As police make their second round of arrests and claim Maoist links in a case whose dotted lines go back to an event on this day in Pune, The Indian Express on the Elgaar Parishad and why it has come to matter.
Organised to commemorate 200 years of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, 1818, when a Mahar regiment of the British Army held off the Peshwa forces on the banks of the Bhima, the Elgaar Parishad’s invocation of a “New Peshwai”, or “contemporary oppressors”, had struck a deep chord. For days preceding the event on December 31, 2017 — held pointedly within the ramparts of the Shaniwarwada, a symbol of Peshwa rule — social media had been agog as lakhs of Dalit youngsters had vouched support. Coming after a year of muscle-flexing by upper-caste Marathas seeking a dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act among other demands, this was exhilarating — days of planning, a slow burn on social media, posters, WhatsApp groups planning the trip to Pune, followed by the pilgrimage to the obelisk marking the site of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.
Eight months later, on August 28, the Maharashtra Police conducted its second round of arrests in connection with an FIR originally lodged to investigate allegations of hate speech at the Elgaar Parishad, rounding up human rights activists and lawyers. As part of its probe, it has accused the organisers of the Elgaar Parishad of, variously, having links with Maoists, of being an “anti-fascist front”, and alleged a plot against the government, plans to build on the chaos that emerged after the Bhima Koregaon violence, and a conspiracy to buy arms and ammunition.
An FIR was filed within days of the meeting, with the government accusing the Parishad for the violence that followed in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018. Bhima Koregaon continued to experience violence on January 2, even as anger spread to Pune and nearby areas. As Dalit anger exploded against what the community perceived as being a planned and systematic attack against those visiting Bhima Koregaon, Prakash Ambedkar of the Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh called for a bandh. On January 3, there were incidents of violence reported from Mumbai and Pune, with sporadic incidents in other cities too as Dalits enforced the bandh. As many as 622 cases were filed in subsequent days.
In all that has followed since, including the police probe that now encompasses seven states and eight cities, the organisers, speakers and participants of the Elgaar Parishad see an attempt to muddy their “hugely successful” event, attracting a crowd of 25,000 people — one that inspired even the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and other Opposition parties to organise something on similar lines, a ;Save The Constitution’ rally, on Republic Day a few weeks later.
Denying any covert or overt nexus with Maoists, Justice (Retired) B G Kolse Patil who, along with Justice (Retired) P B Sawant, was among the chief convenors of the Elgaar Parishad, says there is no question of any shady source of funds. “The Maharashtra Institute of Technology (MIT) had planned a function at the same venue the next morning. They had made beautiful arrangements complete with a stage and provided chairs. We used the same logistics. So where is the question of huge expenditure?” he claims.
Having retired from the high court in the 1990s, Justice Patil has been involved in various people’s movements since, including against land acquisition for SEZs, is the president of the Pune-based Lokshasan Andolan, founded along with Justice Sawant, and has been a vocal opponent of the RSS. After the 2006 Khairlanji massacre of a Dalit family, he had been part of a fact-finding team of citizens’ representatives.
A retired Supreme Court judge, Justice Sawant has helmed several independent inquiry commissions, including a citizens’ ‘tribunal’ on the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Besides the two judges, the other main organisers were the Republican Panthers Jatiantachi Chalwal, or ‘movement to end casteism’, whose president Sudhir Dhawale was arrested in June as part of the Elgaar Parishad FIR, on the charge of having links with Maoists.
Also a key influencer of the event was Prakash Ambedkar, whose Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh has sizeable hold amongst dalits and OBCs in the part of Vidarbha and Marathwada. However, it has not been able to convert the same into electoral gains. Ambedkar ridicules allegations of Maoist funding. “Everything was in public gaze. Let them prove their allegations. The total expenditure was not more than Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000.”
While the delegates came at their own expense, the participants that numbered over 260 pitched in with material help, the organisers say. Many of these are organically related entities, partners in other campaigns ranging from anti-globalisation to tribal land rights. The Republican Panthers had been campaigning against the ‘New Peshwai’ at gatherings for the last couple of years, for example. The Elgaar, a call to people to “unite and fight”, was sparked off by these groups.
As part of the run-up to the December 31, 2017, event, state-wide tours were held to marshal support from Dalit communities in every corner of the state. One of the last stops was Khairlanji in Bhandara, the site of the 2006 Dalit killing. When the ‘Khairlanji to Koregaon Prerna March’ arrived here, members of the Samata Kala Manch (a group of performers) gathered on a dark night, wearing hoodies and mufflers, their drum beats raising the temperature: “Azadi from the RSS, azadi from gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes), azadi from Manuvad, azadi from the rule of saffron”, they chanted in Marathi and Hindi.
