Bhima Koregaon to host lakhs of Dalits on 1 January; cops tighten security, monitor 'provocative' social media posts
After the violence at Bhima Koregaon last year, Dalit groups from across Maharashtra are likely to throng the destination this time to make a statement, and the police have their work cut out for them.
Ahead of the 201st anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, the number of security forces deployed at Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra is 10 times more than that deployed last year to prevent violence, said Superintendent of Police (Pune Rural) Sandip Patil. At a joint press conference at the collector's office on Saturday, Patil, Inspector General Vishwas Nangre Patil and Collector Naval Kishor Ram asserted that the atmosphere at Bhima Koregaon was "peaceful" and "beautiful".
On 1 January every year, tens of thousands of Dalits across Maharashtra gather at the Bhima Koregaon war memorial, 40 kilometres from Pune. The day commemorates the historic victory of the British Army, which had a significant Dalit contingent, over the Peshwas. It was the 200th anniversary of the battle in 2018 because of which there was an even larger crowd in the village that was allegedly assaulted by right-wing groups.
This time around, Dalit groups from across the state are likely to throng the destination to make a statement, and the police have their work cut out for them. "At least 5,000 police personnel, 1,200 home guards and 200 volunteers will be there," the senior officials said at the press conference. "There will be 35 public announcement systems, 40 video cameras, 12 drones and 306 CCTV cameras in place, as well. We are prepared for a 10 lakh-strong crowd."
In the run-up to a sensitive event such as this, social media often adds fuel to the fire. Keeping this in mind, various teams across the state are closely monitoring messages and posts on Bhima Koregaon, said Patil. "We have been monitoring them since 15 November," he said. "But hate messages are no longer coming in."
The administration was considering shutting down internet services in Bhima Koregaon to prevent rumour mongering, but that would have prevented the media from communicating the developments, as well. No speeches will be allowed within 100 meters of the war memorial either.
"We received applications from five organisations to conduct programmes on 1 January," the Superintendent of Police said, giving no clear answer on whether Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad would be allowed to hold an event.
The Mumbai Police had detained Azad on 27 December from Chaityabhoomi, where Dalit icon BR Ambedkar was cremated.
While Naval Kishor Ram, the district collector, said they had not received any request from Azad to hold a rally at Bhima Koregaon yet, reporters at the press conference corrected him, pointing out that his request was pending with the police.
Furthermore, Patil said the state has taken preventive action against 1,211 people so far under various sections of the Code of Criminal Procedure. "At least 64 people have been restricted from coming into Bhima Koregaon," the senior police officer said. "Six have been expatriated."
When questioned about the basis for the preventive action, Inspector General Nangre Patil said authorities had acted on "confidential" inputs from various agencies. He refused to name the people or organisations against whom the preventive action was taken.
Social media posts under scrutiny
The police said they will be monitoring the cultural programmes being organised in Bhima Koregaon to ensure that no provocative content is on display.
On 6 November, Patil circulated a letter to police stations across Maharashtra, ordering them to keep an eye on incendiary posts and rumours propagated through social media. "In the context of the riots that broke out on 1 January, certain people are appealing to others to carry sticks and swords to Bhima Koregaon this time around," the letter reads. "Those people should be observed and their past records scrutinised for preventive action."
Some of the posts by the selected Dalit youngsters were along the lines of, "It is okay if the flag is small, but the stick should be long."
Dalit activist Rahul Dambale, leading the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Samiti, has shared Facebook posts and voice messages, urging people to not spread such content. "The posts implied that they should be prepared for self protection, if they are attacked again," he said. "But these posts are uncalled for. We want the proceedings to go smoothly."
Patil's letter also asks authorities to keep an eye on those accused in previous riots and the organisations they have been associated with.
No preventive action against Sambhaji Bhide?
Since the police refused to name those being closely watched, several reporters asked whether Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide were among those under scrutiny. Both the Hindutva leaders have been accused of instigating the mobs that attacked Dalit pilgrims on 1 January, 2018. Ekbote is currently out on bail, while Bhide has not even been questioned. Critics believe Bhide is being shielded because of his proximity to the Sangh Parivar.
Sources said the Kabir Kala Manch and Samata Kala Manch, who were part of the Elgar Parishad, have been served preventive notices. They have been told not to visit the areas under the jurisdiction of the Pune Rural Police. Ekbote, too, is believed to have been served the notice.
Nangre Patil justified their decision to not name those under scrutiny, saying it would not be wise to name any of them. When asked about Bhide not being among those under watch or being acted against, the inspector general chose to deflect the question and say that the atmosphere in Bhima Koregaon was now peaceful and positive.
"We have diverted the traffic of heavy vehicles and made provisions for 11 big parking spaces. We are also providing around 200 bus shuttles," he said. "Our role is that of a facilitator."
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