'We told the victims this was the only opportunity for them to get their story recorded.'
'If they did not recount their version the other side would concoct their own theory about what happened at Bhima-Koregaon.'
Jyoti Punwani reports from the Bhima-Koregaon commission hearing.
There was no lawyer to guide him, but Tanaji Sable, the second witness to depose before the judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Bhima-Koregaon violence, knew he had support.
The Dalit Atyachar Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti and the Republican Party of India (Secular), headed by veteran Dalit Panther leader Shyam Gaekwad, had motivated him to file his affidavit.
Milind Bhawar and his wife Kesar, volunteers with the Samiti, were waiting for Sable all through the day's proceedings on Friday, September 7, 2018. They left the Commission premises along with him.
Bhawar and his team have managed to get more than 20 Dalits from Mumbai, residents of Ghatkopar's Ramabai Nagar, Vikhroli and Powai, all of whom had travelled to Bhima-Koregaon on January 1, 2018, to file affidavits before the commission. Of these, only two have received summons.
It wasn't easy, recounts Bhawar. Most of them had no idea what a commission of inquiry was.
All they knew was they didn't want to get involved with any court proceedings. They feared they would be summoned again and again.
That's exactly what happened with Tanaji Sable. He has to appear again on September 24 so that his cross examination can be completed.
Sable, who was on the witness seat from 5 to 8 pm on Friday, spoke quietly but firmly before the commission.
But revealed Bhawar, the BEST bus conductor was apprehensive and tense when he received the summons.
Bhawar's team had to prepare him, even holding a mock hearing so that he would know what to expect.
"I told him to stick to recounting only what he had seen," said Bhawar.
Bhawar knew what would work in front of an inquiry commission. He had worked with witnesses who testified before the Justice S D Gundewar Commission of Inquiry into the July 1997 police firing at Ramabai Nagar which left 10 Dalits dead.
However, says the 53 year old, though he was a greenhorn then, the task of getting the victims and witnesses to file affidavits and coordinating their appearances before the Gundewar Commission was easier, because all of them were residents of the same colony.
"In this case, the witnesses are scattered, not only across Mumbai but across the state," Bhawar says. "We have got affidavits from Nashik and Murbad."
Shyam Gaekwad of the Republican Party of India (Secular) applied to the Commission for an extension of the deadline by which affidavits had to be filed, says Bhawar.
"Even then we could not reach all those who went to Bhima-Koregaon from Mumbai," he says.
Nor have they yet managed to arrange a lawyer.
For the Gundewar Commission, says Bhawar, Gaekwad arranged for a videographer to come from Ambarnath, where he is based, to Ramabai Nagar to record what the witnesses had to say. The transcripts of those recordings were then read out to the witnesses, corrections made and then they were made into affidavits.
This time, all this was done on mobile phones.
Some Dalit groups had expressed cynicism about the commission, and there was even talk of a boycott.
But Bhawar is not cynical. The Gundewar Commission, says Bhawar, restored his faith in judicial commissions.
"The commission was perfect. Its findings were correct. It concluded that the police firing had been 'neither justified nor warranted, but indiscriminate' and remarked that Sub-Inspector Manohar Kadam, who ordered the firing, was unfit to continue in government service.
The trial court sentenced Kadam to life in 2009, but the high court admitted his appeal and gave him bail.
"It is the government -- first the Sena-BJP government and then Chhagan Bhujbal, home minister under the Congress-NCP government -- who protected Kadam," says Bhawar.
Bhawar agrees that the same happened with the Srikrishna Commission: The government protected those indicted by it.
Yet, says he, there can be no question of boycotting the Bhima-Koregaon judicial commission.
"There is no way out," he says despairingly. "If we don't, who else will present our version before the commission?"
"We told the victims this was the only opportunity for them to get their story recorded. If they did not recount their version the other side would concoct their own theory about what happened at Bhima-Koregaon."
"You can see how Milind Ekbote's lawyer made claims about the citation at the Vijay Stambh at Bhima-Koregaon (the memorial to those who died in the 1818 battle between the British and the Peshwas)," said Bhawar, referring to advocate Niteen Pradhan's cross-examination of Sable.
"The Hindutva leaders are making out as if the Mahars betrayed Shivaji Maharaj by siding with the British against the Peshwas. But Shivaji Maharaj was not ruling then, the Peshwas were! And their rule was the opposite of Shivaji Maharaj's rule," Bhawar points out.
What finally convinced the victims to depose was the fact that this was a government-appointed commission. What they said before it would be the official record.
Yet, Bhawar is regretful that despite repeated visits to their home, he could not persuade the family of one victim, who had a heart attack on seeing the violence at Bhima- Koregaon, and later passed away, to file an affidavit.
"They just kept saying 'When our family member is gone, what's the use of appearing before the Commission'."