As the Supreme Court on Wednesday resumes its hearings of a petition challenging the arrests of five activists in the Bhima Koregaon case, it is instructive to look at the contradictions in the official submissions made by the Maharashtra police seeking to explain the caste violence that erupted outside Pune on January 1.
In the Supreme Court itself, the police has filed two contradictory affidavits.
Responding to the petition filed by historian Romila Thapar and four other eminent citizens, which called the arrests of the activists that took place on August 28 “a gross abuse of police power”, the Pune city police filed an affidavit on September 3. It blamed the organisers of Elgaar Parishad, a public meeting held in Pune on December 31, for the caste violence that broke out the next day in Bhima Koregaon village, 30 km from the city.
The Parishad brought together Ambedkarite organisations and Left activists and its organisers included two retired judges. But the police claimed among its organisers were members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) who used the platform to provoke Dalit sentiments and incite violence. This was part of a larger Maoist conspiracy to destabilise India, the affidavit said.
However, six months before that, in another affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, Maharashtra police had presented a completely different explanation for the violence. According to this affidavit, submitted by the Pune Rural police on February 13, there was evidence to show Milind Ekbote, a Brahmin leader of the Samastha Hindu Aghadi, had incited the violence in Bhima Koregaon by circulating incendiary pamphlets, among other things, in the days leading to January 1. A report by Pune’s deputy mayor Siddharth Dhende says that these pamphlets claimed that the history of Bhima Koregaon and of a neighbouring village were both wrong.
“It is the prosecution case that during investigation, it revealed that [Ekbote] had actively participated in criminal conspiracy,” the police affidavit said. “[Ekbote] in conspiring to commit the said offences [...] has put the social fabric as well as law and order in peril which resulted in the loss of crores of rupees damaging public and private property.”
Opposing his bail application, the police maintained they needed to have him in custody to interrogate him and find out “whether other Hindu extremists organization are involved behind the said violence and offences”.
Ekbote was arrested on March 14, the day the Supreme Court rejected his application for anticipatory bail, but secured bail from Pune sessions court on April 4.
It is not clear how the Maharashtra police reconciles the starkly different narratives in the two affidavits in the Supreme Court.
Adding to the confusion, Maharashtra police contradicted both these affidavits when it told a judicial commission in July that the violence in Bhima Koregaon was “nothing but the result of a sporadic fight”. Shishir Hiray, the special public prosecutor representing the police, said they were not in a position to pin responsibility on any group or organisation.
The two-member commission, which was set up by the state in February, called for witnesses to submit affidavits from May to July. Maharashtra police officials submitted 110 affidavits running into 10,000 pages. Fewer than ten of the more than 490 affidavits are not from Pune or Mumbai. Last week, the commission began its first round of hearings in Mumbai. Scroll.in attended the hearings over all three days.
On the first day, 44-year-old Manisha Khopkar, described how she and a group had chartered a bus from Thane to Bhima Koregaon on January 1 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of a battle in which a small group of Mahar soldiers fighting under the banner of the British had defeated the army of the notoriously casteist Peshwa regime. While Khopkar and her companions were walking to the site of the commemoration from the parking lot, they were told there was violence ahead and turned back.
People began to throw stones at them from the roof of the building where they had taken shelter, she said, injuring Khopkar as she attempted to shield her daughter. The group returned to their bus and halted to remove the blue flags that would mark them out as Ambedkarites. At this point, people wearing yellow shirts also pelted stones at their vehicle, Khopkar said.
While questioning her on the second day, prosecutor Hiray seemed to go back on what he had said in July. “Is it possible that there is a third ideology other than ‘saffron’ or ‘blue’ which has carried out this violence?” Hiray asked Khopkar twice. Saffron was a reference to Hindutva.
While Khopkar answered that it was possible that there was a third ideology involved in the violence, she emphasised that she only knew what she had seen.
During the hearing, Hiray described the “third ideology” as one that could “create anarchy among various other groups”, but did not elaborate further.
What exactly did he mean and what explained the change of his stance? When Scroll.in contacted Hiray, he refused to explain.
“[Khopkar’s] affidavit itself mentions blue and saffron flags,” he said. “What a third ideology could be is your guess. We are exploring all possibilities, whether there could be any other ideology involved. It is our duty to bring all these facts before the commission.”
Hiray added that the witnesses at the commission were relevant to the investigation of Pune Rural police into the causes and consequences of the violence at Bhima Koregaon, he said. As special public prosecutor, his main focus was to defend the force on the point of preparedness. The investigation by the Pune city police was different, he said.
He confirmed that representatives of the Pune Rural police will depose before the commission next month. It is not yet decided whether Pune city police will present their case as well.