The Pune Police on Bhima Koregaon: 22 FIRs uninvestigated, eyewitness statements unrecorded and a main conspirator on bail

The accounts of multiple eyewitnesses supported the claims made by Sawale and the police—that the violence was planned in advance by Bhide and Ekbote, in response to a clash between the Mahars and Marathas in Wadhu Budruk a week earlier. (Left) Sanket Wankhade / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
14 September, 2018

On the morning of 1 January, Anita Sawale, a 39-year-old resident of the Pimpri-Chinchwad suburb in Pune, left for Bhima Koregaon with her husband, Ravindra Sawale, and their two children, to pay their respects to a war memorial in the village. The memorial is an obelisk constructed by the British to commemorate their victory in a historic battle at Koregaon, in 1818, when a small British battalion, largely comprising soldiers from the oppressed Mahar caste, defeated a Peshwa army, predominantly of dominant-caste Marathas. The Mahar community takes pride in the historic defeat of their oppressors—they celebrate the day as a festival known as “Valour Day,” while some even consider a visit to the memorial an annual pilgrimage. But on the bicentennial anniversary of the battle, the Sawale family’s pilgrimage was interrupted by unprecedented violence.

The family left their home at 11 am. On their way, at a toll plaza, Sawale witnessed an armed mob attacking people, pelting stones, setting cars on fire and burning blue flags. Around two hours after they left home, when they reached Wadhu Budruk, a village near three kilometres from the memorial, the family sought the protection of the local police officers. However, the police were uncooperative and the family resorted to hiding at a safe location in the neighbourhood. The next day, Sawale filed a written complaint at the Pimpri police station—though the investigation was was later transferred to Shikrapur—in which she recalled that the family was soon discovered by the mob, but that they “somehow managed to escape and save their lives.”

Sawale’s complaint also narrates the experience of her friend, Anjana Gaikwad, who had left Pimpri with her brother and six-year-old son at the same time as Sawale for the annual pilgrimage. That day, Sawale stated, Anjana travelled by a different route and called her from near Sanaswadi village, around ten kilometres from Bhima Koregaon. She told Sawale that mobs of people armed with rods and swords were attacking vehicles and pilgrims on the road, burning the blue flags associated with Panchsheel flag—a symbol of peace in the Buddhist faith—and throwing petrol bombs at people and vehicles with BR Ambedkar’s picture on them.

Within a week, the Pune Rural Police registered at least 22 cases, including Sawale’s, in multiple incidents of attacks against the pilgrims across different routes leading to the war memorial. The state government has stated before a Pune court that there are over 1,400 suspects in these cases, and estimated a total loss to public property of over Rs 1.5 crore. In the first information report registered against her complaint, Sawale named Manohar Bhide, president of the Shiv Jagar Pratishthan, Milind Ekbote, president of the Hindu Janjagran Samiti, and their “savarna sathidar”—savarna associates. Both Ekbote and Bhide command a large following in Maharashtra, and across India, including the prime minister Narendra Modi, who has publicly referred to Bhide as “Guruji.”

The Pune-based Hindutva leaders have been arraigned as accused persons in two cases—in an FIR that the police registered on the day of the violence, and in the case registered against Sawale’s complaint the next day. Over two months after the violence, and shortly after the Supreme Court dismissed his request for anticipatory bail, Ekbote was arrested by the Pune Rural Police. But within a little over a month, he was released on bail in both cases, despite facing charges for rioting, unlawful assembly, being armed with a deadly weapon and attempt to murder, in addition to other offences relating to the destruction of public property. Bhide, on the other hand, was never arrested. Instead, in March this year, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis declared in the state assembly that there was no evidence against Bhide.

Ekbote was granted bail in Sawale’s complaint on 4 April, and in the case registered by the police on 19 April. In Sawale’s case, the bail order notes that the investigating officer identified Ekbote as a “principal conspirator” of the violence, and that the state government’s prosecutor argued that Ekbote had “hatched a conspiracy to commit the offence.” The bail order in the police case, too, notes that the prosecution identified Ekbote as a “main conspirator.” It also records that the prosecution argued that the 1 January violence was the result of a clash between the Mahar and Maratha communities that occurred five days earlier, in Wadhu Budruk. But in both cases, the respective judges rejected the arguments of the victims and the prosecution, and granted Ekbote bail.

