204th Anniversary

Revisiting Bhima Koregaon

Nadeem Inamdar

Thousands, by some estimates over half a million, of people from across the country converged on New Year’s Day to observe and celebrate the victory of Dalit Mahar troops under the British over the Brahmin Peshwa’s army at Bhima Koregaon over two centuries ago.

Huge crowds thronged the war memorial popularly known as ‘Jaystambh” at Perne hamlet in Bhima Koregaon village despite COVID-19 restrictions and section 144 clamped by the district administration. According to the police, over a million Dalits paid tributes at the obelisk during the day-long event.

Compared with the 203rd anniversary celebrations which was a low key affair due to Covid-19 restrictions, the turnout for the event this time was impressive with thousands of visitors converging at the site a day before the celebrations and camping overnight.

The Bhima Koregaon obelisk was decorated with Indian army’s Mahar regiment insignia and floral decoration of the pillar resembled the Indian tri-colour this time to commemorate the 204th anniversary of the battle, amidst tight police security and surveillance of intelligence agencies.

The Victory Pillar was put up in 1821 to commemorate the memory of the historic battle which marked the defeat of Peshwa Bajirao II by the British army comprising mostly of Dalit Mahars. According to the Dalit narrative, 500 Mahar soldiers defeated the 28,000 strong army of the Peshwa in the battle. The Dalits regard the battle as their ‘war of freedom’ from the oppressive rule of ‘casteist Peshwas’.

The Dalit celebration which till 2018 was neglected by the state’s BJP government under the then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has become a state event since the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi coalition led by CM Udhhav Thackeray came to power in Maharshtra in 2019. Top ministers, bureaucrats and police officers attended the programme and represented the state government.

On January 1, 2018, clashes had broken out between right wing forces and Dalits near the Victory Pillar and memorial at Perne village on Pune-Ahmednagar highway. A day earlier, the Elgar Parishad conclave was held for the first time on December 31, 2017 at Pune’s historic Shaniwarwada which once was the seat of Peshwa power. Inflammatory speeches delivered during the event triggered the violence next day, claimed Pune Police.

Two FIR’s were lodged in connection with the case. The first was at Shikrapur police station under Pune rural police in January 2018 in which Hindutva activist Milind Ekbote was arrested. The FIR against Ekbote was lodged following a complaint from Dalit activist Anita Ravindra Salve. Two months later, Ekbote was released on conditional bail by the supreme court.

In the same FIR, rural police also booked Sambhaji Bhide alias Bhide Guruji who was later given a clean chit by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and was never arrested. In the FIR, Salve had alleged that she saw Bhide and Ekbote instigating the Hindutva mob against Dalit. Later, the then CM Fadnavis stated in the assembly that Salve had retracted her statement saying she did not see Bhide and Ekbote present at the spot.

Another case was registered at Pune’s Vishrambaug police station, where police initially booked members of Kabir Kala Manch, a left-leaning Dalit outfit for delivering provocative speeches during Elgar Parishad.

Five prominent activists which include two human rights activists, a lawyer, an English language professor, and a poet were arrested by Pune Police on June 6, 2018. Later on Aug 28, 2018 five more activists were arrested. The first charge sheet was filed by the Pune Police in November 2018, which ran into over 5,000 pages and named activists Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, all of whom were arrested in June 2018. Currently poet Varvara Rao and activist Sudha Bharadwaj are out on temporary bail while Jesuit priest father Stan Swamy died as an under-trial after being denied basic medical treatment by the jail authorities.

Former Bombay high court judge Justice (Retd) B G Kolse Patil accused the Narendra Modi led government for framing innocents in the Bhima Koregaon case.

“There is nothing much left to say in connection with the case as justice has been denied to BK political prisoners who are languishing without bail. The Bhima Koregaon Commission is moving at a tardy pace with no justice in sight. States appoint commissions to derail and deny justice as is happening in this case. The role of the right wing has been completely obliterated as all the constitutional institutions of the county have been taken over by the RSS. Whichever government comes to power, it is the RSS which control and decides the policy of the state”, he said. Kolse Patil along with late judge P B Sawant was one of key organisers of Elgar Parishad and had dared the police and central agencies to arrest him in the case.

The violence which took place during the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon has made the issue a subject of research amongst academicians, both nationally and globally as well.

[Courtesy: National Herald]

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Vol 54, No. 29, Jan 16 - 22, 2022