06, Jul 2021 | Teesta Setalvad
It was the site outside the Brahmanical city of Pune, the capital of the cruel Peshwai empire, at Koregaon, that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, as a young lawyer battling caste discrimination, visited in 1927. Since then, come January 1, every year, over 90 years, and hundreds of thousands of Dalit-Bahujans come here in collective celebration of a battle against the most oppressive kind of evil and discrimination. In 2018, this figure touched 1.5 million. Violence has never broken out here until January 1, 2018, the second centennial (200th) year when at Sanaswadi, Koregaon, it did. Violence provoked by supremacists and hate-mongers like Milind Ekbote and Shambhaji Bhide according to a Pune police FIR of January 2 that year.
History is complex and has layers not adequately nuanced in ‘mainstream’ or ‘left-liberal’ texts, which is why, even in Maharsahtra, social science texts omit any reference to this battle or its commemoration. Popular accounts of the Jan 1, 1918 battle celebrate the fact of how that an army of just about 823 –consisting of 500 from the British’s Mahar regiment and 12 officers defeated a 28,000 strong Peshwa side! To see this is as an Anglo-Maratha war when in fact it was a battle between the Peshwas and the British is the first step to getting it wrong. For the Mahars (Dalits) this was opportunity enough to establish victory over their brutalisation. Interestingly, the War Memorial has been standing at that place for the last 200 years with the Martyr’s names inscribed on it: this consists not only the names of the soldiers from the Mahar Community, but a few Maratha and Other Backward Caste (OBC) soldier’s names are also visible alongside.
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There is more from centuries ago. A mausoleum dedicated to Chhatrapati Shambhaji is situated a few kilometres away in the Dalit locality of village, Wadoo (Budrak) discovered by the renowned historian VC Bendre: Sambhaji, the then scholar of Sanskrit became an eyesore for Brahmins as he mastered the language; they solicited and gained the assistance of Aurangzeb to punish him with brute methods, denying him dignified cremation. It was only one Govind Mahar who valiantly defied the fatwa and cremated him. This too is an inspirational site of history. (Fact-finding report on the Bhima Koregaon Violence by the Rashtriya Seva Dal can be read here)
Fast forward to two hundred years later, an India and Maharashtra ruled by what could be interpreted by a section at least, of political descendants of the Peshwas: modern day proponents of a militarised Hindu nation, Hindu rashtra. The regimes in Delhi and Mumbai were clearly threatened by the organisation of the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, a day before the annual celebration at Koregaon. Not only did the organisers, two Judges –one formerly of the Supreme Court of India, Justice PB Sawant and the other, BG Kolse Patil (previously of the Bombay High Court)- organised the event, bringing together 260 plus Dalit organisations. The participation was widespread, a unifying challenge to an oppressive regime in place since 2014. Over 30-35,000 persons attended. Dozens of pre-event conferences Elgar conferences were organised and much of this ensured the record participation both on December 31, 2017 and January 1, 2018 at Bhima Koregaon.
“‘Elgaar’ means loud invitation or loud declaration, and our main theme was to save the Constitution and the nation,” Justice Sawant had told Citizens for Justice and Peace (cjp.org.in) in an exclusive interview (August 31, 2018) after history had been manipulated and a series of arrests around this began in June 2018. He could not eventually attend the meeting at Shaniwarwada because of ill-health. “The right-wing forces do not accept our present Constitution. They believe neither in democracy, nor socialism nor secularism,” he had said. Sawant and Kolse-Patil strategically selected December 31 as the day for the Parishad, because lakhs of Dalit citizens from across the country were set to gather at Bhima Koregaon near Pune the next day, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of an 1818 battle in which a British army with a continent of Mahars defeated the much stronger forces of the Peshwas, a regime noted for their casteist policies.
The overwhelming success of the Elgar Parishad meet could obviously not be stomached by the rulers that be. The next day, when hundreds of thousands assembled outside Pune, violence broke out for the first time and perpetrators were seen and documented as being those belonging to supremacist outfits. (Watch this Video here)
Videos that came in from Koregaon within minutes of the targeted violence breaking out on January 1, 2018 show that goons clad in saffron shirts and sporting saffron flags pelting stones on the gathering of Dalit-Bahujan activists, including women and children, also setting their cars and buses on fire. One person was even killed and the outbreak of targeted violence on a peaceful gathering of Dalit-Bahujans in January 2018 leading to RPI leader, Prakash Ambedkar calling for a Maharashtra-wide bandh. Immediately on the outbreak of violence unleashed by those with allegiance to a supremacist politics, the name of Milind Ramakant Ekbote surfaced along with another, Shambhaji Bhide. Ironically, on January 2, 2018, the Pune police filed an FIR against right wing activist Sambhaji Bhide and the founder ultra-right wing group Shiv Pratap Bhoomi Mukti Andolan Milind Ekbote accusing them of instigating violence in Shaniwarwada that led to attacks on Dalits. Not only has this sequence of violence been forgotten, as a result the actual perpetrators of the violence on Dalits and Bahujans has been swept aside as a fake history of conspiracy and attack unleashed.
Since June 2018 when the first arrests of Professor Shoma Sen and seven others including Surendra Gadling and Roma Wilson took place, rationality and actual investigation has been ignored in favour of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Who is Milind Ekbote? Read here. This hate-spewing supremacist surfaced once again after a period of relative silence—17 years to be precise– on January 1, 2018 when the violence unleashed against peaceful Dalits assembled at Bhima Koregaon to commemorate 200 years of the battle, was reportedly provoked by the machinations of extremists of the Hindutva brigade. Ironically, a month later, in February 2018, the Supreme Court criticised the Maharashtra state government and probe agencies for the slow progress in their probe against Milind Ekbote, questioning the agencies’ claims that he was allegedly ‘untraceable’. At the time the BJP’s Devendra Phadnavis was Maharashtra Chief Minister and the Shiv Sena, an alliance partner.
