In a first, no Dalit rally at Bhima Koregaon on January 1

While people are allowed to visit the victory pillar at Bhima Koregaon and the tombs of Sambhaji and Govind Gaikwad, police have turned down pleas for holding rallies

In a first, no Dalit rally at Bhima Koregaon on January 1

Zaheeb Ajmal

For the first time in several years, Bhima Koregaon village, 20 Kilometres from Pune, may not witness on New Year’s Day the traditional rally by Dalits to commemorate a British victory over the Marathas in 1818. Following widespread violence that broke out last year on January 1, Maharashtra Government and Pune Police are taking no chances.

Peace meetings have been held in village after village over the past few months. Police have deployed 12 drones for aerial surveillance even as 5000 security personnel have been deployed on the route and at the village. CCTV cameras have been installed along with metal detectors. Flag marches were carried out and notices issued to known troublemakers, asking them to keep away from Bhima Koregaon. The Government has also enforced the rule that people would need permission to put up posters.

Police have also asked Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, upper caste Brahmins who are accused by Dalits to have instigated violence at Bhima Koregaon last year, to stay away from the area for 10 days beginning December 29.

Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army was not allowed to hold preparatory public meetings in Mumbai and was detained in his hotel. However, he has reached Pune but the Bombay High Court on Monday refused to pass any orders to the Pune Police to permit the Bhim Army to conduct public meetings in the city. So, what is the fuss all about?

What is the anniversary about?

The Battle of Koregaon in 1818 is of special significance for the Dalits. On 1 January 1818, 800 troops of the British Army, with Mahars (sub caste of warrior clan) predominant among them, defeated a numerically superior force of the Peshwa Baji Rao II. A victory pillar (Vijay Sthamb) was erected in Koregaon by the British, commemorating the dead soldiers.

In 1927, Dr BR Ambedkar led the first commemoration ceremony here. Since then, on 1 January every year, Buddhists and Dalits gather at Bhima Koregaon to celebrate their victory against the upper caste Peshwa regime, whom they saw as their oppressors.

What is the dispute?

Marathas have been disputing the claim of Mahars that Govind Gaikwad, a Mahar, had conducted the last rites of Maratha ruler Sambhaji  in 1689  at Vadhu Budruk, a village three kilometres from Bhima Koregaon.  Most visitors to Bhima Koregaon also visit Vadhu Budruk to pay their respect at the resting place of both Sambhaji  and Gaikwad.

What happened on January 1, 2018 ?

Several FIRs were filed after violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon, some by Dalits and others by upper caste Marathas, blaming each other for the violence. But while Pune Police is yet to file any charge sheet against Bhide and Ekbote, widely believed to be the kingpins who instigated violence, in April, June and August the police arrested 10 lawyers, activists and Dalits—calling them urban naxals and accusing them of the violence and of hatching a plan to assassinate the Prime Minister.

“The members of Kabir Kala Manch and Sudhir Dhawale (an activist from Mumbai) presented objectionable songs, gave seditious speeches and tried to create a rift in the society which resulted in the violence at Bhima Koregaon,” the police report says.

Maharashtra police led a crack-down on left-leaning activists after the violence. In June 2018, Pune police arrested Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut with alleged Maoist links for inciting riots. Later in August 2018, Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha, were picked up by Pune police in connection with a probe into the violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 1,2018.

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