Mangal Kamble, 55, suddenly pauses in the middle of the interview. Standing in front of her eatery located at the corner of a dusty road in Bhima Koregaon, her buoyant face turns red. A group of people pass by. “Two of them were part of the mob that burnt my hotel,” she said, looking at them.
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 of the British Army, which had a substantial Dalit contingent, over the Peshwas. In 2018, the 200th anniversary of the battle was being celebrated and thus the crowd was even larger. But upper caste mobs allegedly attacked the gathering, leading to violent clashes that resulted in several injuries, one death and significant property loss.
Kamble said she incurred losses worth Rs 5 lakh during the riots. And as another anniversary comes closer, the scenes of her hotel going up in flames and her house being vandalised haunt her. “With less than three months to go for 1 January, the entire village is tense,” she said. “Everyone fears a repeat of what happened last year.” Those who did not suffer the consequences in Bhima Koregaon—population around 10,000—insist the place is calm, and there is nothing to worry about. But few want to open up about it on the nukkads. Questions are met with reluctant smiles or talked about in hushed voices.
Kamble said the people do not interact with each other as openly as they once did. “Insignificant differences have started leading to fights,” she said. “The person I rented my hotel to is harassed at times. People ask for free biryani. He was abused a couple of times.” The tension in Bhima Koregaon is palpable. The Pune Rural Police arrested 110 people in connection with the riots. However, due to its inability to file a charge sheet over nine months later, almost all the arrested are out on bail and back in the village.
Jaideep Sakat, who hid the house of a neighbour with his sister and watched his home being razed, said the police have been lackadaisical in its probe. “The lack of closure has ensured our wounds remain fresh,” he said, taking me to his home right along the highway. It has been almost reduced to rubble. Not far away, a hotel near the highway serves the most delicious misal pav, he said. As we finish our lunch, wash our hands and head out of the hotel, Jaideep asked, “Did you notice the man sitting behind us? His cousin was part of the mob that burnt our house.”
Jaideep and his sister Pooja, 19, were two of the main eyewitnesses of the riots. In April, four months after the riots, Pooja’s body was found in a well near her home with 16 bruises on her face. A fact-finding committee noted the body was not bloated when recovered, meaning it could not have been in water for long. “It was murder,” said Jaideep, who has since been given a personal security guard by the State. “But the police have hardly made any inroads. They arrested two or three people, but they are also out on bail. The other day, I saw another person from the mob that demolished our home. He was having sugarcane juice in the village. And the police say they are trying their best.”
Sandip Patil, Superintendent, Pune Rural Police, declined an interview while citing a busy schedule. Several phone calls made to him went unanswered. Still, the police has its task cut out when it comes to maintaining law and order on 1 January, 2019. The Bhima Koregaon Vijaystambha Shaurya Din Samiti is planning a grand congregation in order to make a strong statement. Leading the charge, Republican Party of India leader Rahul Dambale said they are targeting an attendance of around 10 lakh at the war memorial.
“Considering what happened last year, the people intending to visit are angry and fearful," said Rahul. “Our aim is to pacify the anger, and eradicate the fear to get as many people as possible to pay peaceful tributes at the war memorial. We have trained 5,000 volunteers to cooperate with the police and help them locate anyone trying to incite chaos. We have categorically told our karyakartas to avoid provocative slogans.” The committee has put forth a set of their demands to the administration as part of the preventive action. “The State must ensure parking spaces, sufficient water supply and CCTV cameras,” said Rahul. “The chief secretary should oversee the preventive measures and the special branch should also take note of it. Rumour-mongering through social media leading up to the anniversary must especially be reigned in.”
The people of Bhima Koregaon cannot afford another riot. Those who suffered last year have still not managed to fully recover. Savita and Dyaneshwar Kumbhar incurred losses of over Rs 7 lakh after their hotel was vandalised and burnt. “We recently received Rs 2.75 lakh as compensation, so we spent it on renovating the hotel,” said Savita. “The paint is only two days old. We had no option. The furniture was reduced to ash. The place looked haunted, and no customer would come in.”
For a family that depends solely on the income from the hotel, eight months with hardly any customers means the financial well is dry. “I have two children: age 18 and 11,” said Savita. “I have borrowed money from relatives to keep their education going. What are they supposed to do if we fail to keep up with their fees? If things go wrong this time around on 1 January, we are finished. That's why most of the people are considering keeping their shops closed, even though nobody will say so explicitly.” Asked whether they have made a decision, Savita nods her head. “If we keep our eatery closed, it would be a disservice to the people who would be traveling here from various parts of Maharashtra,” she said. “Running away is not an option.”
Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 17:03 PM