Pune Police is diverting the Bhima Koregaon investigation, protecting Bhide, Ekbote: Deputy mayor Siddharth Dhende

The Caravan publishes report of police-appointed committee, headed by Dhende, that finds Hindutva outfits “pre-planned” the Bhima Koregaon violence

Courtesy Pune Municipal Corporation
09 September, 2018

On 1 January this year, Dalits from across India gathered in Bhima Koregaon, a village 30 kilometers from Pune, to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of a historic battle that took place in the village in 1818. The battle had culminated in the victory of a small British battalion, largely comprising soldiers from the oppressed Mahar caste, over an army of dominant-caste Peshwas. On the 200th anniversary, as lakhs marched towards the Koregaon Ranstambh, or Vijay Stambh—a memorial pillar erected by the British to commemorate the battle—mobs of people carrying saffron flagsattacked the predominantly Dalit gathering.

In the days that followed, the police registered multiple complaints and first information reports, each with competing narratives about the origins of the violence. In early January, the Pune Rural Police appointed a ten-member fact-finding committee, headed by the city’s deputy mayor, Siddharth Dhende, to inquire into the violence and the events leading up to it. Over a span of ten days, the committee visited Bhima Koregaon and nearby villages, interviewing eyewitnesses, victims, journalists who were present in the area, and local residents. They collected evidence such as individual testimonies, audio-visual proof—including recordings of phone calls and videos from the day of the violence—and messages circulated on Facebook and Whatsapp. The committee submitted a detailed report to the police on 20 January.

The report identifies two Pune-based Hindutva leaders—Milind Ekbote and Manohar Bhide—as the  “main conspirators” behind the violence, supported by other local leaders across party affiliations. These findings corroborate an earlier complaint filed by Anita Sawale, a resident of Pune and an eyewitness to the violence. Sawale’s complaint, on the basis of which the police registered an FIR on 2 January, stated that Ekbote and Bhide were responsible for the violence.

The contents of the fact-finding committee’s report assume significance in the wake of recent arrests of prominent civil-rights activists, lawyers and writers—allegedly in connection to the violence on 1 January—which has brought Bhima Koregaon back into the spotlight. The police have claimed that the arrested individuals are Maoists responsible for funding and instigating the violence that took place on 1 January. However, the fact-finding committee’s report contradicts the police narrative about the events leading up to the violence at Bhima Koregaon.

The report is a scathing indictment of both Bhide and Ekbote, of local Hindutva groups, and of the Pune Police. Based on eyewitness accounts that speak of kerosene filled in water tractors and “sticks and swords hidden” in a tea stall the night before, the report explicitly describes what took place in Bhima Koregaon as a “pre-planned attack.” The report explains the day-to-day incidents in the build-up to the 1 January violence, identifies specific individuals involved in it, and describes how pleas for help by local residents—including the minister of state for social justice Dilip Kamble—were ignored by the police and by state ministers.

Soon after it was submitted, the Pune Rural Police denied the committee’s findings. They have also since made little progress in the investigation of Sawale’s complaint, despite supporting evidence submitted by the police-commissioned fact-finding committee.Instead, the police has been acting on another FIR, registered following a complaint by Tushar Damgude, a businessman in Pune, on 9 January—eight days after the violence broke out. Damgude, who is a follower of Sambhaji Bhide, claimed that the Bhima Koregaon violence was a result of provocative speeches deliveredat the Elgar Parishad, a mass public meeting conducted on 31 December 2017, organised primarily by two retired judges of the higher judiciary.

Though the recent wave of arrests are in relation to Damgude’s FIR, only one of the ten people arrested so far is even named in the FIR—Sudhir Dhawale, another of the organisers of the Elgar Parishad. Meanwhile, the investigation into the role of the Hindutva leaders in provoking the violence appears to be sluggish. Milind Ekbote is out on bail and the police have said they will not press charges against Bhide. An answer to the sluggish investigation into their role in the Bhima Koregaon violence perhaps lies in their backgrounds. Ekbote is a former BJP corporator, who founded the Shiv Jagar Pratishtan, while Bhide is a former RSS worker, and founder of the Hindu Janajagran Samiti, with a large following in Maharashta and across the country—including the prime minister Narendra Modi, who has publicly referred to him as “Guruji.”

