After a long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two-member commission appointed by the Maharashtra government to probe the causes of the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon clashes is likely to resume work next month. It may record the statement of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar and other senior officials, said sources on Friday.
Commission lawyer Ashish Satpute said the recording of witnesses’ statements was likely to commence again from August 2 and that Mr. Pawar’s statement would be recorded as well.
In February last year, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government had granted the commission its fifth extension.
The panel, comprising the former Kolkata High Court Chief Justice, Justice J.N. Patel, and former Chief Secretary Sumit Mullick, was set up by the erstwhile Devendra Fadnavis government in February 2018 to probe the sequence of events leading up to the New Year’s Day violence in Bhima Koregaon and the adjoining villages that left one person dead while heightening social tensions across the State.
The commission was initially given four months to submit a report, but its tenure was extended repeatedly in order to allow it to complete the investigation and also due to financial resources problem.
Hearings of senior officers and Mr. Pawar were scheduled between March 30 and April 4, 2020. However, the COVID-19 outbreak compelled the commission to defer all hearings until further notice.
Following the clashes, the Pune City police carried out two countrywide crackdowns (in June and August 2018) in connection with the Elgaar Parishad- Bhima Koregaon violence by searching the residences of several noted academics, activists and intellectuals known for their dissentious views against the powers that be and their work among the dispossessed.
The houses of Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale were searched in the first crackdown and those of the late Father Stan Swamy, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, poet P. Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Anand Teltumbde in the second.
The Pune City police’s case rests on an FIR registered at the Vishrambaug police station (in January 2018) under sections 153 (a) [Promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion, race etc], 505 1 (b) among others in connection with the ‘Elgaar Parishad’ held at Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort on December 31, 2017 as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the Bhima-Koregaon battle.
‘The FIR, based on a complaint from one Tushar Damgude, had accused Kabir Kala Manch activists of making a number of “inflammatory” speeches and delivering “socially divisive” presentations during the course of the troupe’s performance and recitals at the ‘Elgaar Parishad’, which lasted nearly eight hours and witnessed the participation of thousands of persons from more than 250 progressive social outfits, including several Lleft-leaning and Ambedkarite groups across the State.
The raids and subsequent arrests of the prominent activists and academics were based on this FIR, with the Pune Police claiming to have extended the scope of their investigation to unearth alleged ‘Maoist links’ held by these intellectuals.
In December 2019, Mr. Pawar described the arrest of the activists as “wrong” and “vengeful” and demanded that a special investigation team (SIT) be set up under a retired judge to probe the action taken by the police.
Ambedkarite outfits’ demand
The commission’s alleged tardy performance has drawn the ire of a number of Ambedkarite outfits such as the Pune-based Republican Yuva Morcha (RYM), which has demanded that the government constitute a SIT to probe afresh the violent clashes that shattered Maharashtra’s social fabric on the occasion of the bicentenary of the 1818 Koregaon-Bhima battle.
RYM president Rahul Dambale has pointed out that the very fact that the commission had complained to the MVA government of a severe fund crunch confirmed the worst suspicions of Ambedkarite outfits that the erstwhile BJP government, which had set it up, had no wish for the truth behind the riots to emerge.
Dalit outfits had alleged that the commission had been operating under pressure from the then BJP government, which allegedly been shielding Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote .
The RYM had demanded that the MVA government immediately direct the Pune Rural police to file a charge sheet in the case and set up a trial court to probe the role of Mr. Ekbote and Mr. Bhide.
FIRs were lodged on January 2, 2018 (a day after the clashes) against Mr. Ekbote, who heads the fringe outfit, ‘Samasta Hindu Aghadi’; and Mr. Bhide ‘Guruji’, founder of the Sangli-based ‘Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan’. While Mr. Ekbote is out on bail, Mr. Bhide has never been probed thus far.