Bhima Koregaon: Lakhs assemble for Dalit pride
Police switched off mobile internet and deployed 10,000 personnel to avoid any recurrence of the clashes that broke out on January 1, 2018, and left one person dead.Updated: Jan 02, 2020 16:31 IST
Two years after an event that symbolises Dalit pride was rocked by violence, at least one million people joined the anniversary celebrations of a British-era war in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village on Wednesday -- this time with senior government functionaries as part of the gathering following a change of guard in the state.
Police switched off mobile internet and deployed 10,000 personnel to avoid any recurrence of the clashes that broke out on January 1, 2018, and left one person dead.
But the heavy security, or the possibility of a repeat of the violence, failed to dampen the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of people, who poured into a small field where the Jay Stambh, or victory pillar, is erected on the banks of the Bhima river.
“We come here to relive the valour of our ancestors who resisted the oppressive practices of the rulers. We had forgotten our history but now we have come to know about it once again after the violence in the area,” said Asha Deshabrathar, a resident of Nagpur.
Many of them said the violence, the first disturbance in the decades-old tradition, had steeled their determination to defy any miscreants and celebrate their history. Slogans of “Jai Bhim” (a reference to Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution) reverberated in the air.
“We were unaware of this warrior history but came to know of it after Dalits were attacked in 2018. Since then, we have become regular visitors and we offer tributes to our ancestors,” said Sanjay Sonkamble, a resident of Jalna district. Prominent politicians – including deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi chief Prakash Ambedkar, and Union minister Ramdas Athawale – visited the spot, a sharp contrast to the violence-marred celebrations two years ago, after which thousands of Dalit activists were jailed and no top leader visited the spot. “Many people visit Bhima Koregaon victory monument to pay their tributes to the soldiers. The youngsters must learn from the battle of Bhima Koregaon and decide their future based on the history of Bhima Koregaon,” said Pawar.
Pawar’s three-party coalition government -- led by Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray -- which came to power in November, has already announced a review of “non-serious” cases lodged against Dalit activists in 2018. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, who is widely seen as the architect of the coalition, has also demanded that cases of Maoist conspiracy against nine prominent activists be dropped. The activists -- Sudhir Dhawale, 49, an activist; Rona Wilson, 47, an educator; Surendra Gadling, 50, a lawyer; Shoma Sen, 59, a professor ; Mahesh Raut, 30, an academic; Arun Ferriera, 45, a lawyer; Sudha Bhardwaj, 57, a lawyer; Vernon Gonsalves, 61, an activist; P Varavara Rao, 78, a poet -- are in jail since their arrests in 2018. The arrests sparked a wave of criticism. Since the charges against them include criminal conspiracy, waging war against the state, sedition and sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in the Elgar Parishad case -- the charges against them have not been dropped by the government. At least 350 other cases -- which are filed against grassroots activists --- are currently being reviewed. The move has been criticised by the BJP, which lost power in the state last year. “There is a clear attempt to protect urban Naxals and to pressure the government to shield Naxalite activities as both Congress and NCP have sought withdrawal of such cases,” said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.
Ambedkar, who led the Dalit movement after the 2018 violence, praised the state government for the security and preparations.
“As far as the Elgar Parishad case is concerned, the police filed fabricated case against the accused which was aimed at muzzling the voice of dissent,” he said, referring to police allegations against nine activists of sedition and plotting to kill the PM.
For decades, Dalit communities have marked the anniversary of a victory in 1818 of the British army, manned primarily by Dalits, over a much larger army commanded by the Peshwas, the then rulers of the region notorious for oppressive caste practices. The Jay Stambh, which has the names of the soldiers who died in Bhima Koregaon inscribed, gained prominence in the 1920s after BR Ambedkar visited the spot. On January 1, 2018, as thousands of people arrived at the village from all over India, violent clashes broke out that left at least 20 people injured and one dead.
The next day, angry Dalit groups erupted in protest across the country because the attacks were seen as an insult to the assertion and history of the marginalised community.
A two-member judicial commission is looking into the causes of violence. A separate probe by Pune Urban Police blames a Maoist conspiracy hatched at a Pune event held a day before the violence. Special Inspector General (Kolhapur range) Suhas Wadke said about 500,000 people gathered at the venue till 1pm. By late evening, the numbers had swelled to one million, he added.
The Bhima Koregaon celebrations usually begin on the evening of December 31 and continue till late in the night on January 1, with tens of thousands of people spending the night in tents pitched on the field where the pillar is erected. A show of fireworks and a Buddhist ceremony is held to welcome the new year. To avoid any violence, the police enforced an elaborate security and crowd management plan that included visitors parking their cars 5km before the pillar and travel the rest of the distance in government buses. “We had deployed adequate policemen and kept a close watch through our men, drones and CCTV cameras. The commemoration celebrations were peaceful and we received huge co-operation from the villagers and social organisations,” said Pune Rural superintendent of police Sandip Patil.