The committee’s report states that the police “deliberately failed” to curb the violence, and that that some policemen in civil clothes marched alongside the mobs that carried saffron flags. It further notes that as “Hindutvawadi crowds” approached the Vijay Stambh, a few people shouted, “Don’t worry, the police is on our side.” In view of this, the committee recommended that the police should not conduct the investigation, and that it should be carried out by a Special Investigation Team. The Pune Rural Police did not respond to several requests for a comment on the committee’s report. Both the Pune inspector general of police, Vishwas Nangre-Patil, and the superintendent of police, Sandeep Patil, did not return calls or respond to messages.

Though the findings of the committee could not be independently verified, given the gravity of the conclusions in the report and in view of the larger public interest, The Caravan is releasing the original Marathi report along with an English translation. In addition, over a series of phone conversations in early September, Tusha Mittal, an assistant editor at The Caravan, spoke to Siddharth Dhende, who headed the fact-finding committee. Dhende, a member of the Republican Party of India (Athawale), which is in coalition with the BJP in Mahrashtra, is the deputy mayor of Pune elected on a BJP ticket. Dhende rejected the Maharashta police’s claims of Naxal involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence, and stated that Hindutva groups had instigated caste tensions in the area ahead of the 1 January event. When asked about the police response to the report, he said, “There is pressure from the government, because this report totally goes against saffron groups and the people with a Hindutva agenda.”

Tusha Mittal: What is the context in which your fact-finding took place? What was your mandate?

Siddharth Dende: After the violence in Bhima Koregaon on 1 January, there was agitation by Ambedkarite groups all over Maharashtra, in districts, villages and towns. In that context, [the inspector general of police of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur Range] Mr Nangre Patil held a meeting with Dalit activists at the SP’s office in Pune. Nearly 200–250 Dalit organisations and their leaders were present. I was also there.

In that meeting, the Dalit activists were demanding that the police arrest Mr Bhide and Mr Ekbote. To cool the activists down, they said you people make a committee, [to find] whatever facts there are, because there were multiple videos, photos, audios.

So ten of us formed an informal committee. We went to Bhima Koregaon, Vadu gaon, Sanaswadi, and the nearby villages. There we met all the critical persons, press reporters, gram panchayats members, police officials and the common public—not only Dalit but also non-Dalit people. We interviewed nearly 400 eyewitnesses. All the [information about the] incidents we got, and nearly 200–250 photos, videos, audio clips we collected, we submitted to the police.

TM: Based on your investigation, what happened on 1 January and the events leading up to it? What was the main trigger?

SD: We came to a conclusion that this particular riot was a pre-planned one. The Elgar Parishad took place on the evening of 31 [December] in Pune city, near Shaniwar Vada, but the riot took place on 1 [January]. It wasn’t an incidental thing. It was totally a conspiracy by people and organisations with a Hindutva agenda. This was not a dangal, this was a pre-planned attack on Ambedkarite and Dalit groups who were going to collect in Bhima Koregaon on 1 January.

The Dalit commemoration [of the battle at Bhima Koregaon] was hurting the sentiments of upper-caste Hindus who dispute their version of history. People like Bhide, Ekbote, and other Hindutvawadi groups have been trying their best to wipe out this history and spread falsehood in mind of young people. These incidents were orchestrated to destroy the bicentennial [celebration] of this history.

A few days before 1 January, a controversy stirred up after a banner was put up in Vadu gaon, three kilometres from Bhima Koregaon, related to the Mahar community’s version of history. [The Vadu Khurd village is home to the samadhi, or final resting place, of Sambhaji Bhosale, the son of the Maratha king Shivaji, and Govind Gaikwad, who the Mahar community believes conducted Sambhaji’s final rites.] The banner was torn by Hindutva groups in the village. Following this, an FIR was lodged and 49 people were booked under the SC-ST act.  This caused resentment and outrage among Savarna Hindu groups. They conspired against Dalits and planned the entire incident.

TM: The police have claimed that provocative speeches made during the Elgar Parishad led to the violence, but your report says that a plan to create the violence existed much before the Elgar Parishad meeting. What evidence did you find and submit to support this?

SD: We found no evidence that connects Elgar Parishad to the 1 January violence.

The Elgar Parishad happened on 31 December, but there were plans to create disorder much before that. The evidence we found is from 25 December onwards, and some even earlier. Messages were circulating on Whatsapp and Facebook that on 1 January, “we have to gather against Dalit activists, we have to come together in Vadu gaon and teach them a lesson, we have to retaliate”—we have submitted these findings to police.

