As lakhs of Ambedkarites gathered in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune on Wednesday to commemorate a battle fought in 1818, the police kept strict watch. With crowds congregating from across the country over past fortnight to express their opposition to the new Citizenship Amendment Act, the authorities wanted to ensure that this mammoth event passed off smoothly.

Internet services had been snapped around Bhima Koregaon. In addition, the Pune district administration said that it would not give visitors permission to display banners criticising the Citizenship Act and the planned National Register of Citizens, The Indian Express reported.

But though there were no visible signs of protest at the event, many participants told that they didn’t need posters or slogans to express their opposition to the new law. “Ambedkar is our god and it is the Constitution that gives us the right to protest and speak freely,” declared 56-year-old Shankar Bhutale who had travelled to the event from Pune.

In Bhima Koregaon on Wednesday, the legacy of the architect of the Indian Constitution, India’s first law minister and the leader of many Dalit campaigns for equality was invoked by many visitors. After all, it was BR Ambedkar who started the annual Bhima Koregaon event marking the British Army’s triumph over the Brahmin Peshwa-ruled Maratha Empire by making a New Year’s Day visit here in 1927. The victory of the British Army, which included a large contingent of Dalit Mahar soldiers, is seen as an important blow against the casteist practices of the Peshwas.

Ambedkar has also been invoked frequently in many of the recent demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens: his image is seen on protestors’ placards across India and the Preamble of the Constitution is being chanted aloud as a sign of resistance.

“I am against CAA and NRC,” said Bhutale. “There is nothing to it.”

(Left to right): Pradeep Kamble, Rewat Ramesh Magari, Sridhar Bhaurao Bhavare and Sanjay Ghate at the gathering on Wednesday. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

The newly amended Citizenship Act fast tracks the citizenship process for undocumented migrants from three countries – as long as they aren’t Muslim. By introducing a religious test for citizenship, many legal experts say the Act violates India’s secular Constitution. Besides, many fear that the new law, combined with plans for a National Register of Citizens, could be used to harass India’s Muslims.

At Bhima Koregaon on Wednesday morning, Sridhar Bhaurao Bhavare, 27, and his friends Sanjay Ghate, 35 and Rewat Ramesh Magari, 34, were firm in their opinion that the Citizenship Amendment Act was unjust and that the National Register of Citizens should be boycotted. “We will only show the Constitution as proof of our citizenship,” said Bhavare, a daily wage labourer from Maharashtra’s Aurangabad.

Bhavare and his friends bought books on the life and works of Ambedkar.“What the government is doing is wrong,” Bhavare said. “The Constitution guarantees us our citizenship and more people need to be aware of this.”

‘Rights being taken away’

On Wednesday morning, police personnel were stationed at regular intervals along the stretch of the Pune-Ahmednagar Highway that leads to Bhima Koregaon. In the village, residents had set up stalls to sell food and water. Others set up book stalls that sold Buddhist and anti-caste literature and biographies of Ambedkar, and 19th-century social reformers Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule.

Lakhs of visitors, dressed in white and blue, took pictures and vidoes of a pillar commemorating the British victory. Bearing the names of the men who had been killed in the Battle of Koregaon, it had been covered with garlands.

Among the visitors was Rajendra Kamble, 53. He said that it wasn’t only the Dalit community that found hope in Ambedkar’s teachings and the Constitution: Muslims do so too, he said.
“That is why we can see Ambedkar at Jama Masjid,” said Kamble, who works as a village development officer in Latur. “They [Muslims] know it is the only solution and in North India we can see all other communities joining them.”

Kamble was referring to the photographs and videos of protests at Old Delhi’s iconic mosque on December 20 where Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad was seen holding a copy of the Constitution with Ambedkar’s image on it.

“Which minority is safe in India?” asked Rajendra Kamble, who regularly came to Bhima Koregaon every year since 1984. “Today it is Muslims but tomorrow it could be Buddhists, Sikhs or Christians. They [BJP] intend to deal with everyone.”

Rajendra Kamble visited Bhima Koregaon along with his friend Uttam Kamble. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Many Buddhist monks also attended the commemoration on Wednesday. Sixty-five-year-old Bhikhu Gyan Jyoti said he had come to Bhima Koregaon from Chandrapur district in Maharashtra regularly since 1977.

“I have been visiting since Emergency,” he said, referring to the period when Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties. But this time around, he said, “every citizen has to be on the streets protesting” against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC.

“People’s rights are being taken away,” said the monk. “This is a betrayal of the citizens. The Constitution protects citizenship. They are trying to destroy it and create a Hindu rashtra. I live in a forest and I do not have any papers to prove my citizenship. We will be made to die in queues the way it happened during demonetisation.”

'People's rights are being taken away,' said Bhiku Gyan Jyoti. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Thirty seven-year-old Nitin Dongre drew a parallel between the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in 1818 and the protests against the Act and NRC. “That time it was a protest to fight for rights and this time it is no different,” said Dongre, who hails from Akola in Maharashtra but now works in Dubai. He has been attending the commemoration for the past 10 years.

“CAA and NRC are against poor people,” said Dongre. “People are saying that protestors have destroyed public property but what about those people who fled the country with crores of public money?”

Dongre called the proposed NRC exercise a “slow poison”. “It is because of lack of literacy that people do not know how this exercise will affect them,” he said.

Lakhs gathered on Wednesday at Bhima Koregaon. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Change in government

Though the commemoration of the battle has been held peacefully for decades, Bhima Koregaon village came into the national spotlight on January 1, 2018, when visitors were attacked. Videos from that day show people with saffron flags and shirts, associated with Hindutva groups, attacking people with blue flags, which are associated with Ambedkarites.

In August 2018, ten human rights activists and lawyers from across the country were arrested for allegedly provoking the violence at the behest of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). These arrests were made as two Hindutva leaders accused of instigating the violence, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, have remained largely untouched by the police.

After a coalition government took charge of Maharashtra at the end of November, several Nationalist Congress Party leaders including Sharad Pawar called for an inquiry into the actions of the Pune police.

On December 4, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray agreed in principle to withdraw nearly 700 cases related to the violence at Bhima Koregaon, and the agitations that took place after, The Hindu reported.

But visitors at Bhima Koregaon said that a change in the government made little difference to them.

“The community that comes here does not fear any government,” said Milind Kamble, a 35-year-old daily wage earner in Pimpri. “People here know that they need to educate themselves as Ambedkar said, to make themselves more aware.”

Bhutale on the other hand said that it was too early to jump to conclusions about the new state government. Since the incident in 2018, crowds at the victory pillar have actually increased, he said. “We need to see if they investigate Bhide or not.”

Rajendra Kamble was also sceptical about the new government. “We do not need anything from the government,” he said. “The community that comes here is not afraid of anyone. We are all self made.”