They came from across the country, boys from a hip-hop crew wearing low-slung jeans and their hair in dramatic cuts, colours and braids; first-timer senior citizens camping around a bonfire; a barefoot Bhante, or Buddhist monk, who walked 48 days to get here; flag-waving activists.
In the minutes leading up to midnight at the Jaystambh memorialising the battle of Bhima Koregaon, it was a sombre Dalit chant, not sloganeering, that stirred the gathering. On the 201st anniversary to mark the victory of a British regiment including Mahar soldiers over a Peshwa army, the nearly 5,000 people who spent the night of December 31 around the memorial spoke of their search for solutions to caste stigma that see beyond aggression.
On January 1, 2019, a year after one person was killed and several injured in clashes and rioting, over three lakh people visited the memorial under a heavy security cover. Laxmi Wamanrao Kamble, 68, of Hingoli district was among the 300 who joined Bhante Gyan Jyoti from the Ramdegi Buddhist temple in Chandrapur on a 48-day padyatra to Bhima Koregaon. She has never been here before. “I feel pure joy to be here,” said the grandmother who is on a journey to various Ambedkarite sites. “Last year’s violence was an exception — the message to us here is idealism. There’s no heaven or hell, we just have to make our own heaven here,” she said. Her group walked 700 km, carrying blankets and warm clothes, and surviving on meals contributed by villagers along the way.
Activists of various Dalit organisations that erected pandals for those spending the night on the 4-acre plot of land said this year saw many first-timers, including from outside Maharashtra. The violence last January 1 and the subsequent spotlight on Bhima Koregaon led many to add it to their annual pilgrimages. “We go to Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur and Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai every year, but Babasaheb (B R Ambedkar) himself called this Shauryabhoomi,” said Padmin Khandare of Akola.
Past midnight, a stream of devotees walked into the crowded enclosure, all raising the slogan “Babasaheb Ambedkarancha — Vijay Aso”, victory to Ambedkar. The obelisk, decorated with strings of yellow and orange marigold, was lit up at night in blue, purple, red and green. Through the night, groups including women and children walked in, offered the obelisk a salute and posed for selfies.
Vishranti Meshram brought flowers and incense sticks from Nagpur to sell to devotees. “The arrangements this year are superb,” she said, echoing the thoughts of most of those who spent the night in the open around the memorial. There was electricity for floodlighting, a first; a row of e-toilets and plastic barrels of water outside; barricading and security; a public announcement system from the memorial site to the Bhima Koregaon village 2 km away.
Vishranti joined a group of 11 women from Amravati who shared space in the biting cold under a lemon tree and utensils for cooking. Shakuntala Tayde, Usha Ingle and Shalini Ingle, all first-timers, expect to make this an annual pilgrimage now. They had arrived three days ago after visiting a pagoda in Mumbai and the Mahad satyagraha site in Raigad.
As the temperature dipped to 5 degrees Celsius, tyres were burnt, but only for bonfires. The voice on the PA system infrequently rose when people crowded the enclosure. Tired policemen sat down around a fire on a short break. Tea vendors with flasks walked around the stalls selling trinkets and statuettes and framed photographs of the Buddha, Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Ashoka.
The dozens of bonfires around the plot were also sites of impromptu performances — a monk singing a revolutionary song, women reading out from newly purchased books of Ambedkar’s speeches, two youngsters with a tambourine performing a rap song on breaking hegemonic social structures.
At the Jaystambh, not many slept on the night of December 31. The electric atmosphere and the cold kept them up, as did the thought that perhaps 2019 won’t be as fraught as the year that went by.