By Shatakshi Gawade
Bhima-Koregaon, Maharashtra: By the time I reached Bhima-Koregaon on January 2, the riot was more than a day old and new year resolutions were forgotten. Members of the Dalit community who had come to the village on New Year’s day to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon were attacked, allegedly by Hindutva activists.
The Koregaon battle was won by a unit of the British East India Company, which included Mahars (Dalits) in majority, against the Peshwas in the year 1818. The win is associated with Dalit pride, as this was the first time they collectively rose against what represented the upper caste.
The provocation on January 1 led to violent clashes, resulting in the death of a 28-year-old Dalit youth.
My only memory of the place, just 30 km from my home city Pune, was of a hearty meal I had there during a river journey, while working on a story. I had even fonder memories of Vadhu, where I had a peaceful night in the home of a local, who welcomed me without any questions of caste. Ganpat Gaikwad, a Mahar, had conducted the last rites of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son Sambhaji Maharaj in defiance of Aurangzeb’s orders here. The evening’s programme in Vadhu went by in a genial rush of discussion on river conservation and spirituality with men and women, not Marathas or Dalits.
The riot was as much a surprise for the residents of Bhima-Koregaon. A Maratha family who had rented out space to a Dalit shopkeeper was speechless. “We have never seen such violence. There wasn’t even any stress between the two communities before this,” they said, requesting not to be named.
The day after the riot, all shops in Bhima-Koregaon remained shut. Phone networks were jammed, obstructing my work. My newsroom struggled to get in touch with me for updates.
There were cops at every 200 metres on the road. They were chatting or strolling around, some were playing games on their phones, and some had just dozed off. It had been a very long three days for some of the units, but they were out patrolling and keeping a sharp eye on movements.
By the evening, an uneasy calm prevailed and people started venturing out. Some stood in little groups and spoke in hushed tones. Each and every facility, down to milk, had not been available that day. Charred vehicles lay by the side of the road, and the smell of burning rubber, metal and plastic pervaded the air. ATMs, restaurants, homes and a flour mill had been set ablaze. A fire brigade stood by the side of the road, itself half mangled in fire. The operators had run into the sugarcane field to save themselves when a 200-strong mob tried to attack them.
A reporter friend who visited the town the next day, on January 3, when Maharashtra bandh was in place, spoke of the deep apprehensions of residents of the Dalit basti. “There are only 17 odd houses in this basti, the rest are Maratha homes. It was very clear that the Dalit families were uneasy,” she said. “I happened to be the first reporter to have talked to them.”
Meanwhile, the bandh engulfed Pune. I was glad to have topped up the petrol in my two-wheeler, seeing that petrol pumps were shutting shop as the day progressed. The protests peaked only in the afternoon.
The day began as any other, but soon buses weren’t plying and shops had pulled down their shutters for fear of losses. Protesters in groups of hundreds, some part of gangs on motorcycles, all waving blue flags and shouting slogans, made sure that any pump open was closed down. They gleefully used keys to deflate the tyres of city and state transport buses. They made passengers climb down, inconveniencing them drastically. The few hours that buses and cab aggregators didn’t ply were gold for autorickshaw-drivers. Fortunately, buses started plying again by evening.
However, the protest was nonviolent even at its peak. Some protesters believed that the act was preplanned and even claimed to have videos to prove it. The street outside the home of Samast Hindu Aghadi’s Milind Ekbote, accused of instigating the violence during the war anniversary celebrations, must have heard the loudest roar. Protesters used the choicest of slurs here, sharp enough to make one’s ears bleed.
Some agitators, who themselves had begun their walk to Ekbote’s house with a vow to finish him, were making sure the situation did not get out of control. There were repeated appeals to stop swearing, to calm down and just move on down the road. Even while emptying buses, some of them walked up to the drivers and apologized for the trouble. “Sorry brother, we know you’re just doing your duty,” one activist said, as he shook the worried bus driver’s hand.
Later, when I was trying to get a statement from one of the activists, I was surrounded by Bhim Sainiks. “How do we know you’re not RSS? Show us your ID,” they demanded. I produced it, but not before pausing to internalise the depth of their anger.
All through the reporting, I found that their main demand was the end of atrocities against the Bahujan Samaj and punishment to perpetrators of the violence on January 1. Under the shade of Vijay Stambh, the victory tower erected by the British in memory of soldiers who died in the battle, Dalits spilled on to the streets with memories of centuries of injustice. “We demand end to this torment!” they cried.
(Shatakshi Gawade is a freelance reporter who writes on environment, rights and culture. She is also a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)