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Bhima-Koregaon hearing: Enter Prakash Ambedkar

September 25, 2018 09:25 IST

Ambedkar told Rediff.com that he intended making an application that private witnesses not be cross-examined by the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry.
Jyoti Punwani reports from the Bhima-Koregaon hearing.

Prakash Ambedkar called a Maharashtra bandh on January 3, 2018, in protest against the post-Bhima-Koregaon violence. Photograph: Sahil Salvi

IMAGE: Prakash Ambedkar called a Maharashtra bandh on January 3, 2018, in protest against the post-Bhima-Koregaon violence. Photograph: Sahil Salvi

Will Sumit Mullick, the second member of the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice J N Patel, have to take the witness stand?

Prakash Ambedkar, chief of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, told the Commission on Monday, September 24, that he wants to cross-examine Mullick because he was Maharashtra's chief secretary on January 1, 2018, when the Bhima-Koregaon violence took place.

Mullick retired in April and is now Maharashtra's chief information commissioner.

In response to Ambedkar's proposal, Mullick said he was ready to be cross-examined and would recuse himself from the commission during that time.

The two-member Commission of Inquiry is examining the violence that took place on January 1 at Bhima-Koregaon where lakhs of Dalits converged to observe the 200th anniversary of the battle between the British and the Peshwas.

The British won the battle, with the help of Mahar soldiers.

So far, two private witnesses, both Dalits from Mumbai, have deposed before the Commission.

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Ambedkar on Monday made a dramatic appearance before the commission.

Before the proceedings started, he told Rediff.com that he intended making an application to the commission that private witnesses not be cross-examined. He argued the same point before the commission, saying that only members of the administration and the police should be subject to cross-examination.

To buttress his argument, Ambedkar said: "During cross-examination, there is an attempt to bring in another element (with regard to the violence at Bhima-Koregaon) through the mouth of a witness. This witness is in front of the commission only because she has been beaten. The witness is asked a question regarding something not stated by her."

Ambedkar was referring to the question put to the first witness Manisha Khotkar by counsel for the government and the police, Shishir Hiray.

Khotkar had deposed that she could not reach Bhima-Koregaon because the bus in which they were travelling had been stoned, that men with saffron flags had been roaming around abusing the Dalits, and that the Dalits had removed the blue flags from their bus as a safety measure.

Hiray asked her whether it was possible that the stone-pelting could have been caused by a "third group, with a completely different ideology, apart from those holding blue flags and those holding saffron flags."

The witness replied in the affirmative.

Ambedkar's submission on cross-examination was followed by an interesting exchange between him and Justice Patel.

The judge told Ambedkar that a witness could always say "I don't know" to any question during cross-examination, about which s/he had no knowledge.

To which Ambedkar replied: "The witness may not be aware of their rights."

The judge, however, told him that all witnesses had been informed that if they didn't understand any question, they should say so.

Ambedkar plans to file his applications regarding Sumit Mullick and cross-examination of private witnesses in Pune where the commission will hold its hearings next week.

The cross-examination of the second witness, bus conductor Tanaji Sable, continued on Monday. Sable had deposed that though he and his group from Ramabai Nagar, Ghatkopar, north east Mumbai, could reach the Vijay Stambh (victory memorial) at Bhima-Koregaon, they experienced an atmosphere of fear because of motorcyclists roaming around holding saffron flags and shouting 'Jai Bhawani Jai Shivaji'.

This had never happened in their previous trips there.

On Monday, he bravely stuck to his deposition, through a two hour long cross-examination by Hiray.

Hiray showed Sable 30 photographs of the Vijay Stambh and its surroundings at Bhima-Koregaon. These photographs, the lawyer said, showed the arrangements made by the government in anticipation of the crowd that was to gather there to observe the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle.

These arrangements included ramps for people to approach and exit the Vijay Stambh; an ambulance, a fire brigade engine.

But Sable maintained that he had not seen any of this, thanks to the intensity of the crowd.

Asked about a water fountain located outside the gram panchayat office at Vadhu Budruk, the village where the samadhis of Sambhaji Raje and Govind Gopal Gaekwad are located, Sable replied there was no arrangement for water for them.

In reply to a question about heavy police bandobast at Vadhu Budruk, Sable replied: "Despite the police bandobast, motorcyclists bearing saffron flags were allowed to roam around freely."

Hiray asked Sable whether the photographs showed members of the Bhim Army paying homage to the Vijay Stambh.

Sable said he did not know whether the people shown in the photograph belonged to the Bhim Army. Asked whether it was the "Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan" that had spread the word that Dalits should go to Bhima-Koregaon in large numbers this year, Sable replied that he did not know.

Interestingly, both the entities referred to by the police and government counsel, the Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan and the Bhim Army, have links to the Elgar Parishad, held in Pune on December 31, 2017.

According to the police and the Vivek Vichar Manch, a Hindutva think-tank, the violence at Bhima-Koregaon was a result of inflammatory speeches made at the Elgar Parishad. They have alleged that Maoists were behind the Parishad.

The Bhima-Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan was a conglomeration of organisations that helped organise the Elgar Parishad.

Datta Pol from Pune, a member of the Bhim Army, was summoned for questioning by the Pune police in June after the arrests of five Left activists. The activists had been arrested on charges of having links with Maoists and having backed the Elgar Parishad.

Jyoti Punwani