Understanding the Bhima Koregaon–Elgaar Parishad Case

Photo: Vijay Stambh or Victory Pillar that serves as a war memorial to those who lost their lives in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818. Dalit communities pay their respects at the site every year on Jan. 1 and it has become synonymous with Dalit pride. From Wikimedia Commons

A Comprehensive Chronicle

On July 28, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Professor Hany Babu, who teaches in the Department of English at Delhi University (DU), in connection with the Bhima Koregaon–Elgaar Parishad case. About two weeks later, on Aug. 14, the NIA summoned two more DU professors, Prem Kumar Vijayan and Rakesh Ranjan, for questioning and their ‘examination relating to the case’

If you’re somebody who follows the news (and I’m guessing you are, since you’re reading this), there is no doubt that you would’ve heard or read something about the Elgaar Parishad and the Bhima Koregaon violence that took place in January 2018. But over the last two and a half years, the case has gotten increasingly complex and often quite bizarre, as though someone keeps adding new pieces to an already difficult puzzle. When professors from my alma mater began to be targeted, I was jolted into realising the inadequacy of my half-baked knowledge and how important an understanding of the complete picture of this prominent case really is.  

What is Bhima Koregaon?

Bhima Koregaon, a small village in Maharashtra state’s Pune district, has for many years now been celebrated as a significant symbol of victory against caste-based oppression. This is because on Jan. 1, 1818, the village served as the battleground between the Maratha Empire, led by the Brahmin Peshwas, and the British Army which primarily consisted of Dalit Mahar soldiers. The 900-strong British force, that also included Muslims, Jews and Rajputs, defeated the Peshwa army of more than 20,000 people. Discrimination against the Mahar community was at an all-time high under the Peshwas, and this battle victory became synonymous with Dalit pride. 

On Jan. 1, 1927, B.R. Ambedkar visited the war memorial, a “victory pillar,” that had been commissioned to be constructed at the site by the British East India Company and bears the names of the soldiers who died in the battle. Since then, this commemoration is held every year, and thousands come to pay homage to the memorial on the first day of every new year. 

What was the Elgaar Parishad?

Elgaar can be translated as “loud invitation/declaration” while Parishad refers to an assembly. This was the name given to a special event held on Dec. 31, 2017 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon Battle. Convened by two retired Judges, B.G. Kolse-Patil and P.B. Sawant, the event was organised by 260 diverse organisations and attended by around 35,000 people. Symbolically, the Shaniwarwada Fort in Pune, the seat of power of the Peshwas, was selected as the venue where speeches, plays and music performances with an anti-caste and anti-communalism theme were presented. The speakers included Gujarat lawmaker Jignesh Mevani, Dalit activist Prakash Ambedkar and Adivasi activist Soni Suri, among many others.

What Happened on Jan. 1, 2018?

The next day, lakhs of people gathered at the Vijay Stambh (Victory Pillar) in Bhima Koregaon village for the momentous occasion. Soon, however, Hindu right-wing groups armed with saffron flags entered the scene and allegedly began to pelt stones and disrupt the celebrations. Stones were also pelted at vehicles that were on their way to the war memorial. 

This incited violent clashes between the communities, in which more than 30 vehicles, including police vans and buses, were set on fire or damaged. 

Rahul Fatangale, a 28-year-old man, was the one casualty in the violence; he was hit on his head by a stone. According to his family, he had nothing to do with the celebration, protest, or confrontation, but just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the assembly of four or more people, had to be imposed in the area. 

The next day, Dalit groups organised huge protests against the violence in different parts of the state. On Jan. 3, Prakash Ambedkar called for a peaceful state-wide shutdown. However, during the protests, a 16-year-old boy, Yogesh Prahlad Jadhav, was seriously injured in a police lathi charge to clear a roadblock in Nanded and he lost his life. Some other instances of stone pelting as well as injuries to policemen were reported. More than 300 people were detained as investigations began.

The police told reporters that an incident in the nearby Vadhu Budruk village could have triggered the tension which set off all these events. The memorial of Govind Gopal Mahar, a Dalit farmer who is said to have performed the last rites of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj even as the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb warned against doing so, lies here. On Dec. 29, 2017, a board near this local hero’s memorial tomb was desecrated. This led to a dispute between Dalits and Marathas of the area.

