Infamous Mumbai underworld don of the 1970s and 1980s, Haji Mastan, was repeatedly mentioned at the hearings of the Koregaon Bhima Commission of Inquiry on Tuesday as Jogendra Kawade, a prominent Dalit leader and former MP who has become a witness in the case, was questioned by a lawyer about his association with the former gang leader.
Kawade, an MLC, appeared before the inquiry commission after he filed an affidavit before it. In his affidavit, he had blamed Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide for the Koregaon Bhima violence of January 1, 2018.
Haji Mastan, who died in 1994, was known to be associated with the ‘Dalit, Muslim, Minority Suraksha Mahasangh’ formed by Kawade in early 1980s.
This link was sought to be put on record by Ekbote’s lawyer Niteen Pradhan, who asked Kawade whether he was aware that Mastan had been detained under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention Smuggling Activities Act (COFEPOSA) in 1975 and prosecuted under the Customs Act and Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) even before that.
Kawade said he was not aware of Haji Mastan’s criminal credentials when he got associated with the organisation whose aim was to unite Dalits, Muslims and other minorities for their protection and welfare. “I had approached various Muslim leaders but they did not respond. We admitted Haji Mastan as we wanted a Muslim face. I accepted Haji Mastan as our associate because he told me that he has given up all criminal and illegal activities before Jayprakash Narayan,” he said.
The two-member inquiry commission is trying to establish the sequence of events that led to the Koregaon Bhima violence in which one person was killed and several others injured. The tenure of the commission is ending later this week and it has sought an extension. Kawade would be the last witness to depose before the commission if an extension is not granted. His cross-examination will continue on Wednesday.
Ekbote and others have, in the past, claimed that it was Kawade who started the tradition of organising a gathering at the Jaystambh, or war memorial, in Koregaon Bhima on the anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, January 1, every year. Ekbote has also claimed that this gathering was started with the help of Haji Mastan and was meant to “create a divide between Indians”.
Ekbote, who is alleged to have instigated violence during the 2018 anniversary, was arrested by Pune police but later released on bail.
Kawade, during the chief examination by the commission’s lawyer Ashish Satpute, said that he has been visiting the Jaystambh on January 1 every year since 1980-81 to pay his homage to the Mahar soldiers who had died while fighting the Peshwas in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. He said these gatherings had remained peaceful till 2017.
“..In my opinion, after the BJP government came to power, elements like Ekbote and Bhide got an opportunity to bring out their venomous attitude towards the Dalits (Buddhists) and minorities. They took the opportunity of January 1, 2018, when lakhs of Dalits were on their way to pay homage to Jaystambh, and instigated riots and destruction,” he said.