Testimony presented before the Bhima Korgaon Commission over the last two months reveals the background to the violence that broke out on January 1, 2018.
Jyoti Punwani reports.
As the Bhima Koregaon accused continue to struggle for bail, important information about the violence that they are accused of instigating is emerging before the judicial commission that's investigating the violence.
Testimony presented before the Commission over the last two months reveals the background to the violence that broke out on January 1, 2018, when lakhs of Dalits gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, in which Mahar soldiers helped the British defeat the Peshwas.
These testimonies contradict the National Investigation Agency version of the violence, which holds Left intellectuals and activists responsible, 15 of whom have been in jail for the last three years.
One accused, 84-year-old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy died in custody in July.
The testimony of Rekha Shivale, sarpanch of the gram panchayat of Vadhu Budruk, gave a glimpse into the caste politics at work in the village, where lies the samadhi of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, who was killed on orders of Emperor Aurangeb.
Just near that is the samadhi of Govind Gopal Gaekwad, the Mahar who is said to have performed Sambhaji Maharaj's last rites in defiance of Aurangzeb's firman.
These two samadhis make Vadhu Budruk an important pilgrimage spot for the Dalits who come to Bhima Koregaon every year on Janaury 1.
Shivale described the fight that vitiated the atmosphere in her village just three days before January 1, 2018, and which is said to be the immediate reason for the violence that broke out.
On December 29, 2017, the Marathas of the village removed a board put up the previous night by the descendants of Govind Gopal Gaekwad, pointing the way to his samadhi. The samadhi was also damaged by the villagers.
Rekha Shivale told the Commission that the Marathas were angry because the contents of the board were 'disputable'. The Marathas believed that Sambhaji Maharaj's last rites had been performed by Marathas, specifically the Shivale family. She believed this too, having been told this ever since she had come to the village after her marriage in 2000.
As a result of the fight, cases were filed against each other by the Marathas and the Dalits, who also invoked the Atrocities Act. Seven villagers were arrested, she said.
However, over the next two days, the police brought out a compromise and the cases were withdrawn, though not those filed under the Atrocities Act.
Rekha Shivale herself is one of those accused under the Act, but she told the Commission neither had she received a copy of the chargesheet, nor had she been questioned by the police.
Though the annual Dalit pilgrimage to Bhima Koregaon had never seen violence, the Vadhu Budruk panchayat sent a letter to the authorities both in December 2016 and 2017 asking for police bandobast, because they feared tension if visitors to the samadhi on Janaury 1 peddled a 'mistaken history' of Sambhaji Maharaj and raised 'casteist' slogans.
Shivale mentioned that the Sambhaji Brigade used to raise slogans extolling Govind Gopal Mahar every year, but could not cite any casteist slogan raised by them.
It is no coincidence that Shivale's views echoed those of Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, the two leaders named in the very first FIR filed after the Bhima Koregaon violence. Both have been disputing the belief that a Mahar performed the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj, and have been opposing the celebration of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.
Ekbote, a former BJP corporator from Pune, who has been convicted in five cases of rioting, was arrested for the Bhima Koregaon violence and is now out on bail.
His co-accused Sambhaji Bhide was never arrested.
The extent of Ekbote's influence in Vadhu Budruk became clear when Shivale revealed that in the last few years, his Dharmveer Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti had been running the affairs of Sambhaji Maharaj's samadhi in the village, along with the gram panchayat.
For some time, the photograph of RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar had been placed near Sambhaji Maharaj's samadhi, admitted Shivale.
Shivale had herself shared the stage with Ekbote at functions held to observe Sambhaji Maharaj's death anniversary. These functions were financed by the panchayat from government grants, but Ekbote's Smruti Samiti's name also featured on the invitation cards and pamphlets printed by the panchayat.
Though the post of sarpanch was reserved for SC/STs, Vadhu Budruk had never had a sarpanch from either category, admitted Shivale.
Last week, another witness not only pointed to Ekbote and Bhide's involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence, but also squarely held them responsible for it.
"The riots were initiated and instigated by Sambhaji Bhide and members of his organisation Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, and Milind Ekbote and members of his organisation Samasta Hindu Aghadi," stated activist and Tata Institute of Social Sciences scholar Harshali Potdar.
Harshali is the first witness to testify before the Bhima Koregaon Commission who features in the official NIA version of the Bhima Koregaon violence.
As a member of the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation group, Harshali told the Commission she was involved in the planning of the Elgar Parishad held on December 31, 2017 at Pune's Shaniwarwada.
Her name appears in the FIR filed by Tushar Damgude on January 8, 2018, which blames 'inflammatory speeches' made at the Parishad for the Bhima Koregaon violence. This FIR has been the basis for the arrests of Left intellectuals.
After the violence, Harshali visited the affected villages, and the information she and her team gathered forms part of her affidavit. This information led her to believe that the violence was the outcome of a 'larger conspiracy'.
Harshali testified that her office was raided on April 17, 2018 by the Pune police, who took away all the papers relating to her investigation of the Bhima Koregaon violence.
She expressed the fear that the police would act against her for bringing to light evidence against Sambhaji Bhide, but turned down the Commission's offer of police protection.
The testimony of yet another witness last week was significant because it broke the stereotype about violence against Muslims. Tassabar Suleman Shah told the Commission his garage in village Koregaon Bhima was burnt down on January 1, 2018, by a mob carrying flags, rods and shouting slogans in support of 'Babasaheb'.
Since the morning, men, women and children carrying blue flags had been going towards the war memorial at Bhima Koregaon, as they did every year on Janaury 1, he testified.
In the past, the villagers used to run food stalls to cater to these visitors. However, on January 1, 2018, a bandh call had been given by the village panchayat and so everything was closed, including his garage.
Trouble started at 1.30 pm when mobs carrying saffron flags descended on Vadhu Chowk, where already, there were groups of people carrying blue flags, he said. The saffron flag-carrying mobs started pelting stones and burning properties.
Shah told the Commission that villagers provided refuge to the blue flag-carrying women and children who were trying to escape the violence.
Soon after, he saw smoke rising from his garage. He went to check and found his garage and half the cars parked inside and outside it burning. When he tried to put out the fire, the arsonists warned him that he too would be burnt if he did so. Around 3.30 pm, the Fire Brigade arrived but the rioters burnt the fire engine.
There were no police at the spot because most of them were busy trying to deal with the clashes elsewhere, he said.
Shah said he had received compensation for his garage, which he had set up in 2006.
He did not know which organisations both groups belonged to, Shah claimed.
Other witnesses have testified that Dalits going to Bhima Koregaon were carrying blue flags, while mobs shouting slogans in favour of Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote were carrying saffron flags.
The Commission resumed its hearings in August 2021 after a long break due to the lockdown. Both in August and September, the hearings were held in Pune.
A request that given Covid protocols, the Commission be given a space in Mumbai larger than the tiny room allotted to them in the State Information Commission office, was rejected by the Maharashtra government.
The Pune hearings are accessed by the media and some lawyers on Zoom, with invites being sent personally by Justice Jaynarayan Patel who heads the Commission. The government has made no arrangements for such virtual hearings.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com