The widespread violence witnessed during the last anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon could have been a dampener for people coming this year. Instead, it seems to have fanned the curiosity of many. Among the people coming in for the anniversary this year are a large number of first-timers, drawn to the annual event by the tales they have heard about the place in the last one year.
“I have been reading about this for a year now. I was very keen to come here and stand in solidarity with everyone else,” said Shobha Tayde, part of a group of 30 women from Akola, all either farm labourers or housewives. For most of the women, this is their first visit to the Jaystambh on January 1, the anniversary of a single-day stand-off between the armies of the British, comprising mainly of Dalit soldiers, and Peshwas, across the Bhima river in 1818. The Dalits view the battle as their victory over upper-caste Peshwas.
On January 1 this year, lakhs of people, mainly Dalits, had turned up at the Jaystambh, a war memorial erected by the British in Perne village, to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle, which was marred by large-scale clashes in which one person had died and several others injured.
Tayde said people like her had come to ensure that her “brothers and sisters are not attacked again”. “Our presence will ensure that our brothers and sisters are not attacked like it happened last time. There should be no injustice on our people,” she said.
Shalini Jamnik, another member of her group, said she always wanted to come but could not make it earlier. “My willpower has brought me here this time. For a long time, it was my wish to come and offer prayers at the Jaystambh. My dream has come true,” she said.
Vatasala Ingle from Ashegaon in Amravati, who claimed to be a 100 years old, said she wanted to see the ‘victory pillar’ from close and offer her prayers. “I have never visited the place before. But since last year, I have been hearing stories of this place. I decided that I must come here too,” said Ingle.
Last year, between five and eight lakh people are estimated to have come for the anniversary. This time, the numbers are likely to be slightly lower, according to police estimates, though the administration has made preparations for a gathering of about ten lakh people.
The large gathering for the anniversary is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is only in the last ten years that crowds nearing about a lakh every year have started to come for the anniversary. In earlier years, a few thousand people, or even fewer, would come.
“It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of people visiting the Jaystambh in the previous years. But I can say that in the last five years, the number of people visiting the Jaystambh has increased by about three to four times,” said Rupesh Thombre, the sarpanch of Perne village, where the Jaystambh is located.
This year, the crowds have also started coming in a bit early, from Sunday morning itself. By late afternoon on Monday, the entire ground near the Jaystambh was occupied by people. As workers decked up the Jaystambh with garlands and flowers, a festive atmosphere prevailed, and women and children wearing blue turbans took selfies. Some local artistes kept themselves busy singing songs in praise of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Many of the visitors have traversed long distances, braving an unusually cold December.
Among them is a group of 20 from Nanded district, at least half of which are first-timers. “We have come here for darshan (of the Jaystambh). But we also want to ensure that with our big presence here, nothing untoward will happen and there will be no injustice on our people like last year. There should be peace in this area… why should there be violence,” said Dinkar Damodar.
Usha A, who hails from Malegaon, said she had come here after hearing that lakhs will turn up. “I have brought books on Babasaheb. If people buy them, then it’s okay. Even if they don’t, I will have darshan and return to Malegaon happily,” she said.
Ashish Gaikwad, a member of the Vijaystambh Samiti, several pandals had been erected to accommodate the visitors. “The one in the Jaystambh area will be addressed by RPI (A) leader Ramdas Athavale. Other pandals are a kilometre or two away from the victory pillar, where other leaders will hold a rally. The timings of the rallies are not fixed,” he said.