Every year, the 20-km road from Pune to Bhima Koregaon is festooned with banners welcoming the lakhs of Ambedkarites who stream into the village in western Maharashtra from across India on New Year’s Day. They gather at a pillar in the village that commemorates the victory of a British-led army over the Peshwa-led forces of the Maratha Empire in 1818. Several members of the Dalit Mahar community fought on the side of the British in the Battle of Koregaon. Today, it is remembered as a vital victory in the fight against the practices of untouchability enforced by the Brahmin Peshwas.

In previous years, hundreds of posters crammed the Pune-Ahmednagar road, increasing in frequency as visitors approached the village. But two days before the annual commemoration, this reporter counted a scant 48 banners on the stretch between Yerawada in Pune and the village.

“There are still two days before the event so there is still time for more posters to come up,” said Sandeep Patil, Superintendent of Police in Pune. But there is another reason for the lack of messages, he explained: anyone wanting to put up a banner this year has to approach the police for permission.

The reason for the measure is obvious to anyone who has followed the news. A year ago, Bhima Koregaon shot to the national spotlight after unprecedented violence broke out in the village and its surrounding areas. The violence was triggered in part by a dispute over a three-century-old historical fact – about whether the last rites of the Maratha ruler Sambhaji in 1689 in Vadhu Budruk, three kilometres away from Bhima Koregaon, had been conducted by members of the Mahar community or by Marathas. Videos of the violence on January 1 predominantly show people with saffron flags and shirts attacking people and vehicles with blue flags.

Over the next few months, as the Pune police investigated the incident, they claimed to have unearthed a Maoist conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and overthrow the government. Ten human rights lawyers and activists – “urban Naxalites”, as police called them – have been arrested for the alleged conspiracy so far.

Police permission for banners is only one precaution the state administration is taking this year. Though the police have not followed up on criminal cases or begun to file chargesheets about last year’s attacks in Bhima Koregaon, the state seems keen to avoid another publicity disaster in another outbreak of violence.

Newspaper reports have been avidly noting the number of drones (12) and police personnel (more than 5,000) that will be deployed in the area. On December 29, technicians were setting up CCTV cameras along the main road of the village. The next day, hundreds of police officers participated in flag marches in several villages in and around Bhima Koregaon. The police have also given notices to 64 “known troublemakers” to stay away from the area on the days leading up to and after the commemoration.

Prakash Ambedkar's Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh is one of the few organisations to have put up a banner two days ahead of the commemoration.

Village alert

For the last three months, the Pune police and the district collector have been holding peace meetings in villages in these areas, urging (and warning) residents to avoid violence. But for the residents of Koregaon Bhima and Vadhu Budruk, there are mixed feelings about the anniversary.

“I am in great tension,” said Sangita Kamble, sarpanch of Bhima Koregaon, as she prepared for a wedding on Sunday. “I really want the next two days to pass in the same peace that we have had recently.”

Kamble became sarpanch in the middle of the panchayat’s term on December 29, 2017, three days before the violence broke out.

“As the sarpanch’s seat was reserved for Scheduled Caste women this time, [Jitendra] Gavhane [the deputy sarpanch] gave this seat for half the term to the former sarpanch and half to me,” Kamble explained. According to Kamble, this was the first time the seat of the sarpanch had been reserved for Scheduled Caste women. Gavhane, like others with this surname in Bhima Koregaon, is a Maratha. He has been sarpanch several times before.

On the day Kamble became sarpanch, three kilometres away in Vadhu Budruk, 49 Marathas were charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act after a group tore down a board that claimed Govind Gaikwad of the Mahar community had conducted the last rites of Sambhaji 300 years ago. They also vandalised a small structure built over Gaikwad’s own tomb in the village. Social media messages circulating in the last weeks of December 2017 and accessed by Scroll.in had called for Marathas to gather in large numbers on January 1 to show Dalits their place. These messages increased in frequency after December 29.

On December 30, the gram panchayat of Bhima Koregaon joined that of Vadhu Budruk in protest. It issued a notice for the village to be shut down on December 31 and January 1 as a precaution against violence. This became an effective social boycott of Dalits visiting the two villages on those days.

Kamble is one of the signatories of this notice, but says she had nothing to do with it. Sagar Gavhane, a clerk with the Koregaon Bhima gram panchayat, filed an affidavit with an inquiry commission into the violence, stating that he was asked to type it and backdate it on behalf of Ganesh Phadtare, a former deputy sarpanch of the village and one of those arrested for his alleged role in the violence.

