For five days now, people in Vudhu Budruk village, about 30 km northeast of Pune, have been living amidst heavy police presence.
Because it was here that the spark was lit on December 29, leading to violent clashes between Dalits and Marathas — the removal of a board placed at the samadhi of a 17th century Dalit who, according to Mahar accounts, defied Emperor Aurangzeb’s orders and carried out the last rites of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s son who was tortured to death in 1689.
The samadhi or tomb of Govind Gopal (Mahar) Gaikwad is near the complex which has the samadhi of Sambhaji Maharaj. On the night of December 28, local residents say, a board was placed at the samadhi of Gaikwad which described him as the one who had gone against Aurangzeb to carry out the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj.
The next day, the board was removed, and a concrete umbrella-like structure over the samadhi was found damaged. The Dalits blamed it on the Marathas who maintain that their ancestors, and not Gaikwad, carried out the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj. The Marathas felt that the board was a Dalit attempt to “distort history”.
This, according to local accounts, led to a “quarrel”. Many slogans were raised and abuses hurled but there was no physical assault.
Sushma Ovhal, a 27-year-old woman who was visiting her brother Panda Gaikwad in the village, filed a police complaint against 49 people, including village sarpanch Rekha Shivale, deputy sarpanch Sanjay Shivale, and former sarpanch Sunita Bhandare, under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, for damaging the board, the umbrella, desecration of the samadhi and for making “casteist comments”. The last line of her complaint also named Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote. But the police FIR did not mention Ekbote.
Ramakant Shivale, a Maratha, filed a counter-complaint the same day, claiming that the Dalits had threatened them with retaliation on January 1 when lakhs of Dalits were expected to be in the area to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle in which Mahar troops, under British command, took on the army of the Peshwa.
A truce was called the same day. But the spark had been lit — it was this “quarrel” which is said to have triggered the violence on January 1.
In Vudhu Budruk, which is about 5 km from Bhima Koregaon, life is limping back to normal with both communities deciding to take back police complaints against each other — seven persons from the Maratha community had been arrested earlier.
“There has never been any caste conflict in the village, which is known for the samadhi of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj. Whatever has happened in the last few days was because of misunderstanding,” Prafull Shivale, a Maratha and former sarpanch of the village, said.
The Dalits, who are vastly outnumbered in this village, are reluctant to talk freely about the incidents, though they corroborate the sequence of events. Panda Gaikwad said the community was right in filing the police case. “We have agreed to take back the complaint and compromise only because we have had good relations with our friends (Marathas) so far, and we do not want to spoil that. We have been living together for many years,” he said.
On Tuesday, when state minister Deepak Kesarkar had come visiting, Gaikwad had told him that “injustice” had been done to the Dalit community and requested that the government re-build the damaged samadhi. Gaikwad also contested the Maratha claim that the samadhi had been constructed only a couple of years ago, and said it had existed for many years and had been recently renovated. He, however, refused to comment on the involvement of Ekbote.
Shivale, the former deputy sarpanch, however, maintained that the Dalit narrative on Gaikwad performing the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj was without basis. “Our king was killed and cut into pieces by Aurangzeb. It was us, the Shirkes (the ancestors of ‘Shivale’, which means person who ‘stitched’ the chopped pieces of Sambhaji Maharaj before the last rites), who had performed the last rites as per Hindu tradition,” he said.
Shivale claimed that Gaikwad was only a caretaker of Sambhaji Maharaj’s samadhi. “There is no evidence to show that Govind Mahar had conducted the last rites. So the villagers who saw the board showing wrong history, removed it on December 29 morning to avoid further tension. There was no intention to hurt anybody’s sentiments. And no outsider was involved here. Whether Dalits or Marathas, we are all friends and have been living together for years. So we have settled the dispute between us,” he said.