As people in many parts of India celebrated the New Year on January 1, the Dalits in Maharashtra marched in Koregaon to commemorate the 201st anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle. Owing to the political slugfest that followed after last year’s celebrations, this time as many as 10 lakh visitors gathered at Pune’s Jay Stambh memorial amidst tight security. While this event is considered as a milestone in Dalit History, it only came to limelight last year when the celebrations turned into violence after Right-wing members attacked the peaceful gathering.
The incident didn’t cool off and it turned ugly with the ruling BJP party and the opposition using it to further their attacks on each other. The government went as far as to arrest noted activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, and P Varavara Rao without any warrants under colonial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
What is Bhima- Koregaon Battle about?
Bhima Koregaon is a small village situated on the left bank of Bhima River, 28 km northeast of the city of Pune. About two centuries ago, this ordinary village witnessed a historic battle between the British Indian Army and the massive Peshwa army, which is why it is considered as a Battle between British India and the Marathi Peshwa. In reality, this was a battle between the lower caste ‘Mahars’ and the upper caste ruling ‘Brahmins’; it was about the Mahars defeating the Brahmins despite all the odds.
In 1818, the ‘Mahars’ rose to the ‘Brahmins’ after millennia of subjugation, dehumanization, and humiliation. Their out-staging the grand and massive Peshwa army was nothing less than a miraculous feat. This is what is celebrated by the Dalits and Ambedkarites on 1st of every year; but something untoward unfolded on January 1, 2018.
What happened on January 1, 2018?
To celebrate the 200th anniversary, a large number of supporters gathered (Bahujan and Dalit groups) and organized a public conference in the name of Elgar Parishad at Shaniwar Wada. The assembly of Dalit groups and organizations marking the victory of ‘Mahars’ over ‘Brahmins’ was opposed vehemently by the Right-wing Hindutva groups. The narrative was modified as the Hindutva groups opposing the celebration of ‘the British rule’ defeating an ‘Indian Peshwa army’ which was considered or seen as glorifying colonialism. Arguments between these opposing groups took an ugly turn leading to stone pelting; this escalated to a lot of violence and vandalism.
How have the police investigated this vandalism and violence?
After much investigation, the Pune police established that the Bhima-Koregaon violence was, in fact, a part of a larger conspiracy of assassinating the Prime Minister and inciting a Maoist uprising. Subsequently, the police also arrested many human rights activists under the preventive (instead of punitive law) Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. UAPA has been infamously used by the Indian government to threaten Maoist sympathizers or activists by arresting them without due process. The ‘draconian’ nature of UAPA has ensured that it has become an easy tool at the disposal of the state to exercise absolute power with impunity, rendering the ‘people’ powerless. On August 28, Pune police conducted a coordinated arrest across six cities arresting five activists. Navlakha received a stay from Delhi High Court while the others were transferred to Pune.
The intelligentsia (journalists, academician, and activists) has raised its eyebrows on the changing narrative of the Pune Police. The initial story blamed two right-wing leaders for instigating people by delivering anti-Dalit speeches, and yet after four months, they found ‘incriminating evidence’ in the form of documents against these activists who were not even physically present at the event. The story does not seem to hold much water according to most Indian intellectuals. Romila Thapar along with Prabhat Patnaik, Devki Jain, Satish Deshpande, and Maja Daruwala filed a Public Interest Litigation seeking a Special Investigation Team (SIT) probe in the case which was denied by the Supreme Court. On August 29, the Supreme court provided some relief to the five activists by preventing arrests and putting them under house arrest by quoting —‘dissent is the safety valve of democracy’. This was definitely a positive step because the UAPA allows detention of the accused of up to six months without any charges (which can be renewed), and for 30 days in police custody. After about a month, the Supreme Court extended the period of house arrest for these activists and clarified that the SC will closely observe the case because ‘liberty cannot be sacrificed at the altar of conjectures’
The way forward
The arrests have been condemned throughout the country. At the same time, the Dalit groups find themselves disempowered because of lack of justice and the counter-narrative that is being spread about an event as landmark as the Bhima-Koregaon Battle. The arrests inevitably raise the question of ‘Right to assemble’ and celebrate a cultural and historical event along with the ‘Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression’ and the ‘Right to dissent’.
The debate is not primarily about the guilt or the innocence of those who are charged with links with the Maoists. The debate is multi-faceted as it addresses questions about –
All this and more must be addressed and contemplated by the lawmakers of the country.