As Bhima Koregan violence raged, this family sheltered over 100 Dalits from the mob's fury

An iron fence is coming up around the Nalanda Buddha Vihar at Sanaswadi, Pune, one of the epicentres of the Bhima-Koregan riots that took place earlier this month. The Vihar already had an iron fence; it was, however, vandalised, when a mob attacked the structure on hearing that 100 Dalits had taken shelter within, to escape the 1 January riot. This was why Sudamrao Pawar, who owns the Vihar, was compelled to rebuild the fence. The new fence will be taller (and presumably stronger) than the previous one.

On the first day of every new year, thousands of Dalits gather by the War Memorial Pillar (aka Vijay Stambh) at Bhima Koregoan to commemorate the victory of the British Army against the Peshwas in a battle dating back to 1 January 1818. The skirmish was part of the Anglo-Maratha Wars; it has particular significance to the Dalit community because the section of the British Army that was involved in the battle mainly comprised Mahars. This being the 200th anniversary of the event, lakhs of Dalits had travelled to the memorial — and this was when the riots broke out.

Over 100 Dalits — mainly women and children — sought refuge in the Vihar, after the riots began. When the attacking mob got to know that there were Dalits hiding in the Vihar, they tried to force their way in (as well as into Pawar’s home, which adjoins the Vihar) by vandalising the surrounding fence. By then, the Pawar family had called the police, and the mob had to disperse.

Sudamrao Pawar (left) and his family shielded over 100 Dalits at their 'Nalanda Buddha Vihar' in Sanaswadi, Pune, during the recent Bhima Koregaon violence

Sudamrao Pawar (left) and his family shielded over 100 Dalits at their 'Nalanda Buddha Vihar' in Sanaswadi, Pune, during the recent Bhima Koregaon violence

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The Nalanda Buddha Vihar is run by the Buddhist Movement Centre (Trust). It was founded by Sudamrao Pawar in 1990 and is noted for hosting social and religious programmes based on Buddhist teachings and Dr BR Ambedkar’s ideology. Sudamrao is now 87. For every year over the past decade, the Pawar family has hosted a gathering of Buddhist and Dalit scholars over 31 December-1 January at the Vihar.

Sudamrao Pawar’s son Nitin resides in Mumbai, but returns to Sanaswadi to help organise the programme annually. This year too, he was present at the Vihar when the riots broke out in Bhima-Koregaon. The Vihar was already hosting the scholars and other guests who were participating in the programme when those seeking refuge from the riots began pouring in on.

“We began hosting this gathering to commemorate the Dalit valour that helped the British Army to win against the Marathas in 1818, and also to discourage the youth from consuming alcohol or falling prey to other bad habits in the name of celebrating New Year’s Eve. So we had many people here over 1 January, and most of the people in the adjoining villages also know about our centre,” Nitin told Firstpost.

When violence first broke out at Vadhu village, and later at Bhima Koregoan and Sanaswadi, the Dalits who knew of the Buddha Vihar’s location rushed there to seek shelter. They began pouring in by noon on 1 January. As more and more people found out that there was refuge to be had at the Vihar, they made their way there, continuing steadily through the day. “They could sit here and take rest at the Vihar, and also the big sports complex we have at the back of our property,” Nitin said.

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Sudamrao Pawar’s father worked for the British government before Independence; Sudamrao himself met Dr Ambedkar at the latter’s bungalow in Talegoan (near Pune) in 1951, and is proud of having followed Ambedkarite ideology all his life. He built the Vihar in Sanaswadi in 1990, soon after the Pawars migrated here once their farm and house in Marathwada were acquired by the state government during the construction of the Chaskaman dam.

Members of the Dalit community shout slogans as they block a road during a protest in Mumbai, India, January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade - RC15D31CC3B0

Members of the Dalit community shout slogans as they protest against the Bhima Koregaon riots. REUTERS

Pawar also offers rooms on rent to many Dalits who migrate to Sanaswadi looking for employment in the nearby industrial belt. (Those from other castes often refuse to rent rooms to Dalits.) The Vihar is social centre, and the Pawars insist it isn’t only for Dalits but open to everyone.
Sudamrao’s oldest son Sunil, had like his brother Nitin, travelled to Sanaswadi for the year-ending programme. He says the family views the attacking mob as anti-social elements, not as members of a particular class or caste. “Anti-social elements do not have any caste or religion. We offered shelter to anybody who was scared and in need of protection,” Sunil told Firstpost, of the events of 1 January.

Fortuitously, the Vihar had been well-stocked with provisions for the guests attending the programme. As shops and eateries in the surrounding villages shut down, their supply of food proved to be a boon to those who had sought refuge at the Vihar.

By the evening of 1 January, people wanted to go back but found their vehicles — two-wheelers, four-wheelers, buses — had been damaged, and in some instances, torched. “They requested us to drop at least their children to nearby bus stops towards the Chakan side, where there had been no riots. We ferried as many of the women and children as we could towards Chakan, from where they could take buses safely,” Sunil recounted.

By this time, the mob had got to know that the Vihar was sheltering Dalits and rushed there. Beginning by tearing down the fence around the complex, the mob then proceeded to pelt stones at the centre and the Pawars' home.

Sunil's wife Minal Pawar told Firstpost: "When they broke down the fence, we shut the iron doors of the Vihar where many people were hiding. But we couldn't close the doors of our own home. My daughter, neighbour and I put all our weight against the door so the mob couldn't push their way in. We were very worried as my in-laws (Sudamrao and his wife) are over 80 years old, and we had 2-3 very senior Dalit writers in the house as well. Meanwhile, we were able to call the police." The police were on the scene in 15 minutes, and the attackers fled.

When Nitin and Sunil returned home, having dropped a few of the Dalits near the bus stand, they found that the mob had torched the Pawars' sugarcane field (that stands near the Vihar) and also wreaked substantial damage on the fence and windows of the property.

"It was an unfortunate event," said Nitin Pawar, shaking his head sadly. "I am really disappointed that even the media did not focus on positive news and instead covered (only the) riots. We had put up a 95 x 35 ft rangolis of Dr Ambedkar, Buddha and our parents at the sports complex, but the press only covered the damages here."


Updated Date: Jan 16, 2018 13:56 PM

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