The village of Bhima Koregaon, just outside Pune, has been catapulted to national fame ever since Maharashtra police claimed the caste violence that erupted there on January 1 was part of a Maoist conspiracy to destabilise India. In controversial nationwide raids, Pune city police have arrested 10 activists, alleging they were part of this conspiracy.
However, their counterparts in Pune rural police, investigating the same incident of caste violence, have registered cases against two Hindutva leaders. The allegation is that they provoked the violence by making incendiary speeches.
What were these alleged speeches about?
A dispute over a funeral that took place more than 300 years ago in Vadhu Budruk, a village that lies 3 km from Bhima Koregaon.
For a long time, a memorial built here in the memory of Sambhaji, the son of the 17th-century Maratha warrior king Shivaji, has been a reminder of the shared history of Marathas and Dalits. But in recent years, it has been become a flashpoint, with Brahmin politicians seeking to capitalise on its contested history.
This intersection of history and politics played a major role in producing the caste clashes between Marathas and Dalits on January 1, four independent reports that have investigated the Bhima Koregaon violence have found.
Scroll.in has accessed all four reports, which have been submitted to the judicial commission set up by Maharashtra government to look into the causes of the violence.
These reports come from different ends of the ideological spectrum – one has been authored by Pune’s deputy mayor who belongs to the Ramdas Athawale-led faction of the Republican Party of India, while another has been released by Vivek Vichar Manch, an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
All four reports concur on the importance of Vadhu Budruk village and the friction witnessed there through the month of December.
The Pune deputy mayor’s report, in fact, relies on a Facebook post to suggest the violence could have been planned as early as December 16, a full week before tensions erupted.
Apart from this Facebook post, Scroll.in has also examined other social media posts and speeches that have been submitted to the judicial commission, including ones that boast about beating Dalits, and another that exhorts Marathas to raze the Bhima Koregaon memorial pillar in revenge.
This voluminous body of evidence calls into question Pune police claims that a Maoist conspiracy was responsible for the violence. As Scroll.in reported previously, these claims are based on letters that experts have dismissed as “mischievous fabrication”.
Before a detailed look at the submissions, a glimpse into the disputed history.
One funeral, two versions
Every year, on New Year’s Day, lakhs gather in Bhima Koregaon to commemorate the battle of 1818 in which members of the Bombay Native Infantry, many of whom were Mahars, clashed with a superior force of the Brahmin Peshwas, who then ruled a significant part of the Maratha Empire. Against great odds, the Mahars prevailed. In 1927, BR Ambedkar inaugurated what would become an annual commemoration for the Mahar soldiers who, the story goes, fought to liberate themselves from the untouchability imposed on them by the Peshwas.
While the Battle of Koregaon led to the consolidation of British rule in western India, around 130 years before that, Marathas were fighting the Mughal empire. In 1689, Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji, was captured and brutally murdered on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. His body was cut into several pieces and thrown into the Bhima river, which later washed up at Vadhu.
According to some accounts, Govind Gaikwad, a member of the Mahar community in Vadhu, defied imperial orders to conduct the last rites of the Maratha ruler. To honour this memory, Dalits who come to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers of the Battle of Koregaon on January 1, also invariably make a detour to Vadhu, to visit the samadhis, or tombs, of both Sambhaji and Govind Gaikwad.
But in recent years, Hindutva leaders have disputed this history. They claim Sambhaji’s funeral was conducted by a Maratha resident. This has resulted in friction over the inscription on the official board outside his samadhi. Ambedkarite groups alleged a few years ago that the board was changed to favour the Maratha version.
In December 2017, ahead of the bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Koregaon, anti-caste organisations organised marches from several parts of Maharashtra that culminated on December 31 in a large public meeting in Pune called the Elgaar Parishad. As this was happening, the tensions over the disputed history in Vadhu Budruk were acquiring greater steam.
On January 1, caste violence broke out in Bhima Koregaon.
Four reports, similar conclusions
Immediately after the violence broke out, several groups began to form fact-finding committees to investigate its causes.
