'Those who attacked me, punish them.'
Jyoti Punwani reports from the Bhima-Koregaon judicial commission hearing in Mumbai.
Despite attempts to discredit her, and questions designed to provoke incriminating answers, witness Manisha Khotkar, one of the Dalits travelling in a bus that was attacked and later burnt near Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018, emerged with her testimony unshaken after a gruelling two-day cross-examination.
Khotkar is the first witness to depose before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up to inquire into the violence that took place at Bhima Koregaon.
The two-member commission is chaired by retired Calcutta high court Chief Justice Jai Narayan Patel with Chief Information Commissioner of Maharashtra Sumit Mullick as member.
Khotkar's story remained unchanged till the end.
The 44-year-old graphic designer described how she and her Dalit companions from Thane had set out to observe the 200th anniversary of the battle between the Peshwas and the British that took place at Bhima Koregaon in 1818. Mahars, fighting on the side of the British, had defeated the Peshwas.
The Khotkars had taken their daughter along with them so that she could learn about Dr Ambedkar and about their community's history.
However, they could not make it to Bhima Koregaon as violence had broken out there before they reached. The bus they were travelling in was stoned and later burnt.
Both she and her husband suffered injuries.
The police, Khotkar said, had taken down her statement, but had failed to include that those attacking the Dalits had also abused them on the basis of their caste. She had told them about these abuses.
Maharashtra government counsel Shishir Hiray made an attempt to discredit the witness by bringing to light two cases against her relating to cheque bouncing.
Khotkar replied that she knew that some cheques had bounced, but she did not know that there were any cases against her as she had not received any summons from any court.
The government counsel's line of questioning drew criticism from Senior Counsel B A Desai. "As government counsel, why are you protecting the accused?" he asked. "You should not discredit a Dalit woman."
Veteran lawyer Desai is representing Congressman Sanjay Lakhe Patil before the commission.
Niteen Pradhan, counsel for ex-BJP corporator Milind Ekbote, one of the two persons accused in the very first first information report filed after the Bhima Koregaon violence, asked Khotkar: "Don't you have feelings of hatred towards Brahmins for having inflicted suffering on Dr Ambedkar and also on your community?"
Khotkar's answer surprised everyone in court: "All that was in the past. I have no hatred towards Brahmins."
Still, Pradhan persisted. "You may not hate Brahmins, but surely you don't love them?"
Answered Khotkar: "I have Brahmin friends. I respect them."
Asked Pradhan: "The Peshwas were Brahmins. Doesn't your community go to Bhima Koregaon every year to celebrate the defeat of the Peshwas at the hand of the Mahars?"
"No," replied Khotkar. "We go to pay homage to the Buddhists who were martyred there."
Obviously unaware of courtroom etiquette and with no lawyer to guide her, Khotkar often gave long explanations in response to questions. At times she even urged Justice Patel to listen to her.
At one point she asked government counsel: "Why are you going into my financial affairs? I am here only to ask for justice. Those who attacked me, punish them."
In the middle of her cross-examination by advocate Hiray, Khotkar burst out: "When we were being attacked, not a single reporter nor any police were present. Such a big event was to take place at Bhima Koregaon, the entire media should have been there. Where were all these reporters, all this security, at that time?"
Justice Patel heard her out patiently, describing her utterances as an "outburst".
Hiray tried to establish that the police had made adequate bandobast for the event. Khotkar agreed when asked whether the police had helped her group get into another bus to complete their journey home.
Significantly, the government counsel introduced the idea of a "third party" different from the two groups who had clashed: One with saffron flags and the other with blue flags.
Could the stone throwing have been from this third party, he asked.
Could it be that this "third group with a completely different ideology" had tried to create "anarchy" among the other two groups?
Outside the commission's room, Manisha Khotkar's companions from Thane were upset that she had had no lawyer to help her face the cross-examination.
None of them had expected the proceedings to begin on the very day that she had been summoned, they said. Hence they did not ask any lawyer to be present.
On Thursday, there was a lawyer who tried to help the witness: Advocate Vidya Triratne. But she had to stop after Hiray objected that she was providing the witness with answers, and Justice Patel asked her not to do so.
Triratne told Rediff.com that it was not Khotkar or her group that had asked her to come. It was her organisation BAMCEF that had sent her there to help the witness.
The cross-examination of the second witness, retired assistant police inspector Tukaram Gaware, by Niteen Pradhan, began on Thursday, September 6, and will continue on Friday.
70-year-old Gaware, who belongs to the same group as Khotkar, the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Kalyankari Mandal, Thane, had also travelled in the same bus as Manisha Khotkar to Bhima Koregaon.