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Lok Sabha elections 2019: At Bhima Koregaon, riots a thing of the past

Caste clashes at Bhima Koregaon had threatened to shape the Dalit narrative before the elections

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 16, 2019 14:56 IST
Yogesh Joshi
Yogesh Joshi
Hindustan Times, Pune
This year, the Babasaheb Ambedkar anniversary on Sunday, passed off peacefully with thousands making a beeline to pay respect to the obelisk (Vijay Stambh) in Bhima Koregaon.
This year, the Babasaheb Ambedkar anniversary on Sunday, passed off peacefully with thousands making a beeline to pay respect to the obelisk (Vijay Stambh) in Bhima Koregaon. (HT file photo)
         

For Ramrao Shinde, a 22-year-old resident of Bhima Koregaon, and other villagers, the January 1, 2018 violence is past. The caste riots at Bhima Koregaon that threatened to shape the Dalit narrative found little resonance among voters from the village as well as rest of western Maharashtra ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

This year even, Babasabeh Ambedkar anniversary on Sunday passed off peacefully with thousands making a beeline to pay respect to the obelisk (vijay stambh) in Bhima Koregaon.

Except for Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by the Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, no other political party has raised the issue of the caste conflict that led to the arrest of 10 human rights activists.

“For us, the issue of development is more important. Violence had opened caste faultlines. Development has brought us together,” said Vrushali Gavhane, a member of Bhima Koregaon gram panchayat.

Located 40 kilometres east of Pune, Bhima Koregaon is a part of the Shirur Lok Sabha constituency where Shiv Sena’s Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil is locked in a fight against the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Dr Amol Kolhe.

Considered a semi-urban constituency, Shirur has a large Maratha population. “Be it Shirur or western Maharashtra, no mainstream political party including those in the opposition or in power, can afford to upset the Marathas by raking up the Bhima Koregaon issue during the elections. Since politicians are silent about the issue, voters too are not talking about it,” said Chitra Lele, professor of political science, SNDT university.

Situated on the banks of the Bhima river, the village still faces water scarcity. Besides water, unemployment and infrastructure are the other issues Bhima Koregaon stares at.

Mainstream parties, according to political observers, fear polarisation on caste lines if they rake up the issue. During the riots, one person was killed while property worth an estimated Rs 100 crore was damaged, snowballing the entire episode into a political issue with Prakash Ambedkar along with the Congress and the NCP accusing right-wing Hindutva elements for orchestrating the riots.

While the Pune rural police booked two members associated with Hindutva outfits- Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote- with the rioting, the city police arrested 10 activists affiliated to left-leaning organisations.

The “unjust” arrest of activists by the police had led to protests initially, although political parties, Lele said, deliberately did not made it a poll issue.

“The moment the Congress or opposition parties will raise the issue of arrests, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will paint it into a naxals versus anti-naxals picture. Those opposing the arrest, may then find themselves in the minority,” said Lele.

In neighbouring Pune, where Dalit outfits had held the Elgar Parishad, issues dominating the political discourse are local and mainly concerning the city.

“Issues such as traffic, employment, overall law and order are on the mind when we think of national elections,” said Revan Khobragade, an unemployed youth from Wadgaonsheri.

For Prakash Ambedkar though, Bhima Koregaon is still a dominant campaign issue on which he has already earned a lot of political capital post the violence. “Caste violence at Bhima Koregaon represented caste hierarchy against which we are fighting. We are conveying the same to voters through our campaign,” said Ambedkar who leads the VBA, an alliance of smaller outfits representing various communities.

Ambedkar is contesting the election from Akola and Solapur, while his VBA has fielded candidates all across 48 seats in the state, where Marathas account for 30 per cent while Dalits account for 15 per cent.

How the caste riots broke out; Bhima Koregaon case progress

•Dec 31, 2017: Dalit and left-leaning outfits held Elgar Parishad in which they criticised the BJP government and spoke against ‘New Brahminism’.

•Jan 1, 2018: Caste conflicts broke out at Bhima Koregaon when large number of Dalits had gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the historic Battle of Koregaon in which the British Raj forces with Dalits, defeated the Peshwas.

•Prakash Ambedkar called for a Maharashtra bandh to condemn caste clashes

•While Ambedkar, Congress and NCP blamed Hindutva outfits for orchestrating the violence, police officials said speeches during the Elgar Parishad “aggravated” the violence

•The Pune police arrested 10 left-leaning activists for the violence, accusing them of conspiring with Maoists.

First Published: Apr 16, 2019 14:56 IST

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