The first was one led by Pune deputy mayor Siddharth Dhende of the Republican Party of India. This report was not, as has been widely reported, commissioned by the Pune police. Submitted in January, the report concluded that two Brahmin leaders of Hindutva organisations, Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide, also known as Sambaji Bhide, played a significant role in whipping up tensions in Vadhu and beyond.
Soon after Dhende’s report, Justice Chandra Kumar, a retired judge of the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh High Court, led a committee of retired judges and lawyers in February that also found that “there was collusion between rioters and police” in allowing a procession from Vadhu Budruk to the victory pillar in Bhima Koregaon on January 1.
A third report was published in March by the Forum for Integrated National Security India think tank. Authored by former Indian Army Captain Smita Gaikwad, this report was the first to outline an alleged Maoist conspiracy involving the organisers of Elgaar Parishad who, it claimed, used the event to inflame Dalit sentiments as part of a larger plan to destabilise India. At the same time, the report also detailed the events in Vadhu Budruk and held them to be a “provocation”.
A fourth report authored by Gaikwad for a different organisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party-affiliated Vivek Vichar Manch, was released in April. This report is a slightly longer translation of the FINS India report into Marathi and has a heftier appendix.
Here is what the four reports and other submissions made to the judicial commission say about the events leading to January 1.
The dispute in Vadhu
Three of the four reports delve directly into the versions of history in Vadhu. They say the first mention of Govind Gaikwad’s role in conducting the last rites of Sambhaji came through a book about the king, but they differ on which book it is.
Siddharth Dhende’s report: It attributes this information to a book written by historian VS Bendre, which was backed up with historical evidence in works by subsequent historians. Bendre’s 1960 book was seminal in bringing to light a new perspective to Sambhaji as a brave and patriotic king, who had until then been portrayed as a profligate who squandered away the power consolidated by his father Shivaji. Dhende’s report says that Ekbote and Bhide have twisted the story of the Maratha ruler’s death to favour a Hindutva interpretation and have been trying to spread caste hatred through this.
FINS India and Vivek Vichar Manch: The reports claim historians wrote extensively about how Sambhaji’s son Shahu appointed three caretakers for the samadhi 43 years after his death and gave them money and land for this. One of these three was Govind Gaikwad. According to these reports, Gaikwad’s role in the last rites was first mentioned in the 2005 novel Sambhaji by Vishwas Patil. The Vivek Vichar Manch report goes on to call this “false history” that was later amplified by several organisations.
In an interview to Pune Mirror on January 5, Rajendra Gaikwad, a descendant of Govind Gaikwad said that the delay in granting land to his ancestor for taking care of the samadhi was only because Sambhaji’s son Shahu heard the full story only years later.
The history of Bhima Koregaon
On December 27, Ekbote held a press conference at the Pune Municipal Corporation to express his opposition to the Elgaar Parishad, which he said was aimed at misguiding people and creating social divisions.
The Vivek Vichar Manch report appends the press note he released that day. In the note, selectively quoting from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar, omitting the leader’s comments on untouchability, Ekbote said Ambedkar himself said it was not a matter of pride that Mahars had fought on the side of the British.
Ekbote also wrote a letter to the district collector, saying that the history of the battle was baseless, misleading and defamatory of the Peshwas.
The board outside Sambhaji’s memorial
Ekbote said in his affidavit that he had been working for the pat 25 years to beautify Sambhaji’s samadhi in Vadhu through the Dharmaveer Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj Smruti Samiti.
Three reports agreed that there had been friction in recent years over changes made to the board outside the samadhi.
Dhende’s report: A board that mentioned Govind Gaikwad as one of the caretakers of the samadhi had been discarded and another put up in its place, the report said. A photo of KB Hedgewar, founder member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was also put up at the site, though it has no relevance to it all. Last year, there was an attempt to bar people coming from the Bhima Koregaon victory pillar from entering Sambhaji’s samadhi. Only after the police intervened were people allowed to go inside.