Vrushali Gavhane, a social activist and another member of the panchayat, confirmed that there was no meeting of the gram panchayat on December 30 to call for a shutdown.

“We had said orally there will be a bandh, but there was no meeting,” she said. “Mostly on those days, only food stalls are kept open. We thought it better to shut those for safety.”

Gavhane, who also runs an electronics and furniture shop in Bhima Koregaon, is more concerned about the perceived lack of attention to Marathas who were attacked.

“The wrong videos went viral from here,” she said. “We were the ones who were attacked by those people. They broke a temple, our shops and windows.”

According to Gavhane, people in the village are “living in terror” that more violence will follow. “The entire village has been silent since last year,” she said. “Land rates have gone down, the movement of goods is less. My business has gone down by 50% to 60%.”

Bhima Koregaon, Gavhane’s nephew added, was until last year the market town for surrounding villages. Since the violence, business has dropped for everyone there.

The entrance to the samadhi of Sambhaji.

There is also silence in Vadhu Budruk, the village where it all began. Around six years ago, said residents of the village, Ambedkarites who visited the memorial pillar at Koregaon Bhima began to visit Vadhu Budruk in greater numbers to pay their respects at the resting places of both Sambhaji, who is regarded by many as being socially progressive, and Govind Gaikwad, a member of the Mahar community who is believed by some people to have defied the imperial orders of the Mughals to conduct Sambhaij’s last rites.

This year, Vadhu Budruk is bristling with police. The entry to the compound of Sambhaji’s samadhi now has a sturdy metal detector, racks outside the gate for footwear and barriers to direct the flow of the crowd. Police officials sitting inside note down the names and phone numbers of visitors as they enter and an employee of the site does the same as they leave. In sharp contrast, Gaikwad’s samadhi on the other side of the road has only one makeshift metal detector. The police officials seated near the rough stone memorial do not question visitors.

The march

On the morning of January 1, 2018, a group of people with saffron flags led a march from Vadhu Budruk to Koregaon Bhima to protest the commemoration of Gaikwad, among other grievances. On reaching Bhima Koregaon, a video from that day shows, the marchers turned violent when a sole person with a large blue flag ran into them.

Within days of the violence, the narrative of blame split in two directions. Two complaints filed with the Pune city police accuse entirely different groups of people of being behind the attacks. On January 3, Anita Sawle, a social activist, accused two Brahmin leaders of Hindutva organisations, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, of instigating the violence. While Bhide is known for his inflammatory history lectures across western Maharashtra, Ekbote is among other things, the head of a society that cares for the upkeep of Sambhaji’s samadhi and is a frequent visitor to Vadhu Budruk.

But on January 4, Tushar Damgude, a businessman from Pune, alleged that inflammatory speeches made on December 31 at the Elgaar Parishad, a conference organised by a multi-caste coalition against communalism, were actually funded by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and were the true cause of the violence.

It was while pursuing Damgude’s case that the Pune city police arrested ten activists across the country, first in June and then in August. The police claim that these civil rights activists are actually members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), that they funded the Elgaar Parishad to foment unrest, and in a dramatic set of claims, leaked letters purportedly from the activists to claim that they were involved in a plot to assassinate the Indian prime minister.

The Pune city police has shown more alacrity in following the Damgude case over any other. It took the Pune rural police 11 months to file a case against individuals who burnt an eatery belonging to Mangal Kamble, a Dalit woman, on January 2, 2018, and only after viewing videos Scroll.in had shot of the incident.

In 22 cases filed with the Shikrapur police station, not a single chargesheet has been filed, said Rahul Dambale, leader of the Republican Yuva Morcha who has been working closely with the state administration to organise peace meetings across villages. Dambale said only 114 of around 2,000 people involved in the violence had been arrested, and all of them have since received bail.

Meanwhile, there is no sign at all that the police are investigating Bhide or Ekbote to establish a link, if any, between them and the violence that broke out.

Sarjerao Waghmare, president of the Bhima Koregaon organising committee.

That has not prevented Dambale and other members of the Bhima Koregaon organising committee from being relentlessly optimistic about this year’s event running smoothly. Visitors have already begun to arrive in the villages near the pillar in small groups, staying with relatives, acquaintances or in the fields.

Said Sarjerao Waghmare, president of the committee who is from Bhima Koregaon: “Though there might be fewer people now, we hope that if there is no incident this year, they will have more confidence to return in larger numbers next year.”