Thousands visit Bhima Koregaon to mark anniversary of British-era war
Thousands of Dalits gathered in Bhima Koregaon of Maharashtra’s Pune district on Tuesday to mark the 201st anniversary of a British-era war as the administration threw a protective ring around the small village in an effort to avoid the repeat of the large-scale violence last year.
The violence broke out on January 1 last year in Bhima Koregaon and nearby villages during the bicentennial celebration of the war after unidentified people started pelting stones and set vehicles on fire. One person died in the violence and at least 40 were injured in the violence, which spilled into Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra as well.
The war in 1818 was fought between the British army, which was manned primarily by Dalits, and the Peshwa, the erstwhile rulers of the region notorious for their oppressive caste practices.
The administration has deployed more than 20,000 police personnel in Bhima Koregaon for security cover and suspended internet services in this part of Pune as a precautionary measure.
It has also set up a control room, monitoring the area through 350 CCTV cameras, some of them hidden, and diverted traffic from the arterial Pune-Ahmednagar highway. Police have denied permission to a number of religious leaders and groups for visiting the village, have externed 64 people and booked 1,211 people under preventive action. To avoid traffic jams, police have also made diversions this time.
The crowd started coming since early morning amid the heavy police presence. According to senior police officials, around one lakh people visited the Vijaystambh or the victory pillar erected by the British with names of the Dalit soldiers who died in the battle, till 1pm. The flow of crowd will continue till evening, they added.
Many Dalit leaders including Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar visited the Vijaystambh in Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the war anniversary. Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athawale is also expected to visit the site later in the evening.
Interestingly, there has been a large crowd at Vadhu Budruk where Dalits have come to pay homage to Govind Gopal Gaikwad ‘Mahar’, the Dalit farmer who had made arrangements for the last rites of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj.
The clashes last year were triggered after a board was found at his memorial claiming Mahar had defied the orders of Mughal king Aurangzeb and performed the last rites of Maratha king Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj after he was killed by Aurangzeb in 1689. Mahar is a Dalit community. Local villagers, who believed that it was their ancestors who had performed the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj, tried to remove the board, leading to the quarrel, which resulted in a police case.
The Bhima Koregaon violence dominated headlines for much of the last year, especially after Pune (urban) police arrested five activists in June, and another five in August, for alleged Maoist links and fomenting the clashes. This time too, police have restricted members of Kabir Kala Manch, a left-leaning Dalit outfit, from visiting the Vijaystambh, because of their alleged role in sparking the violence.
Police have also taken preventive action against those booked in all cases related to last year’s violence, including Hindu right-wing leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, who have been restricted from entering the area.
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