As lakhs of Dalits gathered in the city to attend an event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, there were violent clashes between Dalit and Maratha groups, resulting in the death of at least one person and injuries to several others.
The main event at the Jay-stambh (victory memorial) at Bhima Koregaon was largely peaceful but clashes were reported from neighbouring villages. Police said an unrelated incident in the nearby village of Vadhu Budruk last week, in which a case had been registered against upper caste Marathas, could have triggered the clashes.
According to the police, more than five lakh people, mainly from the Dalit community, had assembled in Pune this year for the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, in which British forces had defeated an army of Peshwas on January 1, 1818. Every year on January 1, thousands of Dalits march to the Jaystambh (victory memorial) at Bhima Koregaon, about 30 km northeast of Pune, to mark the occasion. There have been no records of any violent incident at these commemorations in the previous years. This year, however, tension had been prevailing in areas around Bhima Koregaon because of a different dispute.
On December 29, a board had been found erected near a structure believed to be the tomb of Govind Gopal Mahar in Vadhu Budruk village, about 5 km from Bhima Koregaon. The board said Mahar had defied the orders of Mughal king Aurangzeb and performed the last rites of Maratha king Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj after he was killed by Aurangzeb in 1689. Mahar is a Dalit community. Local Marathas, however, believe that it was their ancestors who had performed the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj.
The Marathas along with the gram panchayat authorities took an objection to the board, saying it was mentioning false history having no documented evidence. It led to a quarrel between the two communities, the police said. On the same day, an offence was registered by Dalit activists against 49 persons of Vadhu Budruk village under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, for damaging the board, police said. The gram panchayat of Vadhu Budruk also reportedly filed a cross complaint with the police in the matter.
However, at the intervention of police and local leaders, the two sides agreed to withdraw the complaints and settle the case. Jaysingh Bhandare, the Police Patil, issued appeals to villagers asking them to maintain peace, in view of the large number of people that were expected to turn up at Bhima Koregaon for the anniversary event. It was expected that at least some of the people visiting the ‘Jaystambh’ would visit the tomb of Govind Mahar in Vadhu Budruk as well.
Security forces had been deployed in Vadhu Budruk and other locations to deal with any unpleasant situation. But since Monday morning, a mob of a few hundred, comprising mainly of people from Maratha community, had gathered in Vadhu Budruk, the police said. It is suspected that most of them came following appeals on social media. Dalit groups were also coming in to the village.
A local villager said there were incidents of slogan shouting in the morning but no violence. By afternoon, however, clashes were reported from Koregaon Bhima and also in nearby villages of Sanaswadi, Shikrapur and some other places. About hundred vehicles were damaged and a few others, including a fire tender and a police vehicle, were set on fire. Huge police force was deployed at places where violence was reported.
Inspector General of Police Vishwas Nangare Patil and District Superintendent of Police Suvez Haque were handling the situation on the ground. On the orders of the district administration, mobile phone jammers had been activated to prevent the spread of rumours. One person, identified as Rahul Phatangale (28) of Sanaswadi, was reported killed in an attack by a mob. An offence of murder was lodged at Shikrapur police station. One among those injured was known to be critical.
The state Director General of Police, Satish Mathur confirmed the death but said an investigation was being conducted into the sequence of events leading to it. “The incidents of violence took place at multiple locations. Senior officers are monitoring the situation. One police vehicle has been burnt and the total number vehicles that have been damaged is yet to be confirmed. Tear gas and lathicharge was resorted to in order to control the situation some locations,” he said.
Events at the Jay-stambh area were largely peaceful but there was panic and unrest for sometime as smoke emerging from torched vehicles and tyres was visible.