It has now been over eight months since the cases were registered in the Bhima Koregaon violence—including the assault on pilgrims, and the arson of their vehicles and of the houses and shops of local Dalits—but the Pune Rural Police is yet to file a chargesheet. Sandeep Patil, Pune’s superintendent of rural police, told me they would file a chargesheet in Sawale’s case by the end of September. He added that 110 people had been arrested in the cases so far. But when told that there are over 1,400 suspects, he said he had recently joined as the superintendent. (Suvez Haque, the previous superintendent, has since promoted to the post of superintendent in the Central Bureau of Investigation.) The Maharashtra government had also set up a two-member judicial commission in February to probe the violence, but it held its first hearing only on 5 September.

Given the number of cases pending before the police, the available eyewitness testimonies and the submissions during Ekbote’s bail hearing, the sluggish nature of the Pune Rural Police’s investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence raises questions. In early September, I spoke to half a dozen eyewitnesses to the violence and went through the affidavits of seven victims that were submitted to the two-member judicial commission. Many said they were beaten up on their way to the memorial, while some even had their houses and shops burnt down because they were serving refreshments to the pilgrims.

The accounts of multiple eyewitnesses supported the claims made by Sawale and the police—that the violence was planned in advance by Bhide and Ekbote, in response to a clash between the Mahars and Marathas in Wadhu Budruk a week earlier. But when asked why Bhide had not been arrested despite being named in the FIR, Patil said, “Thinkers, who are not directly involved, [if] they have to be taken under 120B”—the offence of criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code—“there has to be evidence, na.”

According to Rahul Dambale, a Pune-based social worker who has been regularly involved in community work for the festival, Bhide and Ekbote’s organisations conduct a social-media campaign against the Mahar community every year, starting in September. Dambale said the organisations circulate messages that would malign the Mahar community on social media, such as, “Mahar gaddar hai, Peshwai ke khilaf hain, yeh kaala din manayenge.” (The Mahars are traitors, they are against the Peshwas, they will celebrate this black day.)

The history of the dispute between the Mahar and Maratha communities, Dambale explained, lies in the death of Sambhaji Bhosale, the son of the Maratha king Shivaji. According to the Mahar community, after Sambhaji was killed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Govind Gopal Gaikwad performed his last rites. After Gaikwad’s death, his tomb was placed beside that of Sambhaji, in Wadhu Budruk. Every year, the Mahars visit the tomb to pay their respect to Gaikwad, who had defied Aurangzeb by performing the funeral rites of the king. “The only one who sacrificed his life for Sambhaji Maharaj was the Mahar, and their tombs lie next to each other,” Dambale told me. “To suppress the history of Gopal Govind Mahar, they want to destroy the tomb that was created by the Scheduled Caste community.”

In its submissions during Ekbote’s bail hearing, the Maharashtra government stated that the violence at Bhima Koregaon was the culmination of a clash concerning the tomb in Wadhu Budruk. The bail order in the police case records the Maharashtra government’s submissions before the court: “On 27.12.2017, one board having objectionable matter was installed near the grave of Govind Mahar at village Wadhu and it was removed by one Sachin Bhandare and others. Some had abused in respect of caste. Hence, atmosphere was tense in that village.” The court was referring to a signboard that the Mahar community had installed at the tomb in late December, which reportedly described Gaikwad as the one who defied Aurangzeb to conduct the final rites. According to the prosecution and Mahar locals, members of the Maratha community had removed this signboard and vandalised the tomb. Dambale claimed that Ekbote’s organisation wanted to break Gaikwad’s tomb “so that there is no sign of this history left.” He added, “It was his men involved in removing the board at Gaikwad’s tomb.”