Within weeks of the first FIR dated January 2, 2018, in the month of January itself, a Pune-based businessman with controversial leanings filed a First Information Report (FIR) blaming revolutionary speeches made at the Elgaar Parishad for the January 1 Bhima Koregaon violence, in which one person was killed. Youth leader and MLA from Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani and student leader, Umar Khalid approached the Bombay High Court for quashing the FIRs filed against them. Details can be read here.
On April 22, 2018, one of the key witnesses of the violence, a 19-year-old Dalit woman who had lost her house in the violence was found dead in a well. Her family alleged that she was being pressured to withdraw her statements in the case.
Months after, the Pune police had raided the homes of several human rights activists across the country. Before the nationwide raids, in June 2018, Pune Police arrested several activists including Dalit activist and co-organiser of the Elgar Parishad event Sudhir Dhawale, senior advocate, Surendra Gadling, Nagpur University professor Shoma Sen, human rights activist Rona Wilson under UAPA. They were accused of being co-conspirators of the Bhima-Koregaon violence. They were accused of smuggling weapons and funding maoist activities. The Pune Police also alleged that they found electronic evidence which showed that they were involved in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and wage a war against the country. A majority of those targeted had neither been either at the Elgar Parishad in Pune, nor the Bhima Korehaon commemoration a day later. By now the Pune police had decided to bury its own FIR against Ekbote and Bhide dated Janurary 2, 2018.
Two months later after the first arrests, on August 28, 2018 the police carried out another set of arrests simultaneously in several parts of the country alleging a Maoist link to and arrested activists, intellectuals Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao, and Vernon Gonsalves. The ding-dong, push and pull within the Courts began.
On August 29, 2018, four eminent personalities — Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande, and Maya Darnall — moved SC seeking the release of those arrested. That is when house arrest was ordered until September 6, 2018, then extended to September 12, then September 19. Widespread anger and protest against these moves, and the brazen attempt to suppress dissent led the then Maharashtra government to tell the Supreme Court on September 5, that the arrests were not because of political dissent but because of alleged links to Maoists.
Finally, after a hotly contested legal battle, the State with its concocted theory of a conspiracy won when, a month after the arrests, on September 28, 2018, the SC bench refused to interfere with the arrests of the activists and declined to appoint a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate. Individual activists, lawyers, writers were arrested at different points in the next few months and years.
In November 2019, after the state assembly elections, the government changed in Maharashtra, and now the Shiv Sena formed part of the ruling alliance with the Congress and the NCP. Within two months, on January 24, 2020, the investigation into the Elgar Parishad case was taken over by the NIA. In October 2020, the NIA filed a voluminous, 10,000+ page charge sheet with fresh names. Father Stan Swamy was named in the charge sheet at this stage as an accused (though he had been raided in 2018) who tried to bring together Dalit and Muslim forces to ‘bring down the fascist governemnt at the centre’ and arrested under charges of UAPA and sedition. The police also accused him of having Maoist links.
Consistently, Justices PB Sawant and Kolse-Patil have believed that behind this case lies a frame up by the regime, indeed a conspiracy – but one that is directed by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that is attempting to silence its critics by arresting activists who have spoken out against the excesses of the state. “Most of the activists arrested in the case had absolutely nothing to do with the Elgaar Parishad,” said Kolse-Patil, who claims he did not even know most of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case before they were arrested, adding, “But yes, we openly tell people we are Leftist, and those who have been arrested more or less share our ideology. They are rational thinkers.” Justice Sawant had then explained in this interview to us why they believe the Bhima Koregaon arrests are the government’s way of clamping down on all opposition. Watch the interview here.
The sinister twist in this tortuous tale does not end here. Explosive investigations by a US-based digital forensics firm, Arsenal, first came to light in February 2021. They reveal evidence of malware planted in the computer of Rona Wilson. Arsenal’s report, widely publicised states, “Mr. Wilson’s computer had extensive resources (including time) and it is obvious that their primary goals were surveillance and incriminating document delivery.” There was another chilling revelation, “Arsenal has connected the same attacker to a significant malware infrastructure which has been deployed over the course of approximately four years to not only attack and compromise Mr. Wilson’s computer for 22 months, but to attack his co-defendants in the Bhima Koregaon case and defendants in other high-profile cases as well.” On an eerie note, Arsenal concedes, “This is one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering that Arsenal has ever encountered, based on various metrics which include the vast time span between the delivery of the first and the last incriminating documents.” That was February 2021.
Now today, July 6, 2021 after the institutional murder of Father Stan Swamy, Arsenal has now similar evidence of malware being planted to manipulate evidence in the computer of advocate Surendra Gadling. Indian authorities have been brazening it out. NIA does not feel compelled to test Arsenal’s claims. So far, the Courts have not ordered the agency to do so.
The failure to get to the roots of this case now, by the Courts, will further perpetuate the injustice perpetrated on the falsely accused 16 in the Bhima Koregaon case. One precious life has been lost. Father Stan Swamy’s and the iconic fold is now BK-15. India’s crumbling criminal justice system begs an immediate recognition, and correction of the perpetrated failures in this case. Or it may indeed be too late.
 The then untouchables were required to carry a pot hung from their chest to belly so that whenever they spit the matter should not fall on ground as it is considered to be impure. Further, a broom was also used to be tied at the back of their waist so that while walking on the ground the impure traces of their footprints should automatically be get cleaned & cleared.