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Bhima Koregaon anniversary: As govt urges Covid caution, plans for another Elgaar Parishad

Why is the Bhima Koregaon anniversary significant, what are the plans to observe it this year, and what happened during its 200th anniversary in 2018, which saw the arrests of activists and intellectuals?

Written by Chandan Haygunde | Pune | Updated: December 22, 2020 10:15:32 pm
Bhima koregaon, Bhima koregaon battle, Bhima koregaon case, Bhima koregaon violence, Bhima koregaon history, elgaar parishad, elgaar parishad,case, elgaar parishad, NIA elgaar parishad,Lakhs of people, mainly Dalits, march to Jaystambh on January 1 every year to mark the anniversary of the battle fought between British and Peshwa forces in 1818 on the banks of the Bhima river, about 30 km outside Pune. (File)

As yet another anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon approaches, the Maharashtra government has urged for low-key celebrations, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

However, preparations for the anniversary are on in full swing, with Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad announcing he will visit Jaystambh — the battle war memorial — and the group Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyaan saying they will organise another Elgaar Parishad this year.

The Elgaar Parishad held in 2017 had seen violence days later, triggering the police action that saw the arrests of activists and intellectuals like Sudhir Dhawale, Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navalakha, Varavara Rao, and Stan Swamy, for their alleged links with the banned CPI-Maoist.

So why is the Bhima Koregaon anniversary significant, and what is happening this year?

Plan this year — what govt, activists have said

In view of the coronavirus pandemic, the Maharashtra government Tuesday appealed to people to not march to the Jaystambh (or pillar of victory) on New Year’s day. The government said it had made arrangements for live telecast of the events from the war memorial, where a “symbolic” and “simple” programme has been planned to avoid crowding.

On Sunday, however, the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyaan, the group that had organised the Elgaar Parishad in 2017, announced it was planning to hold a similar event this year, again on December 31, this time at the Ganesh Kala Krida Manch in Pune.

“We are organising the Elgaar Parishad at the Ganesh Kala Krida Manch. We have already booked the premises and process for seeking police permission for the conference is on. We plan to invite as speakers some noted personalities who are fighting against fascist forces and casteism. We will move high court if we do not get permission from the government,” said Justice (retd) B G Kolse Patil, a former High Court judge.

Simultaneously, Bhim Army said its chief Chandrashekhar Azad would visit the Jaystambh on January 1. It said it also planned to organise a rally at the statue of Dr B R Ambedkar near the Pune railway station. Azad had visited Jaystambh for the 2019 anniversary too.

A directive issued by the state government on Tuesday says permission will not be granted to set up food stalls, book stalls and other shops in the Jaystambh area. Public meetings in the area will also not be allowed.

Like every other year, security deployment is being made in and around the Perne village, where the Jaystambh is located, to ensure the occasion is observed in a peaceful manner.

Significance of the Bhima Koregaon battle anniversary

Lakhs of people, mainly from the Ambedkarite Dalit community, march to Jaystambh on January 1 every year to mark the anniversary of the battle fought between British and Peshwa forces in 1818 on the banks of the Bhima river, about 30 km outside Pune. The British forces then comprised a large proportion of Dalit soldiers, who overpowered the Peshwas in that single-day battle. The Dalit community sees this as their victory over the rule of the “castiest” Peshwas.

For the last several years, Dalits, mainly from the Ambedkarite Mahar community, have been visiting the Jaystambh at Perne village, erected by the British in the memory of the soldiers. Till about 10 years ago, the annual congregation consisted of only a few thousand people, but many more have been attending the event in recent years. At the last event for example, on January 1, 2020, an estimated eight lakh people had visited the war memorial.

The 200th anniversary event on January 1, 2018, was marked by widespread clashes, in which one person was killed and several others injured. It was the police action into this violence that later expanded into a largescale investigation into the operations of banned Naxalite group CPI(Maoist), and its alleged links to activists and intellectuals.

What happened on the 200th anniversary

In the run-up to the occasion, an event called ‘Elgaar Parishad’ had been organised at the historic Shaniwar Wada, a Peshwa era fort in Pune, on the evening of December 31, 2017.

Activist Sudhir Dhawale and members of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) who had been arrested in the past for their alleged links with banned CPI-Maoist were among the key organisers of the event, which saw participation from several critics of the central government, including then Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mewani, and fiery speeches accusing the government of suppressing Dalit voices were made.

Clockwise from top right: Gautam Navlakha, Stan Swamy, Hany Babu, and Anand Teltumbde. The four are among the activists arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case. (Express)

The next day, on January 1, 2018, violent clashes were witnessed in Pune and neighbouring areas. Police claimed that the speeches made at the Elgaar Parishad event and in its run-up had played a role in triggering the violence, and opened an investigation into the people and groups that had organised the event.

During the investigation, the police claimed to have unearthed a much bigger plot by “banned Naxalite groups to destabilise the country”, and cracked down on several activists, who, it said, had been providing logistical support to these groups.

Among those arrested by Pune police were noted activists Gautam Navalakha and Sudha Bhardwaj, and nine others, who were picked up from places as far away as Delhi, Ranchi, Nagpur, and Mumbai. The investigation into this case was taken over by the National Investigation Agency in January this year, which arrested seven more persons, including Jesuit priest Stan Swamy and three artists of the KKM.

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