The violent clashes that erupted in the village of Bhima Koregaon and surrounding areas on New Year’s Day in 2018 seared Maharashtra’s social fabric, while heightening social tensions across the State.
The clashes resulted in massive destruction of property belonging to Ambedkarite members and its reverberations were felt throughout the country.
Also read: Comment | Understanding Bhima Koregaon
Since then, Ambedkarite outfits have accused the State police of dragging their feet over investigations into the clashes under the watch of the erstwhile Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
Outfits such as the Pune-based Republican Yuva Morcha (RYM) have charged the former BJP regime of shielding the alleged perpetrators of the violence, including radical Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide.
Also read: Editorial | State of conflict: on the Bhima-Koregaon violence
Instead, an absurd parallel narrative of ‘urban naxalism’ has been woven and investigated with great zeal by the Pune city police (and later by Central agencies such as the NIA), while nothing is being done about the true perpetrators of the Bhima Koregaon clashes, allege groups such as the RYM.
Yet, four years on, while the quest for justice in the Bhima Koregaon violence continues to elude them, Ambedkarite groups nonetheless notice a shift in the narrative.
This time, the Uddhav Thackeray-led tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government [of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress] has organised celebrations on a grand scale.
The State’s Social Welfare Department, in collaboration with the Pune district administration, has made several arrangements to cater to the lakhs of visitors who would pay homage to the Koregaon Bhima ‘Jaystambh’ (‘victory pillar’) on the 204th anniversary of the battle, which took place in Perne near Bhima Koregaon – and was the scene of the 2018 violence.
The Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited (PMPML) has arranged free bus services to ferry visitors to Perne.
The ‘Jaystambh’ is an obelisk in Bhima Koregaon village commemorating the British East India Company soldiers who fell in a battle on January 1, 1818, where the British, with just 834 infantrymen — about 500 of them from the Mahar community — and 12 officers defeated the 28,000-strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II . It was one of the last battles of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, which ended the Peshwa domination.
Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visit to the site on January 1, 1927, revitalised the memory of the battle for the Dalit community, making it a rallying point and an assertion of pride.
This year, the obelisk has been decorated with the insignia of the Indian Army’s Mahar Regiment to mark the 204th anniversary of the battle. The monument has been decorated with flowers, the Indian Tricolour as well as the distinctive insignia of the Mahar Regiment.
“Today, the Maharashtra government has, in a way, realised Dr. Ambedkar’s efforts and objective in making his historic visit to the pillar. Earlier, several retired officers of the Mahar Regiment used to pay homage to this unique exploit of valour conducted by members of their community. But this time, serving officers from the regiment will be present on the occasion. A lot has changed since the clashes and the obelisk is now getting official recognition,” noted Rahul Dambale, president, RYM.
He observes that despite the perpetrators of the violence not being brought to book, this is the first time in 200 years since the battle and construction of the obelisk that official recognition has come from the government.
“Hindutva forces have repeatedly tried to undermine celebrations at this obelisk. But the MVA’s efforts in organising celebrations at the monument can, in itself, can be construed as a victory for the Ambedkarite community. The Bhima Koregaon obelisk has now impressed itself in popular consciousness in a way that it had not been 15 years ago, when we took up the task of organising celebrations at the victory pillar,” Mr. Dambale said.
In 2005, the BKRSS was established as a community initiative with the humble objective of facilitating people coming to visit the spot and providing them with basic amenities such as food. The purpose of the celebrations around the obelisk was to keep alive the memory of this somewhat obscure episode in Indian history and pay homage to those among their community who fought for their self-respect in that battle.
In the beginning, there were a few thousand visitors. Gradually, the numbers picked up to tens of thousands and finally lakhs of visitors from across India now come to pay homage at the site of the battle with a massive participation of backward community members from Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and neighbouring Gujarat.
At the same time, the BKSS, caretakers of the obelisk and eminent Ambedkarite scholars have emphatically pointed out the dangers of reductive history and of reinforcing casteist identities by simplifying the battle as a mere ‘caste conflict’ pitting Mahar against Brahmin or Mahar against Maratha.
“The objective is not to glorify the battle or pit it as ‘Dalit versus Brahmin’ domination, which it most certainly wasn’t, but to take inspiration from the sacrifice of the Mahar soldiers. At the time of the battle, the Mahar soldiers in the East India Company were merely fighting for their masters, and not really to overthrow ‘Peshwai’ domination. Likewise, there were other units, particularly Arab mercenaries, fighting in the Peshwa’s army,” Mr. Dambale noted.
More government efforts are on for the upkeep of the monument: last week, Social Justice Minister Dhananjay Munde told the State Assembly that a high-level committee had been set up to prepare a draft plan for the development and beautification of the Koregaon-Bhima memorial.
The Pune Collector has been directed to expedite the land acquisition process and the required budgetary allocation has also been approved by the department, Mr. Munde said.
At the same time, however laudable these efforts may be, Mr. Dambale pointed to the fact that only 150 persons among 4,000-odd people identified as the rioters in the 2018 clashes have been arrested or investigated till date, which is less than 10% of the total accused.
Furthermore, the progress of the Bhima Koregaon Judicial Inquiry Commission has been proceeding at a glacial pace.
“The Commission, despite innumerable extensions, has been unable to submit a preliminary report as its efficacy has been hamstrung by lack of resources. Hence, we demand that the MVA form a special taskforce to take action against the perpetrators of the clashes and bring Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote [currently out of bail] to justice,” Mr. Dambale said.