Then, there was a bandh called. In order to ensure that Dalit groups don’t get any food or water, or any facilities [when they come to Bhima Koregaon for the bicentenniary celebrations], a formal bandh was called by the gram panchayats in writing. You can’t do that.

The police knew about these grievances, they knew that lakhs of people will collect in Bhima Koregaon and that something will happen on 1 January, but they did not take any precautionary measures.

On 1 January, mobs holding saffron flags gathered in Vadu gaon. They could have been stopped there itself, but again, the police did not do anything. The mob shouted Hindutva slogans and walked three kilometres to Nagarpur, where the Bhima Koregaon statue is situated. On the Nagarpur highway, they started pelting stones on people who were coming from all over Maharashtra for the 1 January event. All the Ambedkarite people who were visiting Bhima Koregaon were attacked. Women, senior citizens and children were attacked. Thousands of cars and two-wheelers and three-wheelers were broken and burnt. Stones and lathis rained down on people.

This particular attack was pre-planned. If you see on the roads, the stone pelting was taking place from the roof. In the videos too, you can see local residents standing on the top of their houses, on the roof, and pelting stones. How can it take place from the roof unless you go up with stones to the terrace?

There were also stocks of kerosene, and house of Dalits were burnt. One local shopkeeper, Mr Athavale, in Sanswadi [village], was called by a local village leader and told, “Please run away, because your house will be burnt.” How did they know this? In another incident, the house of a local, Mr Sakat, was burnt, not on 1 January, but the day after, on 2 January, because he belongs to the [Scheduled Caste] community, and because he was helping women and senior citizens escape during the violence the previous day.

TM: Who are the main perpetrators and organisations behind the violence? What was the involvement of Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote?

SD: In terms of the organisations and people involved, Milind Ekbote’s name is completely there. The main perpetrators were Ekbote—and Bhide, indirectly—but Ekbote I can say directly. We are damn sure that he is connected to the riot. Every amavasya—[the night of the new moon as per the lunar calendar]—Ekbote comes to the samadhiof Sambhaji Maharaj in Vadu gaon and has meetings. He comes only during night hours. He has his own organisation in these particular villages, where he is inciting hatred against Dalits for many years now.He has youngster groups where he is having mind-changing vocabulary, and making the youth to go against Dalit organisations.

This year, a few days before the January 1 gathering, in the same Bhima Koregaon village where the violence happened, Ekbote held press conferences to tell people that the history of January 1 is wrong. He said that 1 January should be observed as a black day. The notes he sent to local reporters before the press conference are available. What is the purpose of going to Bhima Koregoan itself and holding such a press conference there? What is the intention? It clearly shows that he wants to change the history, to show that it is impossible that a Dalit could have conducted the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj. The intention was to create friction between Marathas and Dalits and he was indirectly successful in it.

The people who participated in the violence are under Ekbote’s leadership, they are members and cadres of his organisation. People from Ekbote’s group—Anil Ghuge and Somnath Bhandare—were the ones who did the work of collecting and organising the mobs, and making speeches against Dalits.

TM: The report also states that an attack was planned for 1 January, under the watch of two persons, Rahul Hargude and Datta Hargude. Who are they?

SD: They are the local Shiv Sena leaders in the village. They are attached with Bhide and Ekbote’s Hindutva groups.

TM: Do Bhidhe and Ekbote’s Hindutva organisations have membership across political parties?

SD: Yes. In Maharashtra, Mr Bhide’s followers are from all the parties. Both NCP and BJP are also there. Both their followers and members cut across party lines.

TM: The report also mentions the involvement of local leaders across political parties. Could you specify?

SD:Politically, NCP is there in power at village level and Shiv Sena is there. They are both involved in this.

TM: The report mentions that many of the accused are relatives of Baburao Pacharne, a BJP member of the legislative assembly in Maharashtra, and that there are “attempts to save the accused.” Is this influencing the investigation?

SD: Yes, the people involved in the stone pelting and violence on 1 January are relatives of the BJP MLA. I can say this 101 percent. This is one of the reasons why the police are under pressure. The fast-track investigation that should happen into this is not happening. It is not only the BJP MLA, the local leaders also belong to the Shiv Sena and Rashtrawadi [NCP]. All these political parties indirectly give importance to the Hindutva agenda. The only difference is BJP and Shiv Sena do it openly, and NCP and Congress do it from behind.

