AS THEY await the arrival of a fresh wave of visitors, mainly Dalits, who come here every year on January 1 to mark the anniversary of a battle fought 200 years ago, residents of Koregaon Bhima village and nearby areas, about 30 km northeast of Pune, are tense and anxious to avoid a rerun of the violence that had marred the event earlier this year.
On January 1 this year, widespread violence had erupted in the area which left one person dead and several others were injured. Several incidents of clashes between Maratha and Dalit groups were also reported on that day.
Ahead of the first anniversary of the clashes, elaborate security arrangements have been made in the area.
Superintendent of Police (Pune Rural) Sandip Patil, who is in-charge of the security arrangements for January 1 event, said that compared to last year, there is going to be 10 times more deployment of security forces in the area.
Ashok Athavale, a Dalit vilager whose house in the neighbouring Sanaswadi village was torched last year, is still apprehensive, but says he will participate in the march to Jaystambh – the war memorial in Perne village where the main assembly is held every year.
“After last year’s incident, the government had shifted us to Kasba Peth in Pune city. I feel the situation is still tense in Sanaswadi… But we will be going to Jaystambh on January 1 to mark the anniversary of battle of Koregaon Bhima. There is a lot of security arrangements. We hope that nothing wrong takes place this year,” Athavale said.
Jayesh Shinde, whose Chhatrapati Auto Garage in Koregaon Bhima was attacked last year, said he would keep the hotel he now runs open this year on the request of the police.
“My garage was attacked last year and about 16 vehicles were set on fire. I suffered huge losses. I got some compensation from the government. Now I run a hotel here. I will keep it open on January 1 as police authorities have made an appeal to us and also assured security,” Shinde, who belongs to the Maratha community, said.
But unlike Shinde, several residents have decided to leave the village on December 31 for “New Year celebrations” and return only after the event is over.
“Many villagers go out on the night of December 31 for New Year and return a couple of days later. But this year, the number of such families is likely to be higher as we all want to avoid a tense situation. We have no objections to the January 1 programme. But the memories of violence are still alive and so some people believe that it is better to leave the area on that date and return on January 2. We hope that everything goes on peacefully this year,” a villager said.
Sangita Govind Kamble, the Dalit sarpanch of Maratha-majority Koregaon Bhima village, said the gram panchayat was getting ready to welcome the visitors. “Our panchayat will provide mobile toilets, water tankers, ambulance, medical facilities on January 1. CCTV cameras are also being installed at important locations. Local hotels, shops will be open. All gram panchayat staff have been asked to remain on duty on January 1. We will be welcoming the people coming to Jaystambh. They are our brothers and sisters. Whatever happened last year was unfortunate,” she said.
A vegetable vendor, Kamble was elected the sarpanch in December last year. “I have the support from all gram panchayat authorities, staff and villagers. People from different caste and communities are together and they all want peace. As preparations for January 1 programme are on, our panchayat is fully supporting the government administration and police department in making arrangements for the day,”she said.
At least 12 companies of State Reserve Police Force (SRPF), 5,000 police personnel, 1,200 home guards and 2,000 volunteers of Samata Sainik Dal will be deployed in Koregaon Bhima, Perne, Vadhu Budruk and adjoining areas on January 1, police said. Over 300 CCTV cameras, 100 video cameras, drones and spy cameras are being used by the police for keeping a watch on suspicious movements, they said.
SP (Pune Rural) Patil added that internet services will also remain suspended in Koregaon Bhima area on December 31 and January 1 to prevent spread of rumours orprovocative messages on social media.
So far, the police have taken action against 45 people from different parts of state for spreading objectionable, hate messages on social media in the view of the January 1 gathering, he said. Preventive action – warnings and detentions – have also been taken against more than 700 people.
Police have also issued notices to persons with “suspicious” background, including Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote, artists of alleged Maoist front Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) and others, to ban their entry to Koregaon Bhima between December 30 and January 1.