled crowds. Soon, the agitated crowds began vandalising visitors’ vehicles parked at the grounds and marched onto Sanaswadi, Koregaon, and Chakan Shikrapur road shouting slogans.

Sanaswadi: As this crowd reached Sanaswadi road, they started pelting stones at the Ambedkarite visitors headed for the memorial and vandalised the vehicles parked on both sides of the road. The number plates of the vandalised vehicles revealed that they had come from outside the district and the extent of damage reveals the use of combustible items such as petrol and kerosene. The wooden sticks used for the blue and panchsheel flags (symbols of the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement) were stripped of the cloth and used for the purpose of vandalism.

The mob went on to systematically destroy shops and establishments belonging to Muslim and lower-caste communities. A garment shop owned by one Salim Inamdar and a scrap dealing shop belonging to Salim Khan were set on fire. The shops were empty due to the bandh called by the gram panchayat. The crowd then burnt tyres in front of Asgar Ali Ansari’s shop. Ansari’s brother, who was inside the shop, somehow managed to escape just in time before the fire engulfed the shop. The gas cylinder in the adjacent hotel burst due to this fire and the neighbouring shop, Sarvesh Autolines owned by Bhausaheb Khetre, also went up in flames. Two trucks, MH-12-786 and MH-12-2757, parked behind this shop in front of one Rajjak Bhai’s garage were also burnt. An adjacent wood warehouse, run by one Haribhau Darekar, also caught fire. Another migrant, Shivraj Prajapati’s shop Ranabhai Marble was vandalised. There are two petrol pumps at Sanaswadi village, where the mob further burnt vehicles and the adjacent scrap dealing shops.

Sudam Shankar Pawar is a neo-Buddhist, who owns a two-acre plot, northwards of Sanaswadi, which he had received as compensation for a dam construction project. He cultivates sugar cane on 1.5 acres and has constructed a Buddha Vihar, a small community hall, and a chawl with 29 rooms on the remaining part. This property also has an accompanying open space. As it got dark on 1 January, the rampaging mob broke vehicles parked on this ground and the windowpanes of the Vihar, and set the sugar cane field on fire. The adjacent properties and farms owned by one Darekar and Hargude were left completely unharmed. There were no signs of burning or stone pelting on the roads leading to their properties. Thus, Pawar was singularly targeted. In Sanaswadi, stones were pelted at the houses of a Ravi Kamble and Athawale, both migrant Dalits.

On the next day, that is, 2 January, the corpse of a Maratha youth—Rahul Phatangale—was found nearby, at an isolated spot. Amit Bhongade, a neo-Buddhist youth who was injured in the violence, was in a coma at the Sassoon General Hospital, Pune till the writing of this report. Many others were injured in the stone pelting at Sanaswadi.

Nagar Road: The stone pelting had commenced at 11 am on 1 January at visitors coming from Nagar Road to Koregaon. This halted the traffic from that direction. Cars and other vehicles in front of Abdul Bhai and Eliaaj’s garages were burnt down. The fire spread to Jay Bhavani Hotel, and Nasir Khan’s scrap store and garage. Renowned sculptor and artist Eldine Fernandes’ art studio in Koregaon Bhima was completely burnt down (FirstPost 2018a). In that fire, Fernandes’ recent work on the statues of Shivaji, Ambedkar and Phule, as also completed murals, clay and art work for the Shiv Srushti Museum at Sinhgad Fort and the new Ambedkar Bhavan, were also gutted. The property of one Jain merchant named Mutha was also burnt at this spot. Nadesh Ram, a Bihari migrant youth, had recently moved into the locality and set up a tire shop, which was also set ablaze. One group went to Chakan Shikrapur road, and closed down local hotels and shops in the morning itself, pelting stones at vehicles headed to the memorial.

People coming from Nagar Road were stopped and those near the memorial could see flames and smoke billowing in that direction. The police stopped people from crossing the bridge. The only open and relatively unaffected road was Pune–Koregaon road, from where one fire brigade managed to reach the burning sites. However, this too was burnt by the mob. Thus, around 5,000 vehicles from all over Maharashtra were damaged, and around 50 cars and luxury buses set on fire.

