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.