Violence in Maharashtra as Dalits protest death of 28-year-old in Bhima Koregaon clashes, bandh called in state

Hindustan Times, Mumbai/Pune/Nagpur | ByHT Correspondents
Jan 02, 2018 11:21 PM IST

Protesters damaged at least 20 government buses near Chembur in Mumbai, blocked roads and halted services on the city’s harbour railway line for about 15 minutes.

Violent protests erupted in Mumbai, Pune, and other cities across Maharashtra on Tuesday, with protesters damaging buses, blocking roads and railway lines and forcing shops to shut, a day after unrest in Pune district during celebrations to mark the bicentenary of a British-Peshwa war.

RPI activists during a protest in Thane following clashes between Dalit and Maratha groups in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on Tuesday.(PTI Photo)
RPI activists during a protest in Thane following clashes between Dalit and Maratha groups in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on Tuesday.(PTI Photo)

In suburban Mumbai, protests erupted in Ghatkopar, Chembur, Powai, Mulund and Thane, as activists from different factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) took to the streets. The police detained about 100 people across the city.

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Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced a judicial probe by a sitting judge of the high court into the unrest in Pune. He also said the CID would investigate the death of Rahul Phatangale, 28, who died after being struck in the head by stones on Monday.

The incident has taken a political turn with Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar announcing a Maharashtra bandh on Wednesday. Various Left parties as well as Maratha community outfit Sambhaji Brigade have supported his bandh call, he said.

Through Tuesday, protesters damaged at least 20 government buses in Mumbai and halted services on the city’s harbour line for about 25 minutes.

In Thane, hundreds of protesters sat on the roads, forced shops to down shutters and smashed seven state-owned buses. The arterial Eastern Express Highway and other roads saw massive traffic jams due to protests. Reports of violence and stone-pelting also came from Pune, Solapur, Nagpur and parts of the Vidarbha region, the police said.

Though Maharashtra’s education minister Vinod Tawde has confirmed that schools and colleges will function normally on Wednesday, school bus services could be hit as the School Bus Owners’ Association (SBOA) has decided to stay off the roads.

Hundreds of thousands of people gather at Bhima Koregaon every year to mark the anniversary of an 1818 war between the British and the Peshwa. Many Dalit leaders believe the war was won by the British with the help of Dalit soldiers in the regiment, who defeated a large army of the Peshwa, who was alleged to have instituted oppressive caste practices.

The celebrations gathered momentum in 1927 after BR Ambedkar visited the spot and called the Bhima Koregaon battle a war against caste. Historians are divided on the subject. But this year, the celebrations have been controversial, with several right-wing groups, such as the Akhil Bharatiya Brahmin Mahasangh calling the event anti-national.

Fadnavis has now said the CID will treat the killing of Phatangale as a murder, and has promised financial aid of Rs 10 lakh to his family, in addition to compensation to those whose vehicles were damaged in the incident.

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, meanwhile, blamed the government for not preventing Monday’s violence near Bhima Koregaon.

“People from the village told me that some outsiders who belonged to right-wing organisations incited violence. Thousands of people gather at the spot every year, but there is no history of violence at this commemoration. Anticipating a large gathering on the occasion of the bicentenary, the government authorities should have taken due precautions,” Pawar said.

The chief minister defended the administration and said six companies of police were deployed given the estimated 300,000 people expected at the venue.

“It seems there were some organisations who wanted riots to break out. There was stone-pelting, violence and arson but the police exercised great restraint to prevent the situation from getting out of control,” Fadnavis added, while appealing for calm across the state. Union home minister Rajnath Singh spoke to Fadnavis over the phone for updates on the situation.

Meanwhile, in a tweet, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said, “A central pillar of the RSS/BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohit Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance.”

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