Bhima-Koregaon was the site of clashes on 1 January 2018, the 200th anniversary of a battle where a British army comprising Dalits beat one led by Brahmin Peshwa.
New Delhi: There was tight security Tuesday at Bhima-Koregaon in Maharashtra’s Pune district as the authorities stepped in to prevent a repeat of last year’s clashes between Dalits and Marathas.
The violence on 1 January 2018, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon — where a British army comprising Dalits defeated a bigger force of the Brahmin Peshwa— had left one person dead and a lot of public property damaged.
With lakhs converging at Vijay Stambh (victory pillar), a memorial of the battle, Tuesday, thousands of security personnel were in place, with internet services reportedly suspended as well.
Bhim Army chief and Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad is expected to visit the memorial too.
The importance of Bhima-Koregaon
On 1 January 1818, a small battalion of the East India Company, comprising Dalit Mahar soldiers, fought and defeated the mightier army of Maratha ruler Peshwa Bajirao II at Bhima-Koregaon.
Every year since, lakhs of Dalits have marched to and assembled at the Vijay Sthamb to commemorate the victory of a Dalit army over the Brahmin ruler.
The 200th anniversary of the showdown arrived amid existing tensions in the area over a row preceding the battle by over a century: Whether it was a Maratha or a Dalit who defied Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to cremate Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son Sambhaji in 1689.
This row had seen a memorial to the Dalit in question, Govind Gopal Gaekwad of the Mahar community, get vandalised, and there was deep unease among locals.
On 31 December 2017, an event called Elgar Parishad was organised by acitivists and academicians for the 200th anniversary, where an estimated 35,000 people gathered.
Those present at the meeting included Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and activist Radhika Vemula, mother of Rohith Vemula, the PhD scholar at University of Hyderabad who committed suicide over alleged caste-based harassment.
A local subsequently filed a complaint with police alleging that incendiary speeches were made at the event, following which the Pune police filed an FIR against several participants of the Elgar Parishad, including Mevani and Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid.
Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide ‘Guruji’ have also been booked for allegedly inciting the violence that took place the next day. Ekbote was arrested in March 2018, but released on bail in April.
The clashes kept returning to the news cycle over the year with the arrest of 10 activists for allegedly triggering the violence and suspected Maoist links.
The arrested activists included Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, who were rounded up in August. Five others were earlier arrested in June.
These arrests can be credited with adding the term ‘urban Naxals’ to the Indian political lexicon, coined and popularised by proponents of the right wing as they weighed in on the arrests on social media.