FINS India and Vivek Vichar Manch: The FINS India report agreed that Gaikwad’s name was on a previous iteration of the board, but his name was later removed to avoid tension after more villagers demanded that their family names be added to the memorial. The board at present describes only the Shivale Deshmukh family, who are local Marathas, as having played a role in conducting the last rites of the ruler. In 2015, the Buddhist Prerana group reportedly wrote to Maharasthra’s Minister for Social Justice asking for Govind Gaikwad’s name to be added to the board outside Sambhaji’s samadhi.
The friction over a new board
On December 28, 2017, a board was installed in Vadhu Budruk describing Gaikwad’s role, saying that he was the only one brave and loyal enough to conduct the last rites for his king and that he was rewarded with land by Shahu. The board also gave directions to Gaikwad’s samadhi, built on land owned by his descendant Rajendra Gaikwad. It is not clear who put up this board. The Maratha residents of Vadhu did not take well to this new board.
Dhende’s report: On December 29, a group of around 200 to 300 “Hindutvawadis” gathered and brought down the board, removed the roof of Gaikwad’s samadhi and destroyed it, this report said. In an attempt to defuse tensions, the police filed a case against 49 people of the village under the caste atrocities act.
Vivek Vichar Manch report: The report claims that some people who were not present at the site were charged under the atrocities act.
Residents of Vadhu told Scroll.in reporter Mridula Chari in January that Ekbote was the one who had instigated the village against the board. But in his affidavit, Ekbote claimed he last visited the area on December 18, as part of his annual visit.
The inflammatory messages on social media
Even as these tensions played out in the village itself, social media was rife with posts filled with caste hatred and incitements to violence. Several posts which Scroll.in independently viewed from December 29 to 31 call for people to gather in large numbers in Vadhu on January 1 to prevent the spread of “false history”.
One post from December 30 says, “Our village Vadhu Budruk has for the first time set aside political differences and come together. From now on, only the saffron flag will fly here.” In reply, someone has commented “War has begun. [...] Some people have forgotten their position. Perhaps we should remind them who Marathas are.” Both comments seem to be replicated several times over.
Chandra Kumar’s report: It notes that in the three to four days before January 1, several messages were circulated on Whatsapp, Facebook and other social media on behalf of Ekbote and Bhide, asking people to observe a bandh from January 1.
FINS India report: It mentions rumours prevalent in the village that “fringe elements” were planning to attack Sambhaji’s samadhi on that day, which is why so many people gathered there.
In his first statement to the press in the first week of January, Bhide said that he does not even use a mobile phone, and claimed no knowledge of the viral Whatsapp messages. He asked for the police to investigate the source of these messages.
Dhende’s report: Predating these messages, in an indication that the conflict was pre-planned, a Facebook post dated December 16 by one Kaustubh Kasture quotes a line from what is presumably the 2015 Neeraj Pandey film Baby saying, “This year, there is going to be a large Diwali” in Hindi.
“As the year ends, a load of ear splitting crackers will explode,” it goes on to say in Marathi. “The occasion will be on January 1. Hint: This message pertains to history. Not the publication of a new book.”
A reply to that post, also captured in the screenshot, says: “While we celebrate Diwali, the rest will burn like Holika figurines.”
This Facebook post is part of Dhende’s report. It was taken from a screenshot saved by a member of the Sambhaji Brigade, a largely Maratha organisation that participated in the Elgaar Parishad. Scroll.in was unable to independently view either Kasture’s post or the screenshot online.
Prakash Ambedkar-led delegation: More evidence of a planned mobilisation ahead of January 1 features in a dossier submitted to the judicial commission by a delegation of several organisations led by Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh.
One of these videos shows a group of people at Sambhaji’s samadhi garlanding a statue of Shivaji. After they chant slogans in praise of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Dharmavir Sambhaji Maharaj, Bharat Mata and the Hindu faith, a sequence of slogans associated with Bhide’s organisation, Shiv Prathishthan Hindustan, they chant another mantra that roughly translates as: “We must fight for [our] religion... Through killing we must take back our state. Set out to kill the treasonous dogs.”