Another mob destroyed the Chhatrapati two- and four-wheeler showroom, broke into Indrayani Hotel and stole food packages in the afternoon. They also attempted to burn two other hotels in the vicinity, Nakshatra and Someshwar. In Koregaon Bhima, initially, minorities were the target of the vandalism. Among the properties badly damaged or burnt, 60% belonged to the minority communities. The second round of vandalism, which took place in the afternoon, looks like a reaction to the earlier incidents.

Mobsters and victims: The crowd that gathered at Vadhu Budruk with saffron flags comprised non-residents and outsiders entirely. Residents of Vadhu Budruk claim that none of them had any relation to this crowd, but they knew who were in this crowd. The police knew these names too. Prakash Ambedkar, leader of the Bharatiya Republican Paksha–Bahujan Mahasangh, has publicly announced these names. Except for Darekar at Sanaswadi, all the victims of this violence too were recent migrants into the area. They were either Muslims or neo-Buddhists. Local Maratha (dominant caste) or Mali (Other Backward Class) families suffered no major consequences.

This indicates that there was no participation of and no loss to local residents. These incidents hark back to the pattern of the Gujarat riots of 2002, which saw organised crowds from outside that systematically targeted Muslims, police indifference, and even dismissal of complaints of the developments. This pattern was seen in 2013–14 in targeted attacks on minorities, specifically Muslim-owned bakeries, and the lynching of Mohsin Shaikh in the peri-urban areas of Pune city, namely Saswad, Pimpri Chinchwad, and Hadapsar, among others. It is clear that there was a sinister plot to “use” the Koregaon Bhima case in combination with the Vadhu Budruk incident to instigate conflicts between Maratha–Malis on the one hand and Dalits on the other and to target minorities by engaging Bahujan youth in acts of violence against them.

The middle-class neo-Buddhist community in Maharashtra, that has acquired a modicum of class mobility with the help of reservations, annually visits Koregaon Bhima in private or rented cars. The way the vehicles were targeted betrays the deep-seated grudge held by the Brahminical forces against the prosperity of the neo-Buddhists. The authenticity of the audio and videos that went viral on social media must be checked by the cyber cell of the state police.

Role of Police and Administration

The police was absent on Koregaon Bhima road during the period of the violence. The state government had announced that the Minister of Social Justice and Special Assistance, Rajkumar S Badole, would participate in the programme. The minister was not present at the site on 1 January. Badole’s junior, Minister of State of Social Justice and Special Assistance Dilip Dnyandeo Kamble was present, but did not even step out of the car. Police strength was lesser than expected around the memorial, whereas a huge force was deployed at Vadhu Budruk. Yet, it was seemingly unable (or unwilling?) to control the violent crowd. This massive deployment was nowhere to be seen when the stone pelting on unsuspecting crowds began. Considering the resolution passed by the Sanaswadi gram panchayat and the systematic propaganda in public meetings by the Samast Hindu Aghadi, the police inaction is far from appearing lethargic; it suggests foul play.

The presence of inflammable material and collection of stones in the upper floors of buildings, points towards a well-planned conspiracy. The angry outburst of Dalits during the Maharashtra bandh called by Dalit organisations was a result of this systematic targeting and vandalising of the persons and property of a jubilant crowd that had come on an annual pilgrimage as it were.

What Next?

The Maharashtra government has ordered a judicial inquiry and it is hoped that action will be taken against those responsible for the violence and vandalism and for inciting the crowds. Residents of Vadhu Budruk have declared before the police and the media that all misunderstandings are now cleared and that there is restoration of peace and harmony. The peace resolution passed by Vadhu gram panchayat must be effectively implemented. A special grant of ₹ 25 crore should be given for restoration of damaged property and other facilities at the Govind Mahar shrine. Former Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan had said that the writings of scholars (mentioned earlier) on Sambhaji, should be made available at subsidised prices by the state government. This should be done soon. Selected passages from these writings should be displayed at the Vadhu Budruk premises. Considering the participation of other castes in the 1818 battle against Peshwas, this monument should be declared as the “Social Transformation for Unity Memorial” and the practice of paying an official tribute by the Indian Army and Maharashtra state, which had lasted between 1990 and 2000, must be revived.

