Bhima-Koregaon violence: Deadline for gathering statements lapses, while police lethargy continues to hamper probe
On 9 February, the Maharashtra government issued a notification of the two-member commission led by former High Court judge JN Patel to investigate the riots at Bhima-Koregaon in January.
On 9 February, the Maharashtra government issued a notification of the two-member commission led by former High Court judge JN Patel to investigate the riots at Bhima-Koregaon in January. The notification categorically states that the "Commission of Inquiry shall submit the report within four months from the date of its notification".
But the deadline for gathering statements from eyewitnesses and victims ended on Monday at 5 pm. It had to be extended because the appeal to the victims to submit their statements was only made on 12 May — over three months after the notification. The commission received around 170 statements in the first month, because hardly anybody was aware of it. On 1 June, Rahul Dambale, activist with the Republican Morcha and an eyewitness to the riots, submitted his statement. "We identified people who were attacked and mobilised them," he said, "We made the government further extend the deadline, and by Monday, the total statements with the commission are 343. Around 100 of those are the cops at the bandobast and authorities."
However, the number of those affected is in the thousands.
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, that had a significant Dalit contingent, over the Peshwas. This year, it was the 200th anniversary of the battle. Therefore, it was an even larger crowd, which was allegedly attacked by the radical Hindutvawadi upper caste mobs, in which several got injured and one died.
Dambale, who has been following the case closely, said he had made arrangements for 1,340 people on the night of 1 January at the Ambedkar Sankritik Bhavan. "How do we trust the commission when it has not even recorded statements of around 10 percent of the affected?" he asked, "One of the reasons why people are reluctant to depose is that they do not trust the inquiry. Rehabilitation of victims, compensation, and arrests should have happened on time. The police has instead only tried to suppress the matter. Justice delayed is justice denied."
Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant tweeted that during the first four months, the commission did not have a single meeting. The deadline was then extended by four more months to 8 October. "The state has not been prompt at all," he said.
Sumit Mullick, the other member of the commission, said they cannot speak to the press. Sunil Porwal, Additional Chief Secretary (Home), said he would not be able to comment "off-hand" on Monday morning. On Tuesday evening, he told this correspondent to call him on Thursday. (Eds: This article will be updated if and when he responds). An official, off the record, attributed the delays to "procedural problems", and said the statements will now be scrutinised and evidence will be recorded.
Prakash Ambedkar said he does not have any expectations from the inquiry. "No officer was willing to file an affidavit for the victims," he claimed, "It is a sworn affidavit, which has to be signed by whoever is authorised to administer the oath. The ones who could, managed to depose. The government does not want to get to the bottom of the riots, because the government is involved in the riots."
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. But the victims of the riots accuse the police of gross inaction. The riots of 1 January recurred the following day. Except, the testimonies indicate it was a targeted assault by the Savarnas — who had called for a bandh — on the Dalits who defied it.
Firstpost accessed some of the statements submitted by the riot victims, and they are damning.
Mangal Kamble, a 55-year-old resident of Koregaon Bhima in Shirur Taluka of Pune, has testified that her eatery was burnt because she made arrangements of tea, snacks and lunch for those who had travelled to be part of the gathering. "On 31 December, 2017, my son Ram was decorating the premises in front of our shop. At 11.30 pm, former sarpanch and a member of Gram Sabha, Ganesh Phadtare arrived with two others," she has written, "They said we have called for a bandh. Take down the decorations you have put up to welcome 'your people' and keep your shop closed tomorrow. My son declined to obey the orders and continued to work. Phadtare abused and threatened us that night. The next morning, when the visitors were having tea and snacks, a mob of 20 barged in and started beating us up, in which I was severely injured. My guests were forced to leave. The shop and the mandap we had installed were also vandalised. I was taken to a hospital in Hadapsar for primary treatment. On 2 January, when I came back to pay the person who had made decoration arrangements, a mob of 2,000 vandalised and burnt our house and shop at 11 am. We incurred losses of around Rs five lakh. The police has not taken any action regarding the two incidents."
Vilas Ingale, 30, from the same village, stated a false complaint is lodged against him of inciting riots. "From 7 in the morning until 11, I was at the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial in the village of Mauje Perne," he stated, "I have proof of that. Yet, some casteist people in my village have lodged a complaint against me of inciting the riots in the village. The atmosphere in my village is still tense, and my life is in danger from the same people who have filed a complaint against me."
Twenty-five-year-old Anjana Gaikwad has testified of seeing a mob of 25 on 1 January with sticks and saffron flags torching and vandalising vehicles with blue flags, that indicated the cars belonged to those who had come to pay tribute at the war memorial.
But the most disturbing case is of Suresh Sakat, who has been an old adversary of radical Hindutvawadis in Bhima-Koregaon because of his activism. After he defied the bandh, his house "was burnt down by a mob of 150 on 2 January". He stated, "I have lodged a complaint about it at the police station and named the ones behind this act. The attacks on 1 and 2 January on the Dalits were pre-planned and aimed at terrorising the community."
His daughter, Pooja, was one of the eyewitnesses of the riots. After their house was burnt down, the family had received threats. The police had been flagged, but no action was taken. This was the life of an eyewitness at stake. Four months later, she went missing. And a week after that, Pooja’s body was found in a well near her home. She was 19.
Considering the lethargic approach of the police, the ones who had started the Bhima-Koregaon Yatra founded a fact-finding committee. The committee stated that police did not even examine the area where Pooja’s body was found. They concluded it to be a suicide without looking for a note. However, when the body was found, it was not bloated, which means it could not have been in the water for a long time. Further, her nose was still bleeding.
"She was murdered," Suresh, who now lives in Pune, said in a telephonic interview, "There were 16 marks on her face. Only two people were arrested after that, and they are now out on bail."
In his testimony to the commission, Suresh stated, "When I went back to the village in May, the villagers tried to drive me out. The police has now given me security, considering my life is still in danger."
However, even before the riots transpired, Suresh had been harassed over his property, where he had been living for 15 years. In November 2017, he had written to the local police station regarding the harassment, but it fell on deaf years. "If they had taken my complaints seriously," said Suresh, "My house would not have been burnt, and my daughter would still be alive."
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