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Bhima Koregaon: The Mystery of Fadnavis' Terms of Reference

By JYOTI PUNWANI
Last updated on: December 15, 2021 14:51 IST
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No report of the violence was sent by Mumbai's police commissioner to the government.
Why was the violence then considered serious enough to be included in the Terms of Reference?
Was it a balancing act to counter the accusations that were then being made against Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote?
Jyoti Punwani reports from the Bhima Koregaon Commission hearing.

IMAGE: Protesters stop local trains at Thane station. Mumbai and adjoining areas came to a near standstill on January 3, 2018 after a bandh was called to protest the violence at the event to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

Inextricably linked with the violence that took place at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018, is the Maharashtra bandh that was called as a protest by Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar and Dalit organisations on January 3, 2018. Indeed, the incidents of violence during the bandh made front page headlines in a way the Bhima Koregaon violence had not.

When the demand for an inquiry into the Bhima Koregaon violence was made, the then Devendra Fadnavis government included in the Commission's Terms of Reference both the causes of the events at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018, as well as their consequences.

How serious was the consequent violence? Not serious enough to warrant a report by Mumbai's police commissioner to the government, it was revealed before the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry on Monday, December 13.

In Mumbai, according to then additional commissioner of police Lakhmi Gautam's deposition, 39 policemen, 7 BEST employees and three civilians were injured in incidents that began on the night of January 1 and ended on the evening of January 3.

Public property worth Rs 44 lakh (Rs 4.4 million) and private property worth Rs one crore (rs 10 million) were damaged. 75 FIRs were filed regarding the violence, which saw no loss of lives.

Gautam was then in charge of Mumbai's East Region where most of the incidents took place, and was deputed to represent the Mumbai police before the Commission.

No consolidated report of this violence was sent by the police commissioner of Mumbai to the government, Gautam revealed under cross-examination.

Why was the violence then considered serious enough to be included in the Terms of Reference? Was it a balancing act to counter the accusations that were then being made against Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote?

The two were named as accused in the first FIR filed on the Bhima Koregaon violence, and were subsequently named by fact-finding teams that visited the site.

This bit of information -- that no report had been sent to the government on the violent consequences in Mumbai -- was revealed only after retired Justice J N Patel threatened to summon Mumbai's police commissioner to appear before the Commission.

Earlier, in response to a question by advocate Kiran Channe, Gautam had said he would find out whether the police commissioner had sent any report on the violence in Mumbai to the government.

IMAGE: Justice J N Patel. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

On Monday, December 13, when the Commission resumed its hearings, Gautam informed the Commission that he could not categorically say whether the police commissioner had sent such a report, since he had not received any written answer to his query in this regard sent on November 16, and subsequent reminder sent on November 26.

Surprised at this silence, Justice Patel who heads the two-member Commission, said he would summon the police commissioner if need be.

Within an hour, the deputy commissioner of police Operations, Main Control Room, appeared before the Commission to hand over a report to Gautam that stated categorically that the police commissioner had sent no report on the bandh to anyone in the government.

IMAGE: Protesters block the train tracks at Dadar in north central Mumbai during the January 3, 2018 bandh. Photograph: PTI Photo

***

During his cross-examination, Channe suggested to Gautam that the violence and indeed the bandh itself was a result of the failure of the police to respond to public anger against the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Channe asked whether the police could not have lodged a 'zero' FIR against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, as demanded by Dalit and other activists, considering the seriousness of the violence at Bhima Koregaon, and the public outcry across the country that followed.

"Activists were demanding an FIR against Bhide and Ekbote. Had this demand been granted, there would have been no bandh," said Channe.

A 'zero' FIR can be lodged by any police station with respect to an offence that has taken place outside its jurisdiction. The investigation can then be transferred to the police station under whose jurisdiction the offence has taken place.

IMAGE: Then additional commissioner of police Lakhmi Gautam. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

Gautam replied that the lodging of a 'zero' FIR depended on the facts of the case, not merely on public demand.

The failure of intelligence that caught the Maharashtra police unawares when violence broke out on January 1 at Bhima Koregaon also came through in Gautam's cross-examination. Responding to a question by Channe, Gautam admitted that there had been no talks between the police and residents of Ramabai Nagar, Ghatkopar (north east Mumbai), before January 1, nor any attempt made to find out how many of them were going to Bhima Koregaon on January 1.

Ramabai Nagar featured in Gautam's affidavit, as the area where additional police bandobast had been made after January 1, since it was "a locality that had a previous history of violent agitations".

IMAGE: Dalits block the Goregaon highway in north west Mumbai. Photograph: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

***

Both the lawyers representing Dalit victims in front of the Commission, B G Bansode and Kiran Channe, alleged that Gautam's record showed that he was "anti-Dalit".

Gautam was SP, Ahmednagar, when the Javkheda triple Dalit murder case took place in October 2014, wherein a Dalit couple Sanjay and Jayshree Jadhav, and their teenaged son Sunil, were found hacked to pieces.

Although Dalit organisations alleged a caste angle to the case, those finally arrested were two relatives of the Jadhavs. Gautam informed the Commission that the murders were a result of "revenge arising out of family disputes".

During cross-examination, Channe pointed out that Sanjay's father Jagannath Jadhav had filed a writ petition before the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court, alleging that the investigations into the murder were not being done properly as the culprits were "high-caste", and asking for a CBI inquiry.

At one point, Bansode asked Gautam his caste. Though Special Public Prosecutor Shishir Hiray objected, the Commission overruled the objection after Bansode pointed out that in his affidavit, Gautam had referred to those protesting the Bhima Koregaon violence in Mumbai as belonging to the Dalit community.

However, Gautam refused to answer the question, "on principle of professional, ethics and integrity of my service."

IMAGE: Advocate Kiran Channe. Photograph: Jyoti Punwani

***

In his affidavit, Gautam felt that thanks to the preparations made by the Mumbai police, the bandh could pass off without any clash between Dalits and members of other communities, any loss of life and any police firing,

However, as part of the suggestions regarding the entire issue, Gautam's affidavit recommends that South Mumbai be made a "demonstration-free zone... considering the huge traffic, narrow lanes and various government and corporate establishments in the area."

A surprising recommendation, considering that in the affidavit, South Mumbai does not feature in the list of 36 police stations under whose jurisdiction violence took place between January 1-3, 2018.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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