The public prosecutor further told the court that Ekbote visited Sonai Hotel in the nearby village of Perne Phata “on 29.12.2017 to meet some journalists and in that meeting he had given one pamphlet/press note to journalists to publish/circulate it in society.” The prosecutor added, “Thereafter there was communal outbreak in Bhima Koregaon and in whole Maharashtra. Thus the role of present applicant-accused is of main conspirator.”

In the bail hearing in Sawale’s case, the prosecution also produced a copy of the pamphlet, with Ekbote’s signature, that he had allegedly distributed on 29 December. The pamphlet, which is reproduced in the court’s bail order, starts with a declaration of “Jai Shri Ram.” It states, “Today, we should think about whether it is suitable to exalt the British victory to this extent.” The pamphlet disputes the claim that BR Ambedkar had started the annual celebration of the battle at Koregaon. Instead, it insists that Jogendra Kawade, the former Maharashtra member of parliament from the People’s Republican Party, started the tradition with the gangster Haji Mastan. “This is the fact,” the pamphlet states. “This programme was formed at the time to create a rift among Indians … Elevating this memorial is to insult the soldiers who fight for this country. It is wrong of the government to cooperate with this programme.”

After the clash over the removal of the board from Gaikwad’s tomb, Dambale told me, the Mahars and Marathas both registered cases against each other at Wadhu Budruk, and the next day, the superintendent of police called meeting of the both parties. At the meeting, Dambale recounted, “When Mahars explained the history of Gaikwad to the Marathas that he dared to defy the Mughal’s order to give last rite to his beloved king, they understood and agreed for peace and both sides postponed the matter to another meeting on 4 January after the festival.”

Ekbote’s organisation was opposed to any peace settlement and “instigated” the Marathas into violence. According to Dambale, he had heard that Ekbote asked the Marathas whether they were ready to accept that their ancestors were fearful of the Mughals and that Gaikwad was the only one who defied Aurangzeb to perform the funeral rites of their king. The next day, on 31 December, Ganesh Fadtare, a member of the Bhima Koregaon gram sabha informed the police that the gram panchayat had declared a bandh on 1 January. “It was strange that the clash between the communities had occurred in Wadhu Budruk, but the bandh was declared three kilometres away in Bhima Koregaon, and exactly on the day of the festival,” Dambale said. Given that the police were informed in advance about the strike, he added, the police should have taken steps to prevent the bandh and the armed Marathas from mobilising.

Tousif Shaikh, a lawyer who represented Sawale’s friend Anjana in court, told me that the call for the bandh was to ensure that the pilgrims visiting the war memorial would have to starve and remain thirsty during their journey. Those who did defy the panchayat’s orders, such as Mangal Kailash Kamble, a resident of Bhima Koregaon who runs a restaurant, “had to face the wrath of Ekbote’s men,” Shaikh said.

In his affidavit to the two-member judicial commission, Kamble stated that on 31 December 2017, Ganesh Fadtare came to his restaurant to inform him about the bandh. Kamble notes that Fadtare asked his family to take down the decorations they had put up for the bicentennial anniversary, and warned the family against serving tea, snacks or lunch to the pilgrims. “My son informed him that we will visit the site tomorrow as we have been doing for years and will make food and beverage provisions as well. Ganesh Fadtare then threatened us saying that if we decide to do as we please, then our home and restaurant will cease to exist.” The next day, true to their word, Kamble and his family defied Fadtare and began preparing food and beverages for the pilgrims at 8 am. At around 11 am, Kamble informed the judicial commission, Fadtare came with 20-25 people to his restaurant, “started physically assaulting the visitors, and then proceeded to beat my son and me.” He stated that his son had to rush him to Omkar Hospital in Pune for treatment, and when he returned the next day, “around 2,000 people gathered near my home and restaurant and vandalized everything. The loss is estimated up to Rs 5 lakhs.”

Kamble was not the only one who spoke of the violence continuing to the day after the bicentenary of the battle. Vilas Keru Ingale had organised a blood-donation camp that he intended to hold at the memorial site on 1 January. But on that day, he stated in his affidavit, he learnt that “vehicles with blue-flags are being burnt and families arriving at the site, including women and children, are being pelted with stones and injured in the violence.” On 2 January, Ingale writes, “The savarna community in our village started attacking all the SC/ST families and homes and burnt their property, pelted stones at people and destroyed property.” He further submitted, “The police forces deployed for the purposes of controlling the law and order situation, made absolutely no attempts to prevent the violence and destruction of property.”

