Bhima Koregaon case: Accused activists refuse to depose before inquiry committee as latest round of hearings conclude in Pune

  • Another round of the hearing of the Bhima Koregaon Inquiry Commission concluded in Pune after it assembled for two days on 6 and 7 September

  • The commission has fully examined 10 witnesses, and five more are being cross-examined, said Ashish Satpute, advocate for the commission

  • Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant claimed the entire investigation has been a political vendetta

Another round of the hearing of the Bhima Koregaon Inquiry Commission concluded in Pune after it assembled for two days on 6 and 7 September. So far, the commission has fully examined 10 witnesses, and five more are being cross-examined, said Ashish Satpute, advocate for the commission.

 Bhima Koregaon case: Accused activists refuse to depose before inquiry committee as latest round of hearings conclude in Pune

File image of Surendra Gadling. Facebook@Adv Surendra Gadling Defence Committee

“The witnesses have appeared several times over the course of these hearings,” he said. “We started with victims and eyewitnesses that were on the spot because they have given us a sense of the facts on the ground. We will shortly begin the examinations of government office bearers.”

It was on 9 February, 2018, that the Maharashtra government issued a notification of the two-member commission, led by former High Court judge JN Patel, to investigate the Bhima Koregaon riots. The notification categorically stated that the "commission of inquiry shall submit the report within four months from the date of its notification".

Every year, on 1 January, tens of thousands of Dalits across Maharashtra gather at the war memorial of Bhima Koregaon: 40 kilometres from Pune. It commemorates the historic victory a small contingent of Mahar soldiers, over the Peshwas, known for their casteist policies. In 2018, it was the 200th anniversary of the battle. Therefore, the crowd was even larger, and was attacked  allegedly by upper caste mobs.

This resulted in severe property damage, injuries and one death. Two men, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide – both pro-Hindutva leaders –have been accused as conspirators. The victims have also alleged gross police inaction.

The inquiry commission is supposed to investigate the sequence of events, look into whether any individual or group of individuals is responsible for the riots, and whether the administration and police handled it appropriately.

The inquiry commission first sought affidavits from the victims and eyewitnesses and summoned them to testify. The affidavits with the commission are approximately between 350 to 400 from Mumbai and Pune, said Satpute. But 19 months – and a few extensions – later, the inquiry commission has only gotten around to 15 eyewitnesses.

The first deadline had to be extended because the appeal to the victims to submit their affidavits was made over three months after the notification. In a riot where thousands suffered, the commission received around 170 statements in the first month, because hardly anybody was aware of it.

“Many of the affidavits are repetitive,” said Satpute. “For example, if 70 people traveled to Bhima Koregaon in one bus, their testimonies would be identical. So there is no point inviting all of them to testify in front of the commission. Plus, we are giving an opportunity to every lawyer to cross-examine the witnesses in detail. There are six to seven lawyers representing various parties.”

Upon asked how many more eyewitnesses would be summoned, he said, “We cannot say. It will depend on the commission.” The commission has, so far, held about 55 days of hearings since the notification.

Shishir Hiray, special prosecutor for the Government of Maharashtra, said he would be summoning 30 to 35 government office bearers to the commission. “It would include police officers, people from the revenue department, medical officials and so on to prove my case,” he said. “We have not begun with them yet.”

Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant claimed the entire investigation has been a political vendetta. “Certain people are being targeted without evidence,” he said. “The government’s aim is to keep the case lingering and reap political dividends out of it. The Pune Police have misused law, which is unfortunate.”

The Pune Police has arrested 10 rights activists working with Dalit and Adivasi groups, and charged them under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They have been accused of being part of a Maoist conspiracy, which included a purported plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Surendra Gadling and Sudhir Dhawle, two of the arrested, recused themselves from testifying in front of the commission on Friday and Saturday respectively. Both objected to the presence of Sumit Mullick on the inquiry commission.

They said they have no faith in the commission, writing to Justice Patel that Mullick was the chief secretary of the state at the time of Bhima Koregaon riots, where the “police machinery offered no protection.” His “continuing presence in the commission of inquiry without any truthful disclosure of the omissions and commissions of his department in this regard is a violation of the principle of natural justice wherein ‘no man shall be judge in his own cause’ and will thus result in a gross miscarriage of justice”, read the letter signed by Gadling.

The arrests have been made based on the complaint of a Pune resident called Tushar Damgude, an admirer of Bhide. He claimed the Elgaar Parishad, a public meeting held in Pune a day before the Bhima Koregaon riots, instigated violence the following day.

Mangal Kamble, who was beaten up allegedly by the upper caste mobs before her eatery was set afire, said there is no will to get to the bottom of the matter. “I only received compensation, but the accused have still not been brought to book,” she said. “The government, the commission has not taken any note. They are not paying any attention, and justice continues to elude us.”

Updated Date: Sep 07, 2019 19:57:04 IST