The current dispensation has constantly been devaluing issues such as farm loan waivers, demands for employment, and problems of the marginalised Dalits, Adivasis and denotified tribes in the public discourse. The last two generations of the Bahujan sections of Maharashtra have been involved by the Hindu right-wing in hating and fighting Muslims. The 21st-century agenda seems to be one of engaging the next two generations in anti-Dalit action. If the marginalised sections and progressive forces are able to identify and expose this agenda, it would be a clear lesson learnt from the incidents of 1 January.

References

Ambedkar, Prakash (2017): “Koregaavcha Apman,” Right Angles, 31 December, https://rightangles.in/2017/12/31/battle-of-koregaon/.

Bendre, V C (1960): Chatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj: Purvardh ani Uttarardh, Pune: Parshwa Publications.

Bhave, V K (1976): Peshwekalin Maharashtra, New Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research.

FirstPost (2018a): “Bhima Koregaon Violence Turns Creation of Award-winning Artist into Heap of Ashes, Inflicts Over Rs 50 Lakh Loss,” 2 January, http://www.firstpost.com/india/bhima-koregaon-violence-turns-creation-of-award-winning-artist-into-heap-of-ashes-inflicts-over-rs-50-lakh-loss-4284331.html.

— (2018b): “Sambhaji Bhide, Milind Ekbote: Meet the Two Men Booked for Bhima Koregaon Violence that Killed One and Crippled Maharashtra for Two Days,” 3 January, http://www.firstpost.com/india/meet-the-men-behind-maharashtra-bandh-sambhaji-bhide-milind-ekbote-enjoy-political-clout-with-rss-bjp-leaders-4285125.html.

Gadgil, Makarand and Alka Dhupkar (2018): “Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote: The Two Who Brought Mumbai to Halt,” Mumbai Mirror, 3 January, https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/mumbai/cover-story/the-two-who-brought-your-city-to-a-halt/articleshow/ 62344275.cms.

Gavli, P A (1981): Peshvekalin Gulamgiri va Asprushyata, Kolhapur: Prachar Prakashan.

Gokhale, Kamal (1971): Shivputra Sambhaji, Pune: Continental Prakashan.

Indian Express (2018): “Vadhu Budruk Unrest: Seven Members of Maratha Community Granted Bail,” 7 January, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/vadhu-budruk-unrest-seven-members-of-maratha-community-granted-bail -5014572/.

Kumbhojkar, Shraddha (2012): “Contesting Power, Contesting Memories: The History of the Koregaon Memorial,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 47, No 42, pp 103–07.

Parikh, Govardhan and Indumati Parikh (eds) (1988): Lokahitawadi: Samagra Vangmay, Khand 1–2, Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sanskruti Mandal Prakashan.

Patil, Sharad (1986): Shivaji Maharajancha Hindavi Swarajyache Khare Shatru Kon: Mohammedi Ke Brahmani? Dhule: Satyashodhak Marxwadi Prakashan.

Pawar, Jaysingrao (1990): Chattrapati Sambhaji Smarak Granth: Ek Chikitsa, Kolhapur: Priyadarshi Prakashan.

Phadke, Y D (ed) (1991): Mahatma Phule Samagra Angmay, Mumbai: Maharashtra Rajya Sahitya Sanskruti Mandal Prakashan.

Sardar, Gangadhar Balkrishna (1981): Mahatma Phule: Vyaktitva ani Vichar, Mumbai: Granthali Vachak Chalwal.

— (1986): Maharashtratil Samajik Prabodhanachi Vatchal, Pune: Navnirman Nyas Prakashan.

Teltumbde, Anand (2018): “The Myth of Bhima Koregaon Reinforces the Identities It Seeks to Transcend,” Wire, 2 January, https://thewire.in/209824/myth-bhima-koregaon-reinforces-identities-seeks-transcend/.

Updated On : 3rd Apr, 2018

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