202nd Bhima Koregaon battle anniversary: Pillars of pride await financial assistance
Two historic monuments located five kilometres apart in Pune district stand as a testament to Dalit pride, but are now in need of funds to be developed and beautified.
The first is the “Vijay Stambh” or victory pillar on the banks of the Bhima river where tens of thousands of people gather every year to mark the anniversary of a British-era war where a British army, manned primarily by Dalits, defeated a much larger army commanded by the Peshwas, the then rulers of the realm supposedly notorious for oppressive caste practices.
The second marks the resting place of Govind Gopal Mahar, a 17th-century peasant who Dalit groups and some historians believe performed the last rights of Maratha king Chhatrapati Sambhaji, the son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, in defiance of a decree passed by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
While the first monument is more well-known, it is the second that was the trigger for violent clashes two years ago, allegedly instigated by right-wing groups, who dispute the historical importance of Mahar.
The violence on January 1, 2018 — when bicentennial celebrations of the war were on — left one person dead, at least 20 injured, and stoked a statewide protest that shut down Maharashtra. Two separate investigations were opened, one into the violence and the other into an event organised a day before in Pune, the Elgar Parishad.
On January 1, 2019, on the anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon war, union minister Ramdas Athawale had announced a Rs 100 crore grant for the beautification of the Bhima Koregaon obelisk.
A year later, local groups say they are still waiting for the funds to be disbursed while the government says it is laying the groundwork for the development of a monument considered important for millions of people from lower and backward castes across the country.
“We are making efforts for getting Rs 100 crore sanctioned for the beautification. We are preparing a detailed development plan and it will be implemented through the district collector’s office. We are taking follow-up with government and the sanctions have yet not come,” said Athawale.
District collector Naval Kishore Ram said, “The work for beautification and the Bhima Koregaon memorial development plan will be taken up after January 1, 2020 celebrations.”
Dalit groups have been pressing for the obelisk to be declared as a national monument. “The beautification work of the memorial has been pending for one year. We want both the central and state governments to take proactive steps in completing the work at the earliest,” said Rahul Dambale, president of the Republican Yuva Morcha, a social organisation.
While the Vijay Stambh is the more popular monument, the trickle of visitors to Mahar’s tomb has now grown– with more than 200 visitors daily.
“These visitors are facing issued like non-availability of drinking water, sitting benches and sheds to protect them from sun and rain. My forefather is a national hero and his samadhi (tomb) needs to be developed and beautified,” said Govind Gopal Mahar’s descendant Rajendra Gaikwad.