Denied permission to organise a march in Mumbai on Monday, around 50,000 supporters of Dalit organisations and other marginalised groups gathered at the city’s Azad Maidan downtown to demand the arrest of Shiv Prathishthan Hindustan chief Sambhaji Bhide for allegedly instigating violence against Dalits in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1. The violence left one person dead.

Prakash Ambedkar, president of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh whose supporters were most prominent at the rally, urged the Maharashtra government to arrest Bhide, a former worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, by March 26. “We cannot give ultimatums in a democracy,” Ambedkar told the rally on Monday. “But we will use all democratic measures available to us to force the government to arrest Bhide.”

He warned that unless Bhide is arrested in the next eight days, the groups will march on the Maharashtra Assembly and then shift the target of their protests to Prime Minster Narendra Modi.

On Monday, the Mumbai police had denied the protestors permission to march from Byculla to Azad Maidan in South Mumbai, claiming that it would disrupt traffic. They had instead asked the protestors to gather directly at Azad Maidan.

New Year commemoration

The violence that the Azad Maidan crowds were protesting occured in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune, where lakhs of people, mostly Dalits, from across Maharashtra and beyond gather on January 1 every year to commemorate the victory of a small group of Dalit Mahar soldiers, fighting under the British flag, against the Peshwa-led Maratha Empire in 1818. Many Dalits celebrate the Peshwas’ defeat as the first step in their continuing struggle against caste-based oppression.

The commemoration has been largely peaceful for decades. But this year, a group of people carrying saffron flags attacked the gathering, throwing stones and smashing cars. One person died. In protest, Dalits in Maharashtra hit the streets the next day, bringing much of Mumbai and parts of Thane, Pune and Aurangabad to a near standstill. Some of the protests turned violent, prompting to the police arresting around 4,000 Dalits in a series of “combing operations”. Many of them were charged under the Indian Penal Code’s provision for attempted murder, Ambedkar said, although most have been released on bail.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis told the Assembly on March 13 that all cases filed against the protestors would be withdrawn, but this has not yet happened, Ambedkar added.

He has accused Bhide and Milind Ekbote, a former Bharatiya Janata Party corporator in Pune who is also linked to the Shiv Sena, for instigating the assault at Bhima Koregaon.

The police arrested Ekbote on March 14 after the Supreme Court refused to extend his interim bail, but Bhide, who has a significant following in Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara districts, remains at large.

At around 1 pm, the protestors shifted from a smaller pandal to a larger stage in the ground. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Rally at Azad Maidan

By 2 pm on Monday, an estimated 50,000 people had gathered at Azad Maidan, with more reported to have come by evening. They voiced two main demands: that Bhide be arrested and that the state government ensure that scholarships meant for students belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes are resumed.

“Our children have not been getting scholarships for three years now,” said Ajay Sahare, who heads the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh in Kamptee block of Nagpur. Sahare’s main demand, however, was that Bhide be arrested. Around 45 people from his village had been detained in the combing operations, he said, and 700 to 800 in Nagpur district. The charges against them, he added, had not yet been dropped.

Members of the Pune-based Sambhaji Brigade, which counts Marathas as its most prominent supporters, were among those who extended support to the rally.

“There are elements in the country right now who are against humanity and want to make people fight with each other on religion and caste,” said Suhas Rane, a member of the Sambhaji Brigade. “We are here to make sure they are punished.”

The Sambhaji Brigade had also supported the celebrations at Bhima Koregaon in the run-up to the January 1 event, even putting up posters praising Sambhaji Maharaj, the son of Shivaji, and narrating the story of the battle of 1818.

Protestors at Azad Maidan. Photo credit: Mridula Chari