Tuesday’s nationwide raids on the homes of activists that culminated in five arrests can be traced back to an event in Pune on New Year’s eve spearheaded by Dalit groups.

Every New Year’s Day, lakhs of Dalits visit a memorial pillar at Koregaon Bhima village, around 30 kms from Pune, to celebrate the anniversary of a battle that took place in 1818. In the battle, a small contingent of Mahar Dalit soldiers trounced the numerically superior army of Peshwa Bajirao II, whose regime was noted for its exploitative policies against members of the oppressed castes.

Since 2018 is the bicentennial year of the battle, the organisers decided to hold a special event called the Elgaar Parishad the day earlier, on December 31, 2017, at Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort, the seat of power of the Peshwas.

Nearly 250 groups with divergent ideologies came together at the event. In tents packed to the brim, approximately 35,000 people watched plays, and listened to music and speeches. The next day, as they made their way to Bhima Koregaon, participants say they were attacked by people allegedly belonging to Hindutva groups Shiv Prathishthan Hindustan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi. One person died in the violence.

A section of the audience. Credit: Shone Satheesh

In the immediate aftermath, the Pune Rural Police launched an investigation on the basis of an FIR filed against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the leaders of these organisations.

But in June, the Pune police arrested five activists who they alleged had Maoist links and had used the Elgaar Parishad to instigate the violence at Bhima Koregaon. The Pune police claimed that Tuesday’s arrests have been made as part of the same investigation.

The Elgaar Parishad is now be under the shadow of a police investigation, but those who attended it, including this reporter, remember it most for the enthusiastic crowds, the colourful performances and the wide range of speakers. The police claims inflammatory speeches were made at the Parishad, but the day had actually ended with Harshali Potdar, an activist who was subsequently raided, leading the audience in an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, to protect the values enshrined in it.

A scene from the Parishad. Credit: HT Photo

What the day was like

The event began at 2 in the afternoon. Six tents had been pitched in front of the Shaniwarwada fort. By 2.30 pm, the tents were filled. Fearing a stampede, the police were refusing to allow more people in.

On stage were the organisers of the event, as well as speakers, including Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Dalit activist Radhika Vemula, Adivasi activist Soni Sori, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, Bhim Army President Vinay Ratan Singh, Bombay High Court Justice (retd) BG Kholse-Patil, and student leader Umar Khalid.

The cultural performances had strong anti-caste themes. Lok shahirs (bards) performed songs that paid tribute to the teachings of Bhakti reformers like Tukaram, and anti-caste reformers such as Jotirao Phule. As is typical of the shahiri tradition, the bards took potshots at politicians and unpopular policies like demonetisation. There were also songs extolling the 17th-century Maratha ruler Shivaji and and the early 20th century Kolhapur ruler Shahu, who was a noted reformer.

A dance troupe from Pune staged an electrifying performance of acrobatics. A Marathi hip-hop group had the crowd cheering to their anti-caste rap. A hip-hop group from Mumbai, Bombay Lokal, also performed a catchy number that got the crowd fired up.

Radhika Vemula performs a symbolic representation of breaking the structure of the caste system. Credit: Shone Satheesh

The performances were punctuated with slogans denouncing the naya-Peshwai or neo-Peshwa regime, a reference to the religious fundamentalism fostered by the Bharatiya Janata Party government that, it was claimed, had created an atmosphere of fear for Dalits, Muslims, peasants and other minorities.

At the edge of the stage, four black pots were stacked on top of each other, each carrying the name of the four varnas – Brahmins at the top, and Shudras at the bottom. Before Radhika Vemula made her speech, she was invited to smash the pots in a symbolic gesture of annihilating caste.

In his speech, independent MLA from Gujarat Jignesh Mevani quoted from a book titled Karmyog that Narendra Modi had written when he was Gujarat chief minister, in which he said that the work of cleaning excreta, which is mostly performed by Dalits, was an “experience in spirituality. Mevani added that caste annihilation would not be achieved in the assembly or Parliament but on the streets. After the event, an FIR was filed against Mevani for promoting enmity on grounds of religion.

Umar Khalid in his speech clarified that the event was not a celebration of a British victory, but the defeat of a casteist kingdom – a kingdom where members of the lowest caste were forced to tie brooms behind their back to sweep their footprints.

 Jignesh Mewani, Vinay Ratan Singh, Radhika Vemula, Soni Sori and Omar Khalid during the Elgar Parishad. Credit: HT Photo

What went into organising the Parishad

Subodh More, convenor of the Jati Ant Sangharsh Samiti, one of the organising groups of Elgaar Parishad, said the event the 250 organisations that put the event together were from Maharashtra. They had an Ambedkarite and Left-leaning worldview.

In the week leading up to December 31, two marches made their way through several districts of Maharashtra before culminating in Pune. One of the marches was flagged off on December 23, at Yeola in Nashik, where BR Ambedkar had declared his famous renunciation of Hinduism in 1935: “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu.”

Among the participants in the march were artists, activists, theatre performers, and musicians. They travelled through the districts of Nashik, Aurangabad, Jalna, Parbhani, Beed, Ahmednagar, Hingoli, and Nanded, before arriving in Pune. Along the way, they held public meetings to rally support for Dalit victims of atrocities, and collected donations for the Elgaar Parishad.

While the police claim a Maoist hand behind the funding of the event, the organisers have refuted the allegations. Retired High Court judge BG Kholse-Patil, at a press conference in Mumbai in June, said that the stage, loudspeakers, and pandals had been set up by the MIT institute of Pune for a function that was to take place on the morning of January 1. He said that the participating organisations had contributed towards the event, and that those attempting to link the event to Maoists were only tarnishing the image of former members of the judiciary.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice PB Sawant, led the oath at the end of the Elgaar Parishad. The time at which the event started was also misstated. The article had been edited to correct those errors.