Dissent in current times: A case study of The Bhima Koregaon Violence.
Mahars vs Upper Castes
It is believed that The Mahars (now known as Dalits) faced constant humiliation and discrimination in their daily lives by the upper caste Peshwas. But, under the rule of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, The Mahars were valued for their martial skills, bravery and loyalty. The position occupied by the Mahars under Shivaji was short-lived and their status deteriorated later, under the Peshwa rulers. They were forced to wipe the very proof of their existence by a broom that was attached behind their backs and pots on their necks to collect their spit. Later, The British East India Company observed the rift between The Peshwas and The Mahars, took this opportunity, and began recruiting The Mahars as their soldiers.
Battle of Koregaon Bhima
On January 1, 1818, The Battle of Koregaon was fought between the opposing forces, The Maratha ruler Peshwa Baji Rao II and The British East India Company, with the majority of soldier being Mahars; helping their colonial masters defeat The Peshwas. To commemorate this, a victory pillar was erected at Bhima Koregaon in memory of the 22 Mahar soldiers who lost their lives in the battle. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar visited the same on its 110th anniversary.
The Elgar Parishad event was held at Shaniwarwada Fort (which was a seat of power of The Peshwas) on 31 st December, 2017, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The stage seated the organizers and speakers of the event, including Gujarat MLA Mr. Jignesh Mevani, Dalit activist Radhika Vemula, Adivasi activist Soni Sori, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, Bhim Army President Vinay Ratan Singh, retired Bombay High Court Justice BG Kholse Patil, and student leader Umar Khalid. Legend has it that when Aurangzeb killed Sambhaji Maharaj in 1689, Govind Mahar, from the Vadhu Budruk village near Bhima Koregaon, was the one who organized the last rites, with the memorial for Sambhaji Maharaj being constructed by The Mahars of that village as well. But, The Marathas earlier refused to accept the role played by Govind Gaikwad. On December 29, 2017, Govind Gopal Mahar’s memorial was found desecrated. The incident found a mention in the Elgar Parishad and is believed to have triggered the Dalits. The Elgar meeting was then organized to combat communalism and the rise in violence by Hindutva groups.
Bhima Koregaon violence
On January 1, 2018, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle, the Dalits decided to hold a ‘Dalit Pride rally’ at the victory pillar. The politically entrenched upper castes called for a counter rally on the same day, which led to violence between the two groups. Later, The Pune Rural Police filed a case against two right wing Hindu leaders, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, for orchestrating the riots. The Pune City Police filed a case against The Elgar Parishad on the grounds of hate speeches and taking supports from the Maoists, who are banned in India. The Pune City police arrested human rights activists, lawyers, and intellectuals, namely, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale and Rona Wilson for their alleged connection with the Maoists. A letter was also supposedly found from an Elgar member which included the planned assassination of PM Modi in “the Rajiv Gandhi style”. Shocked by the arrests, Tamil Marxist poet Varavara Rao and Ganapathy (who carries Rs.1 crore bounty on his head), exchanged emails on July 4 and 14, 2018. Subsequently, The Pune Rural Police arrested Varavara Rao in August, 2018 for attending various Maoists activities, human rights activist Gautam Navlakha for opposing the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves (evidence included books and films that were found during search).
Interestingly, other than Sudhir Dhawale, none who were arrested were at the Elgar meeting. In fact, Dhawale, after spending 3 years in jail under UAPA, was later acquitted. A 2-1 split Supreme Court decision, in August, 2018, upheld the arrests not for their dissent against the government, but for their links with banned organizations. Anand Teltumbde was later arrested after he was named the co-accused in the Elgar case. He argued that painting The Bhima Koregaon Battle as one where The Mahars were against their caste oppression when under the Peshwa rule is, in fact, a myth. Meanwhile, The Pune City Police showed reluctance towards taking appropriate action against Ekbote and Bhide, leading to continuous protests. Later, only Ekbote was arrested on allegations that he had pre-planned the attack. Additionally, the police, who were seen taking their time for the last 2 years, suddenly hastened to file their charge sheet when the new Maharashtra government, which included The NCP, The Shiv Sena and The Congress, came to power. The charge sheet, when reviewed, stated that it was The Elgar Parishad that were responsible for the violence. The Pune City Police’s apprehensions on the intentions of the new government were seen as coming true when Mr. Sharad Pawar wrote to the Chief Minister, Mr.Uddhav Thackeray, stating that imprisonment of activists on sedition charges is wrong and that a special investigation team should be formed. Suddenly, a day after Pawar’s criticism, the Modi Government intervened, and the Elgar Parishad case was transferred from the state police to The NIA (National Investigation Agency), who filed the 2nd FIR against the activists thereafter. Maharashtra’s new government withdrew 348 of 649 cases filed due to the violence. Unlike The Pune City Police, who have gone ahead and filed a 5000 page charge sheet, The Pune Rural Police have not yet done so, citing the presence of The Inquiry Commission and have been given an extension to submit their report. Retired High Court Justice Mr. BG Kolse Patil, who organized The Shaniwarwada meet, categorically insists that the violence was pre planned and had nothing to do with Elgar Parishad. The Pune Police, who read out the assassination letter in front of media have not yet submitted it to the Supreme Court! The recent bail plea for those who were arrested has been rejected, and Mr. Varavara Rao is now found to be COVID positive. After being denied any information on his health, his family has approached The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
Keeping in mind the Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud’s statement,
“Dissent is the safety value of democracy. If it is not allowed the pressure cooker will burst”,
whether the sudden arrest of several activists under the UAPA was justified stands debatable, if all they did was present a dissenting voice.