Many who will welcome the new year under flimsy pandals around the Bhima Koregaon war memorial have spent every December 31 here, swatting mosquitoes and singing Ambedkarite songs to distract from the cold. But January 1, 2019, is different. It marks a year of deepening faultlines at the site of the 1818 war that saw a Colonial army, helped by a Mahar regiment, defeat the Peshwas. This new year, the day that marks the overthrow of upper-caste rule is time to mull over what remains a divided society.
“It’s going to be peaceful tomorrow,” says Santosh Davne, 35, from Nanded. A vendor of trinkets featuring Dr B R Ambedkar and the Buddha, the disabled Davne has been visiting the Jaystambh, the obelisk to honour soldiers who died on January 1, 1818, on the banks of the Bhima, for 12 years. “I set up a stall every year, but I have never seen such police presence or such quiet fear among people,” he says.
Residents of Bhima Koregaon, Vadu Budruk and Perne, the sites of tension and rioting on January 1, 2018, say no trouble is expected this year. On WhatsApp groups and Facebook posts, the aggression has been toned down over the past week amid proactive policing and extensive security plans. “But our villages were never so sharply divided,” says Rekha Gaikwad, 38, whose flour mill was damaged in the rioting a year ago.
She relocated and restarted her business, but it has been a year of “deep losses”. “Business is picking up very slowly,” says Rekha, a mother of two. The first four-five months of 2018 were marked by an unspoken, unofficial boycott of Dalit establishments, she says. “I had to move my mill, others were asked by landlords to vacate their homes. In the initial months, nobody from the village would come to my mill. How do you survive in a village if nobody wants to bring their business to you?” she says.
Things have improved slightly, but Rekha has shrunk her own celebration of the memorial day to a small platform with a decorated photo of Ambedkar outside her mill, and food and lodging for a handful of people.
For those who suffered losses in early 2018, the struggle continues even after many received compensation. “What about justice? Not just those who burnt my properties, what I’m fighting for is punishment for all those who incited and executed the violence,” says Mangal Kamble, in her 50s. Kamble is the complainant in an FIR on the torching of her five tin-shed rooms, a makeshift restaurant and a plywood store, all rented out. She used the compensation of Rs 1 lakh to rebuild the structures last month, but is yet to find tenants.
Also struggling are Suresh Sakat and his son Jaideep, whose “house and business” were burnt down on January 2. Both were given a police detail after Suresh’s daughter Puja, an eyewitness to the house being burnt, was found to have drowned in a well. “My son is a driver, how can he go to work with a police guard?” asks Suresh. The family was temporarily relocated by the state in Pune, but the Sakats are unclear if there will be any arrests for the arson and violence.
Local Shiv Sena leader Anil Kashid, whose son Prakash is facing an Atrocities Act case in connection with the rioting, spent the morning of December 31 welcoming Bhikkus and Dalit pilgrims, presenting each a rose and bottled water. Even if “they” shout slogans or abuse us, he says, “we” will respond with flowers. Kashid claims nearly 500 boys, “theirs and ours”, were sent away over the past few days as a precaution. Hundreds more, including Kashid, received police notices under Section 141 of the Criminal Procedure Code, advising them to maintain peace.
Performers of the Kabir Kala Manch and Samata Kala Manch, and activists of various Dalit groups, have also been instructed by police not to visit Bhima Koregaon on January 1. Police officers say nearly 1,200 men are in preventive detention. That is in addition to the 5,000 police personnel, drone-mounted cameras, a water cannon and several police vehicles deployed around the obelisk, a couple of kilometres from Koregaon.
Police are expecting 4-5 lakh visitors Tuesday. And as dusk fell at Perne Phata, about 5,000 people, from Nagpur, Akola, Bhandara and elsewhere, were setting up threadbare bedding. As 2019 dawns, they will line up and enter the bedecked memorial area. “Babasaheb told us to salute those who overthrew the Peshwai, and now we must salute the continuing fight of the victims of Bhima Koregaon,” says Jagruti Ingle, 48, who has come all the way from Akola.