The Investigation that Followed

In the ensuing chaos, the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), set up a two-member judicial inquiry commission in February 2018 to look into what caused the Bhima Koregaon violence and who was responsible for it. The commission is yet to complete its inquiry.

Several First Information Reports (FIRs) identifying different causes for the clashes and accusing different people were also filed at the police stations in the area. On Jan. 3 itself, an FIR was registered against Sambhaji Bhide, 86-year-old Hindutva leader and former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, and Milind Ekbote, who has led cow vigilante groups, served as a BJP corporator, and allegedly has links with the RSS. The latter, according to police reports, already has 13 criminal cases filed against him, including for his alleged involvement in incidents of communal violence.

According to the FIR, members of organisations led by these two influential men had actively participated in the violence. The charges against them included rioting with arms, unlawful assembly and damaging a place of worship.

The Pune Rural Police chased these leads and Ekbote was finally arrested in March 2018, nudged by the Supreme Court. He had spent January and February of that year being “untraceable” for some period of time, failing to cooperate with the investigation and interrogations, and having his anticipatory bail application rejected by the Pune Sessions Court and Bombay High Court. A month later, in April, he was granted bail.

Meanwhile, Sambhaji Bhide, fondly called “Guruji” even by Prime Minister Modi, was not called for questioning and no charges against him were pressed. The police claimed that no “scientific evidence” against him had been unearthed, unlike Ekbote’s case in which call records revealed he was in touch with rioters.

How is the Elgaar Parishad Related to the Bhima Koregaon Violence? 

Here’s where the story takes a different turn. 

More than 500 cases related to the Bhima Koregaon violence were registered in Maharashtra in January and many people from both Maratha and Dalit communities were detained and even arrested. But one FIR filed by 40-year-old Tushar Damgude rose to specific prominence and has driven the investigation ever since. 

On January 8, 2018, this small businessman, who works in construction, filed a police complaint alleging that the New Year’s Day violence was incited by leftists and activists with “Maoist links” who had given “provocative” speeches at the Elgaar Parishad on Dec. 31, 2017. He gave the names of prominent Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale and Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) activists – Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap and Deepak Dengale – and suffixed this with “plus others.” KKM, one of the organising bodies of the event, is a cultural organisation that uses poetry, music and drama to spread an anti-caste message.

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Witch-Hunt of Activists?

Since then, the focus of the investigation has largely shifted to examine and interrogate activists. The police alleged that these activists had links to the Communist Party of India (Maoist), an organisation banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. It has also been claimed that they are part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Modi in a “Rajiv Gandhi-type attack,” based on an e-mail the police says they found on one of their laptops. Their homes have been raided, their electronic devices seized and 12 of them have been arrested and are currently in prison.

Outspoken critics of the ruling dispensation, they have all been branded as “urban Naxals.” Several other lawyers, activists and academics have also been questioned in the case, many of whom were allegedly not even present at the Elgaar Parishad!

While the actual incident of violent clashes in Bhima Koregaon seems almost forgotten, the supposed role of activists and their alleged “Maoist connections” have oddly become the central angle in the case. Who are these activists? What all has happened since 2018? On what grounds are they being implicated? 

The following timeline highlights the sequence of events in this witch-hunt of activists, as it is being called by critics.

The Timeline

As the NIA investigation, court trials and judicial inquiry commission’s work in the case continue, we can only wait to see how it will unfold. 

For now, it seems like it is going to be a long haul before satisfactory answers emerge. The timeline above makes it evident that the caste-based violence that took place in Bhima Koregaon in 2018 and the search for its perpetrators have been sidelined, while the alleged links between certain human rights activists and Maoists have taken centre-stage. The evidence for the latter appears to be flimsy, and becomes even murkier when taken together with the spyware attacks on activists detailed above and the immediate transfer of the case to the central NIA when the leadership in the state of Maharashtra changed. 

This paints a bleak picture and points to an opportunistic clampdown on dissenting voices by the ruling party at the Centre. Perhaps it is wise to cling on to hope and have faith that justice will be served by the judiciary, but it must happen before the process becomes even worse than any punishment.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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