NAGPUR, Maharashtra — A month after Uddhav Thackeray took over as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra in a coalition government in which Congress and NCP are partners, the annual Bhima Koregoan event was attended by more than 5 lakh people on Wednesday.
The event is held every year on January 1 to commemorate the victory of 500 Mahar (Dalit) soldiers over 25,000 strong Peshwa army here in 1818.
Bhima Koregoan, a small village on the outskirts of Pune city, made headlines in 2018 when Dalits visiting the “Jay Stambh” (victory pillar) here were attacked by some radical groups, fueling statewide protests by the Dalits.
This time the police took preventive action against over 700 people and a large number of WhatsApp group admins were served notices. Internet was also shut down in the area where riots were reported in 2018.
Until late evening, no untoward incident was reported.
Unlike last year when no prominent face from the then Devendra Fadnavis government visited the place, this year Maharashtra deputy CM Ajit Pawar was among the first visitors to the Jay Stambh.
“It has been a tradition of so many years. This place has a history. I paid tributes here on behalf of 12.50 crore people of Maharashtra. Some incidents took place in the last few years but this time police protection is adequate. I appeal to all citizens to maintain peace and do not believe in or spread rumours. I am representing the state government here and my cabinet colleague Nitin Raut will also be visiting later in the day. I notice that the number of women, visiting this place, has increased than the last year,” Pawar told reporters.
Another notable politician to visit Bhima Koreogan on Wednesday was Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi founder Prakash Ambedkar. After his rise post the Bhima Koregoan incident in 2018, Ambedkar appears to have moved out of the limelight, especially since his poor performance in 2019 Maharashtra assembly polls.
Many had attributed his sudden rise after 2018 Bhima Koregaon riot to an alleged understanding with the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it was his alliance with AIMIM which had dented the Congress-NCP’s chances at more than 15 seats and helped BJP-Shiv Sena in the richest state in India.
Dalit activist Rahul Dambale said while the state government had changed in Maharashtra, the police mindset seemed to remain the same.“This year’s event received a huge response but the police administration was not really helpful,” he said, claiming the turnout had been over 10 lakh.
“If the state government and district administration are organising a program here by keeping the focus on Vijay Stambh, there can’t be a bigger slap on the face of those who were trying to create trouble here. We have only been visiting the Stambh. Our demand is that Sambhaji Bhide should be jailed but there are some officials who might give it a twist to defame this government,” Dambale said.
Sharad Pawar’s clear statement regarding Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregoan case has signalled a change in the attitude of the government.
The previous Fadnavis government had jailed 10 prominent activists and lawyers by linking them with the violence that took place in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018 and alleging “Maoist links”. Meanwhile, right-wing activists like Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote did not face any action despite many eyewitnesses alleging their direct involvement in the riots.
Former Supreme Court justice P.B.Sawant, who was one of the organisers of Elgar Parishad in Pune in 2018, had denied the organisation had any links to Maoists.
The police, under Fadnavis’s regime, had arrested Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde despite Supreme Court granting him protection from arrest.
This time, the Uddhav Thackeray dispensation barred Bhide and Ekbote from entering Pune district this time.
Last week, Sharad Pawar termed the police action in Elgar Parishad case as “vengeful”.
Sources say Pawar met some lawyers and activists associated with the Elgar case and the arrested activists and lawyer may be granted bail soon.
When asked about Pawar’s statement, a senior Congress minister in the Uddhav Thackeray government told HuffPost India, “ Pawar wants to consolidate the Bahujan agenda now and he wants Dalits by his side.”