Bhima Koregaon violence: Shifting narrative and fading public memory as 2019 approaches

bhima koregaon

On June 6, many of us who knew one or few of the five people arrested, supposedly in connection with the ‘violence’ at Bhima Koregaon, woke up with hasty messages of unexpectedarrests. I received a message that Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale was ‘picked up’ and had been taken to the Govandi police station in Mumbai. A huge crowd gathered outside the police station demanding to know the reasons for his arrest. But for Dhawale, who has been a face of some of the massive protests in Maharashtra in recent times and has similarly been implicatedin false cases earlier, arrests were not so unexpected.Amid protests from the crowd, the Govandi police took Dhawale to Pune from the backdoor.

As the day unfolded the shock meter rose manifold as unexpected and unwarranted arrests followed. While a reputed lawyer Advocate SurendraGadling was almost simultaneously being arrested from his Nagpur residence, one came to know that some Rona Jacob Wilson from Delhi and one Mahesh Raut working in Gadhchiroli had also been arrested. Raids were conducted at ex-Nagpur University Professor Shoma Sen’s house and she too was arrested.

All had been accused of one crime- inciting violence at BhimaKoregaon.

I watched in horror and shock as all these arrests were taking place, as both, an eye-witness of January 1 events at BhimaKoregaon memorial and as someone who broke the news and followed it through the months.

Troubled months after BhimaKoregaon

When Dalits were attacked at BhimaKoregaon, on an occasion meant to be a celebration- the bi-centenary of the battle of BhimaKoregaon – anger spilt out on streets of Maharashtra taking the form of a spontaneous, people’s protests. In the aftermath of this protest, a call for Maharashtra Bandh was given for January 3.

The insidious narrative that was floated that time was that Dalits were violent at BhimaKoregaon whereas in fact, the peaceful assembly was set upon and attacked by some Hindutva extremist outfits as an under-staffed police force silently watched. After the near conclusion of the peaceful ‘bandh’ on January 3, violence broke out in specific areas of the state. In Kalyan east, an aggressive AgriSena, politically under the patronage of the Shiv Sena reportedly attacked Dalit residential areas and bastis.

The state machinery, in the weeks following, responded to these protests by carrying out an insidious and selective combing operation in which Dalits were picked up from bastiswithout arrest warrants or FIRs. In Kalyan East, for example, an estimated 95 people were booked under Section 307 (attempt to murder) IPC. Worried family members had to flee their residences. Most didn’t know which police station their loved ones were taken, on what grounds they were arrested, how long they will be kept in prison. Moreover, the police also humiliated the women who decided to follow up on their family members. FIRs were lodged in bulk mainly against poor, working class Dalit, Bahujans residing in impoverished situations. Closer scrutiny of the FIRs, as part of my work at the human rights organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace, in association with several other Dalit groups, especially BhimaKoregaonShaurya Din PreranaAbhiyan, had revealed that most FIRs were framed in a vague language. Serious sections like attempt to murder (Section 307 of IPC) were lodged against unnamed accused and people were picked up randomly on this basis.

As many as 3000 arrests and illegal detentions were made during this period, as per Adv Prakash Ambedkar. Kalyan East, Powai, Vikhroli, Kurla, Govandi-all neighbourhoods where Dalits were residing – saw these ill-considered combing operations.

Most could not afford bail or legal aid, in some cases family members were completely unaware of the detained person’s whereabouts. Many languished for several days in police custody and were not produced before local courts for days.

After a while, in the flurry of news and several other issues piling up, it became impossible to trace what really happened to those who were not able to avail bails etc.

Words have been uttered?

I remember meeting SudhirDhawale during those times, after a play “Words have been uttered” directed by Sunil Shanbaug. His words sound almost like déjà vu today. Worried about the people who were arrested and were still behind bars as a result of the combing operations, and lamenting the restriction of movement due to the fallacious FIR on him, he said, “It would have been better that they would have arrested me, at least then there would be some talk about the combing operations” We almost immediately sssshed him as if his saying those words was like bad omen in itself.

As the main accused of the violence, Hindutva leaders Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote, against whom there was substantial documentary evidence, social media evidence and eye witnesses, roamed around with impunity, the noose of the state on activists tightened. Bhide and Ekbote were accused of desecrating the “Samadhi” of a Dalit icon near Pune on December 29, by instigating nearby communities. News also appeared highlighting the close connection of Bhide with the higher ups. In fact the Maharahstra government had even nominated this hate monger for Padma Sri in 2016. As time passed, it became clearer that the government was in no mood to take any action on these Hindutva leaders.

The month of April saw sudden raids conducted on several prominent activists from Dalit groups Republican Panthers and Kabir Kala Manch, who were responsible for the hugely successful and massive program at ElgaarParishad. Quite expected, one would think. After all, Dalits had asserted themselves once more. But shock gripped many circles when a lawyer of the stature of Advocate SurendraGadling too, was not spared.