“Savarna men had started gathering at Wadhu since 31 December, and on the day of the festival, they marched from Wadhu to Bhima Koregaon with swords, sticks and patrol bombs,” Dambale told me. “If the police had wanted, they could have stopped everything before 1 January.” Dambale also pointed out that the attack appeared premeditated because the attackers were pelting stones from the roofs of houses, which indicated that they had been stacked it in advance. “Sadak pe patharbaji samjha ja sakta hai. Magar chhat se log patthar barsa rahen the.” (I can understand stone-throwing from the street. But people were raining down stones at us from their roofs.)

Despite the availability of powerful eyewitness testimonies, Ekbote was able to get bail in both cases. In Sawale’s case, the bail was contested by her lawyer, the prosecutor and the counsels for other victims as well, including Anjana. But the presiding judge Pralhad C Bagure dismissed each argument against Ekbote. For instance, he ruled that the distribution of pamphlets was protected under the freedom of speech and expression, and that nothing from the investigation showed that Ekbote’s organisation had committed offences because of the pamphlet. It was also argued that Ekbote was on bail in 19 different cases, and that he was likely to commit an offence again if granted bail, but the court dismissed that ground as well. Similarly, in the police case, the judge SM Menjoge refuted each argument of the prosecution, before finally granting bail, noting that “it would not be proper to deny the bail to present accused on the sole ground of criminal antecedent.”

Both judges also relied on the statement of a police constable Navnath Gangurde, who was assigned as Ekbote’s security officer from 30 December to 1 January. Gangurde submitted details of Ekbote’s movement during those days to establish that he never visited Bhima Koregaon. Tousif criticised the court’s reliance on this argument: “Phir 120B kiske liye hai, criminal conspiracy ke liye! Section kya bolta hai—woh operator hai, woh spot peh rehne ki jarurat thode hai.” (Then why does Section 120B exist? For criminal conspiracy! What does the section say, he is an operator, he does not need to be present at the spot.) Another lawyer associated with the case, who requested not to be identified, also rejected the reliance on Gangurde: “The alibi that they took, we as lawyers also take to defend our clients but while doing so we often get warned by judges that such defence can only be taken during trial and not during bail hearing.”

The superintendent Patil claimed that the police had challenged Ekbote’s bail before the Bombay High Court. However, the court’s website did not appear to contain any details of an appeal by the state of Maharashtra. The only appeal listed against Ekbote’s bail has been filed by one Sanjay Ramesh Bhalerao. The appeal was listed for its first hearing on 20 July before a bench of Bhushan Gavai and Sarang Kotwal, and the court ordered that the matter be listed before a bench in which Gavai was not a member. The appeal has not yet been listed for another hearing.

It is pertinent to note that none of the eyewitnesses I spoke to, excluding Sawale, were called by the police for recording their statements. Dambale said he had gone to the police station twice but the police refused to take his statement. Similarly, Mangal Kamble, Rekha Mahindra Gaikwad, Ram Kailash Kamble, Vilas Keru Ingle and Anjana Gaikwad, all of whose statements were recorded before the judicial commission, told me that none of them were ever called by the police. The failure to record the statements of these individuals, who are not just witnesses to the crime but victims of it as well, is indicative of the farcical nature of the Pune Rural Police’s investigation into the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Meanwhile, the Pune City Police, acting on an FIR registered eight days after the violence, has arrested ten prominent human-rights activists, lawyers and writers, on allegations of being Maoist operatives who instigated the violence. These arrests have not been made in connection with any of the 22 FIRs registered by the Pune Rural Police, but on the basis of a complaint by Tushar Damgude, a Pune-based businessman who is known to be a follower of Manohar Bhide. Damgude has alleged that the violence was caused due to inflammatory speeches given at Elgar Parishad, a mass public meeting organised by PB Sawant, a former Supreme Court judge, and BG Kolse-Patil, a former Bombay High Court judge. The police action is bizarre, considering that the speeches at the event did not instigate or provoke the attendees to resort to violence, and was held on 31 December, at least 30 kilometres away from Bhima Koregaon, at Shaniwar Wada in Pune.

