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Monument Bhima Koregaon in memory of martyred Dalit soldiers in the Koregaon battle of 1818

Background of Bhima-Koregaon Case

Every year on New Year’s Day, thousands of Dalits (India’s ex-Untouchable communities, stigmatized and ostracized by its caste system) converge upon a small village called Bhima-Koregaon, about 30 kilometers from the old city of Pune near Mumbai in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. They come here to symbolically commemorate the battle of Koregaon of 1818, the third Anglo-Maratha war in which many Mahar (a large Dalit community in Maharashtra) soldiers fought in the colonial British Indian army against the “upper-caste” (Brahmin) Peshwas (who ruled that region from the 17th to the 19th century). The Peshwas were notorious for enforcing untouchability. The celebrations and commemoration of Dalits is symbolized by a tall obelisk erected by the British soon after the war in this village. That obelisk contained 49 names of martyred soldiers, 22 of whom are thought to have been Mahars. In 1927, Dr. Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s Constitution and the most well-known and erudite leaders of modern India (who was also a Mahar and a Dalit himself), visited the obelisk and urged the Dalit communities to use it as an inspiration to fight Brahmanism (the ideology underlying India’s caste system). The celebrations of Dalits are part of a context that saw the British consolidation of their colonial domination in India and the political defeat of Brahmanical rule in western India. The New Year Day’s commemoration of Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon has gained popularity since the 1990s. [link]

The Elgar Parishad

On January 1, 2018, a much larger number of Dalits came to Bhima-Koregaon to celebrate the 200th anniversary. On the previous day, December 31, 2017, about 260 organizations represented by a very diverse range of intellectuals, activists, and retired judges, along with a Marathi Dalit hip-hop group that performed on stage, came together on a common platform. Known as the Elgar Parishad (“Loud Declaration Committee”), this event, convened by  two retired judges, P. B. Sawant and B. G. Kolse-Patil [link], was a call to people to challenge the rising tide of communal forces in India represented by the Hindutva (Hindu-supremacist) movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party, which is the current ruling party in India), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, Indian Volunteer Corps, which is the ideological parent organization of the BJP), and fight for maintaining the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution [link]. About 35,000 people watched plays, listened to music, and heard many speeches on anti-caste and anti-communalism in tents erected in Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort. The finale was a mass “oath of allegiance” to the Indian Constitution. The next day they all went to Bhima-Koregaon

The Violence, and the “Case”

Meanwhile, two individuals, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, both known to be active in the Hindutva movement—the former being very close to the prime minister, Mr. Modi, and a very well-known RSS member with multiple cases of rioting and fomenting communal violence against him—called for a bandh (a protest shutdown of a city/town) in the surrounding villages of Bhima Koregaon on December 28, 2017. This was in anticipation of the large Dalit population that would come on New Year’s Day. As is known now, this was a preplanned strategy to create a riot, since the same duo along with their party members desecrated a memorial to a Dalit icon, Govind Gaikwad, in the small village of Vadu Budruk near Bhima-Koregaon. This desecration, along with the call for a bandh (a shutdown of the city), which was meant to not allow Dalits any support in boarding and lodging along the way during their trip to Bhima Koregaon, led to a riot in which one person was killed [link].

A peaceful protest bandh was organized by Dalit groups on January 3, 2018. Seizing this moment, and despite the First Information Report against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote for desecration and spreading communal violence, the Pune police cracked down on Dalits and arrested more than 200 Dalit youth. They also targeted 16 prominent intellectuals and activists who are known to be fighting for Dalit human rights and/or constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties and who are outspoken critics of the BJP, the RSS, and Hindutva. In June 2018, five of the activists were arrested, followed by the arrests of five more in October 2018, with the other arrests following thereafter.

The Charges against the BK16

  1. That the arrested individuals are acting on behalf of, or are members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoists) or simply “the Maoists,” and that the Elgar Parishad was an “anti-fascist” front (an ironic phrase since this implies that the present government is fascist) [link].  
  2. That the arrested individuals were plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister.     
  3. That the arrested individuals had made inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad.

As it turns out, most of those arrested were not even at the event, and the charges about the assassination plot seem to have been entirely fabricated.