One year on, riot-hit Bhima Koregaon remains peaceful, but undertone of caste tensions prevail in the village

Nanubai Sabde did something on the first day of 2019 that she had never done before: The 55-year-old attended the procession at Bhima Koregaon. "I have been wanting to come for a while," she says, draped in white sari, sitting on the ground with four other women. "But I would get sidetracked for some reason or the other. This time around, I was determined to visit, especially after what happened last year."

Every year, on 1 January, lakhs 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 significant Dalit contingent, over the Peshwas. There was an even larger crowd at the memorial in 2018 — the bicentennial anniversary of the battle — that was allegedly assaulted by right-wing groups. The violence led to the death of one and caused loss of property worth Rs 40 crore.

A year later, the undercurrent at Bhima Koregaon is that of determination and the intent of making a statement, with several first-timers among the deluge of crowds pouring into the town through the day.

 One year on, riot-hit Bhima Koregaon remains peaceful, but undertone of caste tensions prevail in the village

The Bhima Koregaon war memorial. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

Sabde, who hails from the village of Valgaon in Amravati district, traveled for over 12 hours by train to traverse the 600-kilometer journey. Kisnabai Ugale, an 80-year old sitting with Sabde, adds, "We did not have a booking, so we sat by the door and came. Every time I managed to sleep, someone would mistakenly kick me and I would wake up," she says.

Yet, there were never any second thoughts about them coming to Bhima Koregaon this year. Sanghamitra Ugale, a 60-year-old accompanying Sabde and Kisnabai, says there is a reason why so many people come to Bhima Koregaon.

"The war memorial here represents a proud moment in our history," she says, sitting next to the open ground near the war memorial at the Perne junction. "A contingent of 500 had defeated 28,000 Peshwas. We come here to pay our tributes to the brave soldiers. There is no way we were going to let what happened last year bog us down. We will keep coming here till we die."

Sabde's family members though were not as buoyant. "They were a bit worried for me," Sabde says. "They told me to be careful if something happens."

A group of women from Amravati district were determined to pay their respects at the war memorial this year. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

A group of women from Amravati district were determined to pay their respects at the war memorial this year. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

The administration and police had left no stone unturned in the run-up to the 201st anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, deploying 10 times the number of security forces stationed at the town last year. Police vehicles patrolled the streets through the crowds, with regular announcements directing the public to move along and "not click selfies in the middle of the road".

Sanghamitra says she expects this sincerity from the state every year. "They were callous last year, which allowed the riots to fester," she says, as people are frisked at regular junctions and chants of "Jai Bhim" reverberate through the town.

People chant "Jai Bhim" as they walk towards the war memorial to pay their respects. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

People chant "Jai Bhim" as they walk towards the war memorial to pay their respects. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

Sainath Bangar and his 28-year-old son Yuvraj, who have been coming to Bhima Koregaon for the past 12 years, had to walk 9 kilometers last year with children aged five and six to get to a safe zone after the riots broke out. "We panicked because we had children with us," Sainath says. "We could see the smoke in the air from afar."

In spite of the impeccable security this year, visitors at Bhima Koregaon remain furious with the state because of the shoddy investigation into the riots. A year on, the rural police, under whose jurisdiction the violence transpired, has yet to file the chargesheet in the case, even though there are 23 FIRs. Hindutva leader Sambhaji Bhide, who is accused of triggering the violence against Dalit pilgrims, has not been questioned in the case either. Critics say he enjoys impunity because of his proximity to the Sangh Parivar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Policemen and women on duty in Bhima Koregaon village. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

Policemen and women on duty in Bhima Koregaon village. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

Those who instigated the riots have been allowed to get away with a grave crime, Sainath says. "Instead, the police are arresting activists who were not even there at Bhima Koregaon."

The Pune (Urban) Police has arrested 10 rights activists so far, claiming they have Maoist links, which, in turn, may have funded the Elgar Parishad. The parishad organised in Pune on 31 December, 2017, was attended by several groups that had vowed to never vote for the BJP.

However, the neglect in the investigation into the riots has ensured that the tensions continue "beyond the bridge". The war memorial is located at the mouth of the bridge that runs across the Bhima river, while the areas where the riots broke out are at its other end.

The tensions erupted after a dispute over history in Vadhu, where there is a memorial of Sambhaji Maharaj, the heir to the Maratha Empire after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Credible historical accounts suggest that Sambhaji was cremated by a Dalit man called Govind Mahar Gaikwad after Aurangzeb killed him. On 29 December, Gaikwad's statue, which stands right across Sambhaji's memorial, was vandalised, triggering caste animosities.

The tensions spilled over to Bhima Koregaon village, which is only 4 kilometers from Vadhu. While Vadhu is reasonably busy, the village of Bhima Koregaon, which was the heart of the violence last year, is deserted, with every third door padlocked. Those who were arrested for rioting are out on bail because of the delay in the chargesheet being filed. As a preventive measure, the police had ensured that there were no problematic people in the village, but several left on their own to be on the safer side.

People walking back from the memorial over the bridge across the Bhima river. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

People walking back from the memorial over the bridge across the Bhima river. Image Courtesy: Shrirang Swarge

On record, and in groups, residents of the village insist that the situation is calm and peaceful. Off the record though, they admit that caste tensions prevail. A police officer immediately walks closer as he sees reporters interacting with the villagers.

Rajendra Gavde, a resident of Bhima Koregaon and member of the Republic Party of India, asks whether the bahujan samaj (Dalits and the backward community) that takes so much pride in the annual ritual would actively disrupt it. "It is not difficult to figure out who provoked the violence, what their ideology is, what their slogans are," he says, as another man points towards the buildings from where stones were pelted on Dalits last year.

Lakhan Kamble, a victim of the violence last year when his mother Mangal was beaten up and their eatery set afire, says the only reason there is no trouble at Bhima Koregaon today is the tremendous deployment of security forces. "There are people who still call for our boycott," he says. "They demand free biryani, forcefully get donations from us during the Ganpati festival. We have named people who vandalised and burnt our eatery in our complaints. They know we have named them. The police force will not be there tomorrow, and we will be back to being vulnerable."

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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2019 08:24:48 IST