TM: In the report, you have asked for the case to be transferred to a Special Investigation Team. What is your assessment of the Pune Rural Police’s investigation into the cases against Ekbote and Bhide? 

SD: We are not satisfied with the investigation so far. Ekbote was arrested, but he has been granted bail. They are not conducting a proper investigation, and haven’t produced proper evidence. Just to show Dalit groups that they are doing something, [the police] arrested Ekbote and produced him in court, but now he’s out. So he can pressurise all the groups. Sambaji Bhide, the police haven’t even touched. Bhide visited Vadu gaonmany times, and has given lectures there, and we have given evidence of how his followers are involved. He must be interrogated. He gets interviewed in the media but not by the police.

TM: What do you think is preventing the police from doing a more thorough investigation?

SD: It is political. The police are under pressure of the state government. The police doesn’t want to harm the political image of the state government. Mr Bhide is himself the pressure point and associated with BJP groups. Bhide is a [former] RSS member, and totally extremist in his Hindu views, and is delivering his lectures in the direction that is going to favour BJP. In his Hindutva agenda, BJP and Shiv Sena are the main ones who are going to get benefit. Because of his popularity and his follower groups, no political party, even Congress and NCP is daring to talk against him. He must be taken into custody.

TM: Did you find any evidence to support the police claim that persons affiliated with the CPI (Maoists) instigated the violence?

SD: No. There is no evidence and no such involvement of Naxals. I don’t know how these philosophies of Urban Naxalite are coming. The police are misguiding the investigation. It was previously on Bhide, Ekbote and Hindutva organisations and now they are changing the track.

The direction began to change when the FIR was lodged against the Elgar Parishad with the [Pune] City Police. They are linking Elgar Parishad with Naxalite groups. But we have investigated the 1 January [violence] thoroughly, and we want to say those incidents are not at all related to Naxal groups. The NIA should be there for a thorough investigation.

TM: Why is the police trying to change track?

SD: This is being done to protect Hindutva leaders like Ekbote and Bhide and other Hindutva groups. Because of the investigations into the death of [Narendra] Dabholkar, [Govind] Pansare, and Gauri Lankesh. To divert the attention from this, they are trying to make the Naxalism connection. To put these people in the background, other names have been brought forward. From the investigation of the Karnataka SIT, it is clear that Sanatan Sanstha was involved. Sanatan groups were investigated thoroughly and are now being arrestedwith evidence. Now there is pressure on the state government of Maharashtra. When the focus came on Hindu extremist activity, it was going against the government agenda. Then Pune Police, who were investigating Elgar Parishad, arrested the five intellectuals from different parts of the country. When the Sanatan was on the hit list in media, and their people were getting arrested everyday, suddenly this Elgar Parishad was linked with Naxalites.

TM: How did the Pune Police respond to your fact-finding report?

SD: After the submission, the police denied it, but also assured that they would investigate on the lines of the facts from the report. It is their responsibility to further investigate as per the direction that we have told. If they want to do some other investigation beside our reports, we have no problem with that. But the thing is they purposefully denied this [report]. Why? There is pressure from the government itself, because this particular report totally goes against saffron groups and the people with a Hindutva agenda. We have given enough evidence. We told the police, you come with us directly, or go meet the people whom we have interrogated, but they didn’t do that. For example, we gave names of eyewitnesses who saw kerosene being stocked in the water tractors. But the police haven’t met them. They haven’t interrogated all the people whose names I submitted. The police is doing it according to their convenience. The direction of the police has not even moved even an inch towards the local leaders of the village. Only the common public is getting harassed.

TM: Has the IG officially communicated to you if they are denying or accepting your report?

SD: No, they didn’t respond officially, because the state government issued a committee on the day of the riot itself for the fact finding. They are ignoring [the report.] They have denied it. Because of the political pressure they are not going in the direction we want.

TM: You are part of the RPI(A)-BJP coalition in Maharashtra. What has been the response of the BJP government to your findings?

SD: We met Chief Minister Fadnavis in January and asked him to investigate. But considering the incident, I want to say that the truth must come forward. It must not be co-related directly with a political agenda. We still have hopes. We are fighting with the government and officials that you conduct a thorough investigation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fact-finding committee report (Marathi)

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Fact-finding committee report (English translation)

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