The arrest of five activists in June and the controversy over the five more who were sought to be arrested in nationwide raids on August 28 have brought the focus back on Bhima Koregaon, around 30 km from Pune in Maharashtra.
The discussion in the last few days has intensified around one particular case that was registered on the basis of a complaint by a Pune resident, Tushar Damgude, on January 8. The case that started as an inquiry into alleged provocative speeches has taken a dramatic turn with police making sensational allegations about plots to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a Maoist network stretching from Maharashtra to Nepal and Manipur.
But what seems to have receded from media attention is another case that was registered on the basis of a complaint on January 3. Two friends, Akshay Bikkad and Anand Dhond, had gone together to Pune’s Deccan police station to lodge the complaint on January 2 that resulted in a first information report against Gujarat legislator Jignesh Mevani and Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid at the Vishrambaug police station the next day. The complaint was eventually registered in the name of Bikkad who insists that he has no party affiliations and leans neither to the Left nor the Right but is a centrist politically. The other friend, Dhond, openly talks about his long association with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The ABVP is the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre.
Interestingly, Bikkad too has been an active supporter of the ABVP, tweeting “#ProudABVPIan” in 2015, having being described as the vice president of his Pune college’s ABVP unit in 2016, writing articles praising the ABVP. But he denies any official association with the student group, insisting he has never been a member.
It was around 9 pm on Friday when the complainant, Akshay Bikkad, 23, a final year student of political science at Pune University, walked into a popular cafe in the city. Bikkad had just arrived from Mumbai on an express train after filing a Public Interest Litigation in the Bombay High Court, seeking a ban on all groups that indulge in the politics of caste in the garb of social work in Maharashtra.
“Such organisations always play a big role in caste violence,” said Bikkad. “The problem is that the opinions of such organisations end up being seen as the opinion of an entire community when it is actually not so.”
Consider the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh or the Maratha Seva Sangh, he said. “These organisations may take a stand on a matter, but it does not mean that all people from Brahmin and Maratha communities would agree with their stand.”
“There is something worse,” he claimed. “Often, such groups pitch their opinions in such ways that they are misinterpreted by the community.” Such opinions had a role to play in the Bhima Koregaon violence too, he said. That, after all, is when Bikkad had first made national headlines in January.
Bikkad accused Mevani and Khalid of delivering provocative speeches at the Elgaar Parishad on December 31, 2017, which, he claimed, led to caste violence between Dalits and Marathas the next day in Bhima Koregaon, leaving one dead and several injured.
While neither Mevani nor Khalid have been interrogated in connection with the case, Pune City’s Joint Commissioner of Police Shivaji Bodakhe said, “Investigation of the matter is underway.”
Bikkad was not alone in approaching the police. With him was his friend Anand Dhond, 26, who too belongs to Latur and met Bikkad a few years ago through mutual friends.
Bikkad said he is an active blogger and identifies himself as a centrist politically. He said he condemns both “ultra-left” and “ultra-right” ideologies, “swinging between ‘soft left’ and ‘soft right’ depending on the nature of the issues”.
“In fact, I want to pursue post masters studies in Marxist theories,” Bikkad claimed. It is this centrist position and hatred for caste politics that led him to go ahead with the police complaint, he said.
Bikkad belongs to a family of farmers in Maharashtra’s Latur district and insisted over and over again that he is not affiliated to any political organisation. “To keep myself away from politics, I also did not mention about any specific organisation’s name in my PIL,” he said.
Earlier in the day, in the same cafe, Bikkad’s friend Dhond, who accompanied him to the police station in January, talked freely about his own association with the ABVP. He was an active member of the group between 2009 and 2015 and for some time its district coordinator, Dhond said.
He said he joined ABVP while engaging in protests against fee hikes and other matters related to students. One of his uncles is a staunch RSS member but, Dhond said, he was never influenced by him. Dhond’s father is a banker currently posted in Marathwada while Dhond said he himself is focused on starting a catering business in Pune.
What seems intriguing is Bikkad’s insistence that he has no political affiliations and wanting to distance himself from the ABVP. He seemed to have no such compunctions in September 2015.
In March 2016, in a report on the clash between Ambedkarites and ABVP members at Pune’s Fergusson College, The Times of India described Bikkad as “vice-president of ABVP’s Fergusson College campus unit”. On being questioned about it, Bikkad said, “I was present in the event and the protests that followed. I was never an official member of ABVP, let alone being its vice president.”
But it was not the only time. In April 2016, the My Voice section of the right-wing website OpIndia carried an article in which the writer “interacted with” Bikkad “to understand ABVP’s side” and also described Bikkad as “Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s Fergusson College vice president”.
A month later, in May 2016, Bikkad posed with right-wing columnist Shefali Vaidya and tweeted about his excitement at having watched a film by Vivek Agnihotri, who has recently been in the news for his campaign against those he describes as the “urban Naxals”.
On August 15, 2016, Bikkad posted the following.