Scroll.in could not independently verify the date of this video. But it is clear the video has been shot at Sambhaji’s samadhi – a person in the video can be heard saying he is in Vadhu Budruk during a phone conversation.
Another Facebook post on December 30, has a user issuing a call for destructive chaos: “Ho gaya shankhnaad, taandav machana hai, jatiyon me na batna hindu sheron, hamein Hindu Rashtra banana hai.” [“The conch shell has been sounded and it is time to bring about a destructive dance. Don’t get divided into castes, Hindu lions. We have to make a Hindu country.”]
In another post from December 31, a person brags about beating a Dalit man black and blue. The post, in Marathi, attempts to pun on the word blue, which is a colour associated with Dalits and Ambedkarite movements. Scroll.in was able to independently access this post online as late as September 11.
In another post that was still online until this week, a user can be seen exhorting people to raze the Bhima Koregaon memorial obelisk in revenge, as according to his post, it is a symbol of the victory of the British. There are also posts asking to replenish the “stock” at Bhima Koregaon, to increase the “score”. According to Sagar Gorkhe, a singer and activist from Kabir Kala Manch, “stock” was a reference to the pile of stones and lathis gathered by the Hindutva groups and “score” meant the number of Dalits who were attacked as they were returning from the Bhima Koregaon memorial.
The day after the violence, one post in Hindi on January 2 boasts about having participated in it. This post has pictures of a bleeding Dalit man, torched vehicles, and a mob carrying saffron flag, with an accompanying text that says: “The Parshuram Sena torched hundreds of vehicles...the anti-Brahmin Ambedkarites were chased and beaten up, in which one of them was killed.” The post also used a Hindi hashtag: #Brahmano_ka_tandav. This post was also still online.
The calls for bandhs
The atrocities case against 49 Marathas irked people in several neighbouring villages. All reports concur that the villages of Vadhu Budruk and Koregaon Bhima issued a letter on December 30 citing the events at Sambhaji’s samadhi in Vadhu. To prevent any outbreak of violence, Koregaon Bhima decided to call for a bandh on January 1, the day of the battle commemoration. Several neighbouring villages joined the bandh. Vadhu Budruk’s letter to the Shikrapur station says that the groups of “backward classes” and local Dalits have been putting pressure on the police to investigate local residents and in protest against this would keep their villages shut from December 30.
The march to Bhima Koregaon
On January 1, a group of around 2,000 people carrying saffron flags began to march from Vadhu to Bhima Koregaon chanting slogans, all four reports note. At Bhima Koregaon, the mob became violent and began to attack people going towards the Vijay Stambh. While Bhide has said he was attending a funeral in another district, Ekbote has submitted evidence to show he was not present at Bhima Koregaon on January 1.
FINS India and Vivek Vichar Manch reports: Both say that the police erred in allowing the march to continue, and had they controlled it, the violence could have been contained.
Chandra Kumar’s report: This report says that a man named Ramdas Lokhande called Minister of State for Social Justice, Dilip Kamble, soon after the violence broke out. In turn, Kamble arrived at Bhima Koregaon and asked the police to take action, but rioters pelted stones at his car instead. Kamble phoned Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to ask for police reinforcements. The report says there were no visible reinforcements.
Dhende’s report: The report also mentions calls made by Kamble and others to Fadnavis. The report adds that journalists who were in the car with Kamble said that Fadnavis cut the call and witnesses recognised local police officers wearing plain clothes in the middle of the crowd.
Witness at the judicial commission: Ravindra Chandane, district president of the Republican Party of India (Socialist), submitted an affidavit to the judicial commission, which includes a video of this violence. In the video, men in yellow shirts with saffron flags run up a street in Bhima Koregaon, shouting slogans. One person with a blue flag runs into that mob in seeming defiance. Police officials in uniform are strolling with the crowd. The rest of the video is unclear because Chandane was obliged to put away his phone. Chandane is due to testify in the last week of September.