ANGRY Dalits hit the streets in Mumbai, Pune and at least nine districts across Maharashtra Tuesday alleging they were targeted in clashes that broke out the previous day.
The violence came in the wake of the death of a 30-year-old Maratha youth and injuries to several persons in clashes that broke out in villages around Bhima Koregaon near Pune on the 200th anniversary of the battle between British forces, including Mahar troops, and the Peshwa army.
With Dalit groups calling for a statewide bandh Wednesday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis ordered a judicial probe “by a sitting judge” into Monday’s clashes. Later, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh spoke to Fadnavis about the situation.
The violence also triggered a political firestorm in Delhi with the BSP seeking a discussion in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday and Congress president Rahul Gandhi alleging that the vision of RSS and BJP was to see that Dalits “remain at the bottom” of society.
“A central pillar of the RSS/BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohith Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance,” the Congress president tweeted.
Reacting sharply, BJP spokesperson GVL Rao tweeted: “Rahul G, You have focused only on Dalit votes for 60 years while in power & Not progress. PM @narendramodi ji is focusing on development, promoting them as entrepreneurs. Shame on you @OfficeofRG for petty politics! Time for you to apologise on your family’s & party’s behalf.”
But BJP sources said the party was “concerned”, particularly because Dalit leaders like Jignesh Mevani, who won the election in Gujarat, have marked their presence in Bhima-Koregaon. Mevani was one of the speakers at the Elgaar Parishad, one of the main events organised last week to commemorate the battle.
“This suggests a deepening of caste fault lines. This is not good for us and highlights the increasing challenge for the BJP to use our promise of vikas (development) to paper over this fault line,” said a BJP MP from Maharashtra. The BJP has directed Saroj Pande, its general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, to attend a review meeting of the state unit on January 4.
According to state police, protests were also held in Kolhapur, Parbhani, Latur, Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Hingoli, Kolhapur, Nanded and Thane.
Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar alleged that Hindutva outfits were behind Monday’s attacks. “If there was any tension between Maratha and Dalits, the event at Bhima Koregaon could not have been held. The Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha outfit, was among those who organised the event at Bhima Koregaon,” he said.
Police filed a criminal case at the Pimpri station near Pune against two pro-Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote of Samast Hindu Aghadi, and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, under IPC sections for attempt to murder, rioting and sections of the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Sangli-based Bhide (85), an ardent follower of Chhatrapati Shivaji, has a significant youth following across the state. Pune-based Ekbote (60) is a former corporator with several cases of breach of preventive orders registered against him. His activists are known to have intercepted hundreds of vehicles carrying cows.
Ekbote said the case against him was “completely false”. An office-bearer from Bhide’s organisation said that “Bhide Guruji has been falsely implicated and has nothing to do with the issue”.
Monday marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon in which 800 British troops held off a 30,000-strong Maratha army led by Peshwa Baji Rao II. The British forces included the second battalion of the first regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry, which included soldiers from the Mahar community. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visit to Bhima Koregaon has led to the memorial site being called Shaurya Bhoomi by Dalit activists.
State-owned buses bore the brunt of the Dalit protesters’ ire with 11 buses of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) and the Pune Municipal Parivahan Mahamandal Limited (PMPML) damaged. In Mumbai, 20 buses of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) were damaged.
In Mumbai’s Chembur, protesters kept parts of the Eastern Express Highway closed to traffic until late in the evening. While attempting to stop the violence, 35-year-old police constable Deepak Khedekar sustained a tear in his cornea when a glass shard pierced his eye. He underwent surgery in a suburban private hospital, but doctors said he may lose vision partly or entirely, and may need a cornea transplant.
In Pune city, incidents of stone pelting on buses were reported from some areas while a curfew was imposed in the Bhima-Koregaon area for most of the day.
Maharashtra DGP Satish Mathur said: “We have made elaborate arrangements to keep the situation under control in view of the bandh call. Extra forces have been kept on standby. Some areas have been identified where Internet services could be suspended so that people don’t spread rumours on social media. Regulatory orders, including section 37 of the Maharashtra (Bombay) Police Act and Section 144 of CrPC, can also be used if the situation demands.”
Meanwhile, political echoes of the violence echoed at the state and Centre with AICC general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, Mohan Prakash, claiming that “wherever the BJP is in power, its supporters and RSS execute such actions when events related to Dalit pride are organised”.
Former Maharashtra chief minister and Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan blamed the “complete failure” of the BJP state government.
“I am concerned over whether there was a deliberate attempt to cause a law-and-order situation by certain forces. I think it is the failure of the Chief Minister. He should have personally monitored (the situation). It is the complete failure of the state government’s law-and-order machinery,” said Chavan.
Fadnavis said, “Every year, about 15,000 people assemble at the memorial. But this year the crowd was 3.5 lakh strong. Six battalions of police force were deployed, four of them placed at strategic points. As a result, despite attempts to trigger violence and riots, it was immediately curbed and major incident averted.”
The Chief Minister also said that the CID will probe the death of the youth, identified as Rahul Phatangade, and that a compensation of Rs 10 lakh would be handed over to his family.