New Delhi: Three years after it led to violence and the arrests of a number of activists, the Elgar Parishad event is to be held at Pune on 30 January this year.
The Pune Police has granted permission for the event, which commemorates the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. The Elgar Parishad was last held between 31 December 2017 and 1 January 2018.
According to media reports, Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy and former IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan will be the key speakers this time.
ThePrint explains the controversies surrounding the event, its significance and its different facets.
The Elgar Parishad is an event that attempts to perpetuate the memory of the Bhima Koregaon battle fought on 1 January 1818. It saw a small contingent of Mahar Dalit soldiers (serving in the then British Army) defeat the army of Peshwa Bajirao II.
The Mahars, who are Dalits, see the victory as one over the Brahmin Peshwas, and by extension, oppression. While Dalits visit the village of Bhima Koregaon every year, the Elgar Parishad was first held on 31 December 2017 to mark 200 years of the battle.
The event was held at Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort, where over 30,000 people had gathered, and comprised performances including plays, musical events, speeches and sloganeering.
Violence and arrests
Violence, however, broke out on 2 January 2018, a day after the event concluded, with the Pune Police claiming that speeches at the Elgar Parishad were responsible, at least partially, for the clashes.
Two FIRs were filed — one against Shivjagar Pratisthan president Sambhaji Bhide ‘Guruji’ and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti president Milind Ekbote. The second FIR was filed against “Leftist groups with Maoist links” who spoke at the Elgar Parishad.
While little action has been taken in the first FIR, the second FIR has been vigorously pursued by authorities. Three charge sheets have been filed — two by Pune Police and one by the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
In 2018, the Pune Police raided the homes of several human rights activists across the country and arrested activists, lawyers and academicians including Varavara Rao, Sudhir Dhawale, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson, among others. After the NIA was handed over the case, it arrested Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, Stan Swamy and members of the Kabir Kala Manch.
In October 2020, the NIA filed a charge sheet, accusing some of those arrested as being part of a Maoist conspiracy, while the Bombay High Court called the Bhima Koregaon violence a deep-rooted conspiracy.
All of the BK16 (Bhima Koregaon 16) as they are called, have been booked under stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. They are all still in jail.
A second event
The convenors of the 2021 Elgar Parishad are the retired Bombay High Court judges Justices B.G. Kolse-Patil and P.B. Sawant.
The duo were also the convenors of the 2017 event.
In an earlier interview, Justice Kolse-Patil had said that the Elgar Parishad was an attempt to “fight communal forces”.
“We have openly been saying this from the beginning. We organised Elgar Parishad with the simple motive of spreading the message of fighting communal forces,” he had said.
In an statement to Dalit Camera on 16 January, the organisers of the Elgar Parishad wrote that the theme will continue this year as well.
“The purpose behind organising the Elgar Parishad this year is no different from why we organised it in 2017, under the guidance of Justice P.B. Sawant and Justice Kolse Patil,” they wrote. “The situation is the same; in fact, it is worsening everyday.”
The event has not been without its fair share of controversies. The Pune Police initially denied permission for the event, citing the Covid-19 pandemic and law and order issues, but have now relented for the 30 January date.
In between, the organisers had threatened to go ahead with the event without the required permission. At a press conference on 20 December last year, Patil said, “We could not hold it on 31 December as planned, so we will now hold it on 30 January, at the Ganesh Kala Krida Manch auditorium in Pune. And if not there, we will hold it on the streets. If not allowed to do that, we will fill the jails.”
Remembering Rohith Vemula
Organisers say they picked 30 January as it is the birth anniversary of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the Hyderabad Central University who died by suicide in 2016 and whose death sparked protests over caste-based discrimination in educational institutions.
“The date coincides with the birth anniversary of Rohith Vemula. The conference will be held from 11 am until 10 pm, and will be addressed by a large number of social activists and thought leaders from across the country,” Akash Sabale, an organiser of the event told The Indian Express.
Senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Ambedkarite, Suraj Yengde, told ThePrint this was “a significant and solid move”.
“One needs to remember Rohith through such events. To remember Rohith Vemula in this revolutionary spirit is giving his philosophy, his dedication to his community, appreciative respect,” he said.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.