The narrative of the Maharashtra Chief Minister DevendraFadnavis and that of Pune police, who conducted the raids, was found to be different. While the police accused these people of fomenting hate and violence in BhimaKoregaon, the CM said the raids were conducted due to their ‘Maoist’ links. The fact of two parallel and equally ridiculous narratives that emerged justifying the humiliating and almost illegal raids, rang alarm bells in the ears of many, of things that were going to follow.

An Ominous June

As one was still speculating about the implications of these raids, came June 6 and all these arrests took place in the name of some leaked letters. FIRs were not handed to the family members and acquaintances of those arrested. The leaked letters were not handed to lawyers. UAPA sections were added to the already existing FIRs only after these activists were already arrested.Two new names featured this time. Professor ShomaSena and Mahesh Raut. Reason? Some vicious letters.

As some curiously dubious letters were selectively leaked to some prominent news channels, merely within a span of 3-4 days, the state narrative shifted from funding of BhimaKoregaon‘violence’ to Modi assassination plot to JNU lecture series

Though the bluff was called out in several written words, it is unclear what kind of public perception the media trial on the basis of these seriously questionable letters helped in forming. One ‘reputed’ anchor known for his close ties with the establishment screeched on National TV and showed funny oval shaped cut-outs in which he ‘explained’ all the conspiracy theories right from “Judge Loya’s death” to “Fear mongering on Dalit rights” linked with four elements, “Congress”, “JNU brigade”, “Academics” and “Activists”

Who funded ElgaarParishad?

It is only fair that one tries to understand what inspired these arrests, apart from the question of funding of programs such as ElgaarParishad.

Like a lot of youth across the country, I was also part of the movement that stormed the country after RohithVemula’s institutional murder in Hyderabad Central University. Joint Action Committees (JACs) were formed in various parts of the country. One of the images that comes to mind is the massive protest that brought Mumbai to its knees on February 1, 2016. Dalit, Bahujans, Muslims and basically working people from various corners of the country marched from Rani Baugh, Byculla to Azad Maidan. This massive protest was made possible with the able support and guidance of SudhirDhawale. I got a chance to see closely the efforts that had gone in for such a mobilisation. Various JAC (Joint Action Committee for Social Justice) volunteers would go to bastis, schools, colleges and campaign and people would donate generously to support the cause. In a similar manner, Bhima-KoregaonShaurya Din PreranaAbhiyan a conglomerate of more than 200 organisations moved from one basti to another for about two months in order to spread the word about the event of December 31, 2017 the Elgar Parishad. People from the bastis would be enthusiastic and welcoming of the volunteers who were taking the talk on caste to the remote corners of Maharashtra through theirsongs and performances.

To say that the money came from any outside organisation, whether Maoist party or any other, is to be in denial about the people’s agency and mandate that they showed to the program at ElgarParishad. The FIR filed on JigneshMevani and Umar Khalid immediately after the Elgar Parishad program of December 31, 2017, seemed not only fallacious but also targeted. The addition of UAPA sections after the arrest of activists seemed frivolous, atrocious and a stretch of imagination of the Pune police, that does not seem as perplexed about a supposed Modi assassination as they should be. At the same time, Manohar Bhide was still being invited for lectures and police was politely refusing permissions for these programs rather than arresting Bhide.

Welcome 2019

By imposing UAPA on Dhawale in an arbitrary manner, the police is set out to establish that it is liable for misuse. The draconian no bail provision ensures that activists stay incarcerated for a long time, a time sufficient enough for public memory to fade. On the other hand, connecting people like Adv. Gadling, ShomaSena, Mahesh Raut and Rona Wilson, none of whom were the organisers of the ElgarParishad, and swiftly moving from one narrative to another is meant to induce fear in the minds of people. It is also a warning to all people’s activists to stay silent before the 2019 elections, as any hindrance in the preparation for 2019 is likely to be swiftly removed, in a manner similar to the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case.

This becomes easy to comprehend when one looks at what the government is doing to other movements that have had a mass appeal. In the case of Bhim army leader, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, the NSA detention was again extended by another 3 months on May 2. He has already spent a year in jail on obviously cooked up charges. There has been an all-out attack on Bhim Army from all sides. Similarly, during the Bharat Bandh of April 2, violence was inflicted on Dalits with the joint partnership of police and right wing elements in several parts of the country in order to push Dalits agitating for their rights, to a corner.

Right now, even as I write this article I have to fear that tomorrow I can be arrested on the charges of being an ‘Urban Maoist’. This is what the arrests are meant to do, induce fear in the minds of those who question and support people’s issues and politics. Since Modi government has nothing to show on its ‘development’ report card, only bluffs and lies, it should only be expected that the narrative is yet to see some twists and turns in a spirit only matchable by popular TV soaps in which the protagonist keeps coming back from the grave even after dying hundreds of times.

Sushmita, Researcher, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Mumbai

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