Vira Sathidar, left activist and more recently known for his role in Marathi film Court, was present. One Samata Kala Manch member who attended the Khairlanji meeting said Sathidar spoke briefly about what the coinage ‘New Peshwai’ means. “He said the Bhima Koregaon battle was fought by Mahars and other caste members, so the battle against the New Peshwai is not casteist, but one against caste-based oppression,” says the artiste.
That day on December 31, 2017, apart from a multitude of Dalit organisations, the Elgaar Parishad also included several Maratha and OBC groups as well as Muslim organisations, as it was seen as a multi-community front against the New Peshwai.
At a time when a poll-bound BJP is trying to woo Dalits — with one of its planks being getting the court to revoke dilution of the SC/ST Act — the recent arrests, raids and subsequent outrage among activists and Dalit groups could backfire on it in Maharashtra, say Dalit leaders. It could also end up rallying the various factions of Ambedkarites under Prakash Ambedkar.
Prakash Ambedkar’s sister is married to Anand Teltumbde, who was raided on August 28 as part of the Elgaar Parishad FIR.
Former CM and Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan says police have to explain their actions with foolproof evidence. “At present it appears that these raids are part of diversionary tactics. Also, the larger question is what further action have they taken against the Sanatan Sanstha?” he says. “Is the state government under pressure from top leaders?”
A series of recent arrests by the Maharashtra and Karnataka police into the killings of rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar and journalist Gauri Lankesh have unveiled a plot to carry out blasts by members who have overt or covert links with the Sanstha, a right-wing Hindu outfit.
Ramdas Athawale, the president of the Republican Party of India, who is the biggest Dalit leader in the state and an ally of the BJP, says he doesn’t see the Elgaar Parishad as any marked assertion by Dalits, or as an RPI versus Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh contest. The community’s confidence in the RPI remains intact, he claims. “Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar taught us to fight for our right and dignity. But he also emphasised on non-violence. I supported Prakash Ambedkar’s bandh, making the Dalit cause a common one. But violence… cannot be justified,” the Union Minister of State for Social Justice told The Sunday Express.
BJP leaders say the Elgaar Parishad aimed at drumming up sentiments against the ruling government. Senior BJP leader Madhav Bhandari believes the problem is that the Congress-NCP and Left parties cannot reconcile to the BJP’s coming to power at the Centre and in various states. “The inclusive politics and development plank of the government at the Centre and state, which have helped it earn goodwill, has shaken the Opposition, which has constantly taken to streets through various agitations to create instability,” he says.
But senior political commentator and former Shiv Sena MP Bharatkumar Raut notes that the raids could also be a well-calculated gamble by the BJP government at a time when the Maratha agitation is seeing the Congress-NCP trying to regain their base in Marathwada and Western Maharashtra. “The possibility of the BJP using these raids to consolidate its own right-wing vote bank by fuelling an anti-Left campaign cannot be ruled out.”
At Shaniwarwada on December 31 last year, the crowds had began to trickle in for early seats by 2 pm, with the event kicked off with a cultural programme, the Vidrohi Shahiri Jalsa, an act by the revolutionary “shahirs”. The lok-shahirs of Maharashtra are bards who keep alive a traditional form of political poetry and song.
“Jai-jai-jai-jai Jai Bhim”, the strident call marked the start of the proceedings, before performers went on to ask about achche din, lampoon “vikas purush” Prime Minister Narendra Modi, present witticisms on go-mutra or cow urine, and castigate the mainstream mass media.
Activists of the Kabir Kala Manch and Samata Kala Manch performed, as seen in videos of the event, including the song “Gadoon taka Peshwai ra (Bury the Peshwai)”. The crowds were delirious, says a Samata Kala Manch member. Leading the song was Sagar Gorkhe, who spent three years in jail after being arrested along with other members of the Kabir Kala Manch in 2011 on charges that the cultural group was a Maoist organisation. All those arrested were granted bail later. Also arrested then was Angela Sontakke, accused of being a CPI-Maoist central committee member and alleged to have indoctrinated the Kabir Kala Manch youngsters. Sontakke was released on bail by the Supreme Court in 2016. She had been booked by the ATS in 18 cases, was acquitted in 14, discharged in two and granted bail in one.