On February 25, 2017, Bikkad wrote on OpIndia’s My Voice section, praising ABVP Pune, but this time he was described not as the vice president of the college’s ABVP unit but as “Student activist, Fergussonian, Botanist. Aspiring Entrepreneur, Blogger, Nationalist.” The next day, on Twitter, Bikkad posted:
In light of such public postings, it remains unclear why Bikkad is seeking to distance himself from the organisation. Does it have anything to do with the case against Mevani and Khalid – and what led to it?
On December 31, 2017, Bikkad, Dhond and a bunch of friends had gone to attend the Elgaar Parishad, which was organised in an open ground in Shaniwarwada, adjacent to the ruins of the Peshwa Palace.
According to police estimates, around 3,000 persons attended the event. Other than Mevani and Khalid, the speakers included Adivasi activist Soni Sori, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, Bhim Army President Vinay Ratan Singh, retired Supreme Court judge PB Sawant and retired Bombay High Court judge BG Kolse-Patil. Dalit rights activist Radhika Vemula, whose son Rohith Vemula had committed suicide at the University of Hyderabad in early 2016 leading to a massive nation-wide students’ movement, also spoke on the occasion.
“It is not that all of them delivered provocative speeches,” said Dhond. “Akshay [Bikkad] had his camera with which he recorded the speeches because he wanted to post them on his blog and write articles later for a website. We were shocked by what happened in Bhima Koregaon on January 1. The next day, we went to the Deccan police station and submitted Akshay’s memory card on which he had the recordings.”
Since the Deccan police station did not have jurisdiction, they ended up at the Vishrambaug police station the next day.
While Dhond said he did not know of Damgude until the case registered on his complaint came into focus, Bikkad said he has known him through Facebook for a year now. “I identify him [Damgude] as an apolitical person and I personally met him around 15 days ago. It was a casual meeting.”
Earlier this year, Bikkad was felicitated by the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindutva outfit active in several states. Though the reason of the felicitation was not stated to him, Bikkad believes it was for his “action” against “fringe elements”. When asked to elaborate, he referred to the act of going ahead with the police complaint in January.
The complaint quoted Mevani as saying, “If we want to win over this new Peshwai, the battle of Bhima Koregaon needs to be taken ahead.” The Dalit leader added, according to the complaint, that while it was right that people fighting the battle needed to be in assemblies and Parliament, if one had to eradicate casteism, it would happen only by taking to the streets.
According to the complaint, Khalid said the battle of Bhima Koregaon had to be taken ahead. “They had attacked,” the complaint quoted Khalid as saying. “It is time to retaliate and we will fight this battle and we will win and this victory over new Peshwai will be the true homage to the martyrs of Bhima Koregaon battle.”
It is significant to note, however, that even before the Elgaar Parishad was held, Bikkad had questioned the invitation to Umar Khalid in a vitriolic article.
Bikkad and Dhond left the venue after that point, the complaint said. The next day when they heard of rioting and arson in Sanaswadi area, the complaint said, they connected that with the alleged provocative speeches delivered by Mevani and Khalid.
There is one phrase that is common to both the FIRs, the one based on Bikkad’s complaint and the other on Damgude’s: “Bhadkau va don samajamadhye tedh nirman hoil ase chithavanikhor bhaashan [provocative speeches were delivered to create disturbances between two communities].”
Based on the complaint, the FIRs were registered against Mevani and Khalid under Indian Penal Code sections that relate to “delivering speech to create disharmony or feelings of enmity”, “giving statement conducing to public mischief” and “abetting commission of offence by the public or by more than ten persons”.
Reacting to the allegations, Mevani told Scroll.in on Friday, “Anyone can run my speech by any constitutional expert, any eminent criminal lawyer or High Court or Supreme Court judge. If they are of the view that any single word of mine is of provocative nature, without uttering a single word in response, I will quit my public life [sic].”
This is a completely frivolous case, he said. “In fact, it is the perfect ground for me, being a person belonging to Scheduled Caste, to file a counter complaint or cross complaint, for filing a frivolous case against me,” he added. “There is a provision in the Atrocities Act [Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act] for that.”
Since the Bhima Koregaon violance, Mevani said, “there has been a conspiracy on part of the government of Maharashtra to target us through vendetta politics. The idea is to discredit the Dalit movement. So far they have not acted on the FIR. They can’t.”
When contacted, Khalid said he didn’t have a copy of the FIR. Mevani and he had moved the Bombay High Court against the FIR in January itself but there’s been no progress on that front, he added.
“This FIR was filed after two days of media trial against us,” Khalid said. “The videos of the speeches are still in the public domain – the public should go watch them instead of believing these politically-motivated allegations. They are being made to divert attention from and save [Sambhaji] Bhide and [Milind] Ekbote because they are close to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and [Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra] Fadnavis. There is a case against Bhide under the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) and for that arrest is mandatory. If there is no arrest, there has to be action against the police itself. Bhide has never been arrested and Ekbote was released on bail immediately.”
Khalid added, “This FIR was filed after two days of media trial – that is where the manufacturing of a Maoist conspiracy began. There are videos of the attack at Bhima Koregaon online as well that clearly show men in saffron robes attacking Dalits.”