The eyewitnesses and their lawyers appeared baffled by the arrests. Apart from one of the activists, Sudhir Dhawale, who was among the organisers of the Elgar Parishad, none of the activists were named in Damgude’s FIR or had any relation to the event. Several told me that the activists had absolutely no connection to any of the villages around Bhima Koregaon or their people. According to them, none of the activists had ever visited their villages or attended any of their events. Sawant, too, told me the arrested activists were “people whom we don’t know at all… I can’t understand what the police wants to prove.” Kumar Kalel, a lawyer for one of the victims, asked, “What happened to the city police suddenly after six months that it arrested people in a case lodged eight days after Bhima Koregaon violence?”

According to Anjana’s advocate Tousif, the arrests were an attempt to divert attention from Ekbote, because by April, when the Hindutva leader was released on bail, the police was under pressure to file a chargesheet in the case and had identified him as a “the main conspirator.” He said the arrests revealed contradictions in the police action. “On one side, the rural police itself is saying that Bhide and Ekbote masterminded the Bhima Koregaon violence, and on the other, city police is saying it’s Naxals who did it.” Another lawyer associated with the case, who requested not to be identified, said the government “invented” the Naxal connection to Bhima Koregaon because it did not want a full-fledged chargesheet on the activities of Ekbote and Bhide.

Kalel and Tousif have moved a petition in the Bombay High Court demanding the transfer of the case to the National Investigation Agency because the arrested activists have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Kalel also told me that he did not understand why the Pune City Police had exhibited a document they claimed was crucial evidence in a press conference instead of producing it before the court. “Aap press conference bulate hain”—You call a press conference, he said. “Who are you? Whatever you have to report, report it to the court. What’s the point of showing it to the public?” On 3 September, the Bombay High Court, too, pulled up the police for convening a press conference and revealing information that could be evidence.

The arrests of the activists, lawyers and writers came in two waves—first, on 6 June, the city police conducted a raid across Delhi, Mumbai and Nagpur, and arrested Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut and Surendra Gadling. The police invoked sections of the UAPA against the five accused, though the police is yet to file a chargesheet in the case. On 2 September, a Pune court granted the police an extension of 90 days to file the chargesheet. The second wave of arrests came over two months later in a similar multi-city raid, on 28 August. The city police arrested Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Ferriera, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navalakha. The attempt to remand them to custody in Pune was thwarted after the historian Romila Thapar and four other petitioners moved the Supreme Court against the arrests, referring to them as attempts to muzzle dissenting voices by the police. The court has currently stayed the remand till 17 September and placed the activists under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Anita has moved the Bombay High Court, demanding Bhide’s arrest, a court-monitored enquiry and a time-bound investigation into the cases against the Hindutva leaders. The other eyewitnesses, who are residents of Bhima Koregaon and the surrounding villages, told me that they, too, are considering approaching the high court to claim compensation for the damages they suffered and to get the main accused arrested soon. Sawale, in her petition, has pleaded that Bhide is neither being arrested nor investigated despite being named in the FIR. She claims that a viral social-media message that was circulated on 30 December shows the involvement of Bhide and the members of his organisation in the violence that broke out in Bhima Koregaon. Her petition is listed for its next hearing on 26 September.

Ekbote’s lawyer, Nitin Pradhan, said his client was not present at the spot and therefore cannot be arraigned as a conspirator to the violence. Pradhan also offered his theory and an explanation for the violence. “Entire Leftists, including Naxals, have ganged up today. They are trying to malign [Narendra] Modi and the [Devendra] Fadnavis government. Fadnavis himself is a Brahmin. I feel somewhere that he has been affected mentally—you are told, ‘You are the Brahmin, you are the Brahmin, you are not worth leading this because your forefather is doing something.’ This is a psychological warfare.”