According to sources, letters produced on Friday by Additional DG (Law and Order) Parambir Singh as evidence of a conspiracy by Maoist groups refer to several themes that were prosecution claims in the Kabir Kala Manch and Sontakke arrests — that the ‘Golden Corridor Committee’ of the banned CPI-Maoist was working on spreading the idea of armed rebellion in urban areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra, and that it was focusing on youngsters and students to participate in insurgency. In the January 8 FIR filed on the basis of a complaint by a Pune-based activist, the first complaint filed against the Elgaar Parishad event, Sagar and others are named as accused.
A later performance at the event was by Bombay Lokal, a hip-hop group from Mumbai suburbs Vasai and Nallasopara, who rap in Hindi. “We did two songs. There was chaos as a lot of the crowds were not able to get inside,” recalls Aamir Shaikh, the frontman. He was invited by the Republican Panthers, whom he had met and befriended through previous events, he says. “I’ve wanted my art to be political commentary… That’s how I met other performers including folk artistes, other groups and activists at previous events,” he adds, while calling the recent arrests “appalling and enraging”.
By evening, the main speakers were on stage — Radhika Vemula, the mother of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student who committed suicide; Rohith’s collegemate from University of Hyderabad Dontha Prashanth; Bhim Army chief Vinay Ratan Singh; controversial Chhattisgarh tribal activist Soni Sori; Prakash Ambedkar; Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani; JNU student leader Umar Khalid; and activist-actor Vira Sathidar.
Videos show that Justice Kolse Patil spoke of the dangers of Manuvad, of the murders of rationalists M M Kalburgi and Dabholkar. Almost all speakers took on PM Modi directly. Umar Khalid spoke of the surprise denting of Modi-Amit Shah in then just-concluded Gujarat Assembly elections. “The RSS and fascist regime is not only anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim. Democracy and humanity are in danger,” he said. “In Rajasthan, a Muslim was assaulted and murdered, and the murderer proudly made a video of the attack. The RSS says that was the act of a mentally sick individual. The name of that disease is Sanghvaad.”
Mevani named top industrialists as representatives of ‘Brahmanwad’ and the ‘New Peshwai’. “If we want to win against New Peshwai, if we want to take the battle of Bhima Koregaon forward, be inspired by that struggle, then it won’t happen through elections. Caste oppression will end on the streets,” he said.
While the January 8 FIR mentions inflammatory speeches at the event, Additional DG Parambir Singh, when asked about these at a press conference, said the speeches that may have incited the January 1 violence, if any, remain under investigation.
The event, scheduled to end at 8 pm, wound down just past 10 pm, the closing act a collective oath-taking by the thousands who gathered to protect the Constitution.
“It was the most democratic event,” says Dontha Prashanth, who also spoke that day. “These organisations are fighting for the annihilation of caste, an objective mentioned in the Constitution, so there could be nothing unconstitutional in the speeches…Those who organised and plotted the attacks on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon remain untouched while Dalits continue to be persecuted.”
The violence in Bhima Koregaon over the next two days, was not a result of anything spoken on the Shaniwarwada stage, says Justice Kolse Patil. “All of us took oath not to vote for the BJP till our death.”
However, he asserted, the Parishad is not associated with any mainstream party, “neither the Congress nor the NCP or the others”.
Organisers claim the team that put together the Elgaar Parishad event is defunct, but the 25,000 people representing 260 groups across India who participated are determined to continue their work.
How it all happened?
December 29, 2017: A signboard belittling Marathas is found at the tomb of Govind Mahar, who is believed to have defied Aurangzeb and carried out the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj, in Vadhu Budruk, close to Bhima Koregaon.
December 30: Milind Ekbote of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi distributes pamphlets in Bhima Koregaon protesting about the gathering of Dalits in the village on January 1 every year.
December 31: Elgaar Parishad held at Shaniwarwada in Pune.
January 1, 2018: Dalits visiting the memorial in Bhima Koregaon say they were attacked in a planned manner.
January 3: Complaints filed against Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide are transferred to Pune Rural Police. A bandh is called by Prakash Ambedkar.
January 25: Police invoke Section 120 (b) against Ekbote for being party to a criminal conspiracy.
February 6: A Pune court issues arrest warrant against Ekbote. He gets interim bail from the Supreme Court.
March 13: CM Fadnavis announces that cases against those booked in the violence will be withdrawn, but history-sheeters will face action.
March 14: Pune Rural Police arrest Ekbote from his residence in Pune, hours after his bail is cancelled by SC.
June 6: Pune police arrest five activists for their alleged links to Naxals.
August 28: Pune police move against five activists/ lawyers