The Bhima Koregaon case is all set to be a royal political battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the troika of the Maharashtra government. This was clearly visible in the slap in the face of the National Investigation Agency as Pune police this week flatly refused to hand them any documents pertaining to the case and the officers had to be content with the provisional charge sheet which was already in the public domain.
Ostensibly, Pune police were awaiting sanction from the Director-General of Police to release their investigation to the NIA. In reality, the Maharashtra government is highly miffed at not being consulted by the Centre, as per protocol, before handing over the case to the NIA and is likely to stall the NIA every step of the way.
Ever since violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018 at the commemoration of the victory of Mahars over the Peshwas 200 years ago, the then BJP-led government in Maharashtra had labelled activists working with tribals as “urban Naxals" and the state police were accused to have manufactured evidence against them.
A dozen activists, including lawyers and professors, who had little to do with the Elgar Parishad meeting that preceded the rioting in Bhima Koregaon, were arrested and put behind bars with little evidence to substantiate the claims that they were conspiring against the state. The opposition in the state, which at the time included the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, had then alleged that the riot was state-sponsored and an attempt to set the Maratha community against the Dalits when the core battle 200 years ago had actually been between Peshwa Brahmins and Mahars, the caste to which Dr B R Ambefjar belonged, fighting for the British army.
For 199 years, the Mahars gathered peacefully at the memorial to take pride in their victory without any incident. But prior to the 2018 gathering, Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide and a former BJP corporator Milind Ekbote, were caught on video inciting the riots. Bhide, who is regarded as PM Narendra Modi's guru, however, was shielded and protected by then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis (though Ekbote was arrested) and no action was taken against him and he was not charged despite plentiful evidence of his complicity.
Both Congress and the NCP have been calling for justice to the victims while the Shiv Sena, which was part of the earlier government too, has been largely silent, then as well as now.
However, among the first actions of the current government was to withdraw the Bhima Koregaon cases in principle - 71 of them – which would have taken up to a year to complete formalities and withdraw them from the court.
In the meantime NCP president Sharad Pawar wrote a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, calling for a Special Investigation Team to reinvestigate the case. Within hours the Union Home Ministry decided to hand the case over to the NIA after previously having stated that Pune police were competent to investigate the case.
Now with the Pune Police refusing to hand over the case to the NIA, battle lines are drawn between the state and the Centre which is already faced with a petition in the Supreme Court by the Chhattisgarh government challenging the jurisdiction of the NIA investigating cases within the states' domain.
Technically the NIA will have to approach the special NIA court in Mumbai for its intervention which, however, will have to appeal to a local court in Pune for the handover of the documents.
But with Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh having stated they were seeking legal advice against NIA’s intervention, the issue is likely to take a political colour with now even the Communist Party stating that the Bhima Koregaon case was built on falsehoods and that the Centre had much to hide in the matter.
The political battle is for both Dalit and Maratha votes, which shifted in substantial numbers to the BJP between 2014 and 2019. The assembly results, however, showed a disillusionment of these communities with the BJP and their vote is substantial enough and essential for the Congress and NCP to marginalise the BJP.
If reinvestigation by the Maharashtra government establishes the falsehoods and helps to release the interred activists, the BJP is likely to lose not just votes but even their face and might find it difficult to build bridges with these two communities again who have been traditionally opposed to Brahminical domination, in the state.
In fact, the BJP might already have lost the advantage. The Maharashtra troika, including the Shiv Sena have shown good intention and the union government’s hasty move has only reinforced their malice. Their knee jerk reaction has helped the Maharashtra government to win half the battle. Of perception and of votes.