On June 6, six months after the FIR with regards to violence at Bhima Koregaon was filed, Pune police arrested five activists – Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Surendra Gadling from Nagpur, Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai and Rona Wilson from Delhi – stating alleged links of the Elgar Parishad with Maoists. However, Ravindra Kadam, Joint Commissioner of Police, Pune, said, “Whether speeches made at Elgar caused violence or not is yet to be investigated.”
Sudhir Dhawale, one of the arrested, is the only activist whose name is mentioned in the FIR. The other four activists have no connection with Elgar and the Bhima Koregoan event. Activists and political experts say that these arrests are an attempt to tarnish the image of Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregoan battle. Linking Elgar Parishad with Maoists is a way of the BJP government to criminalise Dalit activists, so that other communities are pushed out of the movement, according to experts.
Lakhs of Dalits travel to Bhima Koregoan, 40 kms away from Pune, on January 1 every year to commemorate the Bhima Koregaon battle fought on the same date in 1818. In the battle, the British Regiment, composed of Mahar and other Bahujans defeated Peshwa Baji Rao II, a Brahmin ruler who was believed to be an oppressor of lower castes. The British built a war memorial here to establish the significance of the victory. On January 1, 1927, DR B.R. Ambedkar visited the war memorial and since then, to commemorate his visit, lakhs of Dalits visit the memorial on this date every year. 2018 was the 200th year of the battle, and hence, a huge number of people visited the memorial.
Anjum Inamdar, President, Muslim Mulnivasi Manch, and one of the organisers said, “Till last year, only Dalits would associate with the Bhima Koregoan battle. But this year, we presented the credible history of not only Mahars but Muslims, Marathas and Christians, who also fought and defeated the Peshwas. Over 260 organisations including those of Marathas, Muslims and Christians were part of the organising committee that hosted Elgar. However, since the announcement of Elgar, right-wing organisations calling it ‘anti-national’.”
Despite all the opposition, Elgar Parishad was immensely successful, with over 10,000 people gathering for it on December 31. On January 1, lakhs including participants at Elgar reached the war memorial at Bhima Koregaon where violence broke out, and many Dalits were attacked allegedly by right-wing groups.
On January 8, an FIR was lodged against seven people including Sudhir Dhawale and six other members of Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural organisation, for promoting enmity by provocative speeches on December 31, stating that it had incited the violence at Bhima Koregaon on the next day. Now, four more have been arrested, citing their connections with Maoists.
Sagar Gorakhe of Kabir Kala Manch, said, “Why did the police not lodge another FIR against these activists? Why have they added more people as the accused now? Why did they add Unlawful Activities Prevention Activities Act in the FIR that originally had only Indian Penal Code sections? This is suspicious.”
Kolse Patil added, “We don’t even know other four activists [who have been arrested now]. Sudhir Dhawale reached out to many organisations to participate in Elgar and is a Dalit activist without any history of Maoism. The arrests are efforts to tarnish success of Elgar Parishad. They want to brand Dalits as Maoists, so that other organisation will part ways. The BJP government wants to divide Bahujans who came together for the event so that there will not major opposition against them in the next elections. This is how the state is launching their election campaign.”
Santosh Shinde, President of Sambhaji Brigade, a social and political Maratha organisation that was also part of Elgar, said, “Elgar was a platform for many progressive movements against the established casteist government. At Elgar, we took an oath to not vote for the communal Bharatiya Janata Party. Arrests have been presented as if in connection with Bhima Koregaon violence. On June 8, the CID released a video of Rahul Fatangale, a Maratha youth, who was killed in the violence. This was a planned move to brand Dalit activists as Maoists and create enmity among the two communities.”
Nikhil Wagle, senior journalist and political observer, said, “Whenever Dalit movements become strong, state governments criminalise them by branding them with Naxalism. That has been the history.”
While Dalit leaders have been arrested, right-wing leaders like Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote, against whose FIRs are lodged for inciting violence at Bhima Koregoan, seem to have been spared by the Fadnavis government. The police have not arrested Bhide at all, while Ekbote has managed to get bail.