'Saffron terror' or 'urban Maoism': What's behind Bhima Koregaon violence?

The ruling BJP is apparently sympathetic to one. While the guilty should be punished, the government must acquit itself honourably.

 |  5-minute read |   07-06-2018
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The probe into Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon violence occurring in January this year took a surprising turn on June 6, with the police arresting six Dalit and left wing activists, and booking them under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The arrests of Rona Wilson, activist and JNU alumnus, activist Rana Jacob, Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit activist and office-bearer of the Elgar Parishad, held on December 31, just before the Battle of Bhima Koregaon anniversary this time, activists Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut, and lawyer Surendra Gadling, from Delhi, Mumbai and Nagpur, have led to protests, with many claiming these to be unfair victimisation.   

People have also pointed out that the stringent action against the activists is in stark contrast to the way the two saffron leaders booked for the violence, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, have been treated – while Ekbote is out on bail in both the cases registered against him, Bhide “guruji” has not been arrested, with chief minister Devendra Fadnavis himself attesting to his innocence.

Activists Sudhir Dhawale and Rona Wilson are among those arrested on June 6. Activists Sudhir Dhawale (left) and Rona Wilson are among those arrested on June 6. Photo: Twitter, YouTube/Dalit Camera.

With the arrests, the case, initially seen as a clash between Dalits and upper castes over an event polarising in itself – the Bhima Koregaon anniversary celebrates the defeat of the Peshwas by a British battalion aided by Dalits sepoys – has now been framed in a very different binary: was the violence the work of the extreme Left, or the extreme Right? Also, will the BJP, in power at both the Centre and in Maharashtra and often accused of going soft on right wing violence, be able to ensure a fair probe and trial?

The ‘red letter’

The activists have been arrested after the Pune police allegedly recovered a letter from Rona Wilson’s laptop, written, according to officers, by one “Comrade M, who we believe is a senior member of CPI-Maoist's central committee.”

DNA quotes a “source” as saying: “The letter said the one riot fatality should be exploited and more such events should be held at places governed by BJP. It said sympathisers in London, Sweden and US backed the movement, and asked for new passwords to be sent out to the group to plan future course of action.”

The BJP has been quick to seize on this, and has gone to town blaming, rather strangely, Rahul Gandhi for the violence.

Left versus Right

Charges of an international conspiracy by left wing extremists to “exploit” deaths in India are very serious, and cannot be allowed to float around vaguely. The police must probe them thoroughly and take them to a logical conclusion.

June 8 will mark one year of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Ravan’s imprisonment, in jail over the Rajput-Dalit clash in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur.June 8 will mark one year of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Ravan’s imprisonment, in jail over the Rajput-Dalit clash in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur.

However, equally serious are charges of a right-wing that is reportedly being patronised and protected by the state, drunk on notions of caste and religious superiority, out to re-organise Indian society according to the world order it believes in, where Dalits are seen as the children of lesser gods.  

Unfortunately, evidence of this ideology at play, and the state’s turning an indulgent eye to it, are not too difficult to find.

June 8 will mark one year of the Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Ravan’s imprisonment, in jail over the Rajput-Dalit clash in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur. ‘Ravan’ had the non-bailable National Securities Act slapped against him hours after the Allahabad high court granted him bail in November. The Rajputs booked over the clashes are out on bail.

Pehlu Khan was lynched by 'gau rakshaks' in April 2017.  Pehlu Khan was lynched by 'gau rakshaks' in April 2017. Ten months after his murder, the police named him in its charge sheet for cow smuggling. 

A similar script has been at play in several cases where the accused are ideologically on the side of the ruling party – Pehlu Khan killed by gau rakshaks in Rajasthan, teenager Junaid Khan’s lynching near Faridabad, the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq over cow slaughter suspicions in Uttar Pradesh.

‘Anti-peshwa’ slogans and urban Maoists

While the police must probe whatever criminal activities it suspects the arrested accused of, parts of its statements seem to read a lot like right wing paranoia. The police has described those arrested as “top urban Maoist operatives”.

“Urban Maoist” is a term used almost exclusively, but liberally, by the Right to describe everyone it does not like – activists, media organisations, citizen protesters.   

During the farmers’ protest that rocked Maharashtra in May this year, BJP MP Poonam Mahajan had described the agitators as urban Maoists.

In the cracked feet of marching farmers, BJP MP Poonam Mahajan heard the footsteps of 'Uraban Maoism'. In the cracked feet of marching farmers, BJP MP Poonam Mahajan heard the footsteps of 'Urban Maoism'.

Filmmaker and right wing commentator Vivek Agnihotri, in an article in Swarajya, warns: “In the cities, an invisible naxal-intelligentsia-media-academia-NGO-activist nexus works as strategic fortification with the ultimate aim of taking over the Indian state to achieve Maoist rule.”

This aside, one of the charges against the activists arrested on June 6 is of raising “anti-Peshwa” slogans. The legacy of the Peshwas continues to be disputed. For many marginal communities, the Peshwas appeared as supremacist Brahmins under whom Dalits, for instance, had to tie brooms on their backs to wipe out their footprints and hang pots around their necks to collect their spit. “Raising slogans” or simply expressing discontent over certain wrongs of history – without threatening vengeance in the present – does not seem an adequate crime in modern, democratic India.

What is puzzling though is another aspect. Ekbote and Bhide have both been close to the BJP. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had hailed Bhide, saying he came to Sangli on “guruji’s call”. The Maharashtra government in 2015 had recommended him for the Padma Shri.

Ekbote was once a BJP corporator, has links with the RSS, and a string of criminal cases.

Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the violence in January, his brother had publicly said that the police had advised him to lie low, and that Ekbote would be back in Pune once the “cops gave the green signal”.

On April 22, a 19-year-old Dalit girl, a witness to the Bhima Koregaon violence, was found dead in a well. Her family had alleged she was “under pressure” to withdraw her statement against the men who set fire to their house.

Those protesting the arrest of the activists claim this is just a way to intimidate and break the spirits of those working for the Dalits and the marginalised.

The Maharashtra unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), in a statement issued after the arrests, has said: “These arrests amount to a blatant violation of citizen’s rights to freedom of expression and voicing dissent… People are arrested and incarcerated in jail for years. They are subsequently released as the State fails to prove their case…”

The Bhima Koregaon case, thus, pits two very different ideologies against each other. As of now, the ruling party appears clearly sympathetic to one. While the guilty must be punished, it is the government that also needs to acquit itself honourably.

Also read: Bhima Koregaon violence and death of a Dalit teen: What happened to Pooja Sakat?



Yashee Yashee @yasheesingh

The writer is a journalist.

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