A year after riots broke out on January 1, dalit victims feel cheated by the authorities as the prime accused still roam around freely while dalit rights’ activists are being arrested.
Bhima Koregoan Riots 2018
Every year lakhs of dalits visit Bhima Koregoan to pay homage to a war memorial built in the memory of soldiers who got injured or died in the battle of 1818, in which the British Army comprising Mahar and other backward caste soldiers defeated the oppressive Peshwa. Last year, when lakhs of dalits from across the state gathered to pay obeisance on the 200th anniversary of the battle, they were allegedly attacked by right wing extremists. One man died while many were injured. Hundreds of vehicles and properties of dalits were either torched or damaged causing losses up to crores. More importantly, the numerous riots left many local dalits homeless.
As informed by Sandip Patil, Superintendent of Police, Pune Rural Police, 23 FIRs have been lodged in connection with the Bhima Koregoan riots since January 2, 2018. But charge sheet has not been filed in a single FIR. Despite most of the cases being lodged under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act under which arrests of accused before investigation is compulsory, and charge sheet needs to be filed within three months, not a single charge sheet has been filed. Though over a thousand have been accused in the cases, only 121 have been arrested so far, as told by Patil.
Rahul Dambale, a dalit youth leader who has been following the riots closely and helping the victims, said, “Prime accused Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote are roaming freely despite it being one year since the riots. Bhide, who is accused in many other riot cases, has not even been questioned, forget about arresting him. Ekbote, though arrested after the Supreme Court rejected his bail, was able to get bail due to the weak defence of Pune Rural Police in the Pune court. Now, he is a free man.”
He added, “For a year, no attackers of dalits were arrested or taken action against. But the police have, nonetheless, arrested well known activists working for the rights of dalits, tribal and other marginalised communities, and accused them of inciting the riots at Bhima Koregoan. We are feeling cheated as activists are accused of assaulting the very people for whose rights they have been fighting. The police are doing all this to save Bhide and Ekbote, under the directions of the BJP government.”
Riots Victim Found Dead
Jaidev Sakat, the brother of a dalit victim of the riots whose house was torched at Bhima Koregoan, is disappointed and angry. Puja Sakat, who witnessed a group of goons torching her house in the January 1 riots, was found dead in a well near their house four months later. Police recorded her death as accidental death but her family is sure that goons who had torched their house earlier and wanted to evacuate the family, were behind the murder.
Jaidev Sakat said, “The police inspector Ramesh Galande and Daund deputy superintendent Ganesh More who initially pursued and later threatened us not to lodge a FIR against those goons who torched our house did not face any action. Galande was transferred many months later while More is still at the same post. How can we feel secure or at peace? Our demand was that those officers should be suspended.”
Dambale pointed out that both the policemen were at the spot during the riots but didn’t take any measures to stop the right-wing procession that entered the Bhima Koregoan area and attacked dalits. He said, “More is still part of the team that has been taking various measures for security for this year’s event.”
Sidhartha Dhende, deputy mayor of Pune city, who carried out the fact finding of the riots last year in January, reiterated the same feelings. He said, “The riots were not spontaneous but pre-planned. We have already done a fact finding and handed over all the evidence and finding to the Pune Rural Police and the government, yet no action has been taken against anybody. Everybody in the Ambedkarite movement is disappointed.”
Anger and Resentment Strong, Compensation Pending
He agreed that the Pune Rural Police and administration has been working well for this year’s celebration but he said, “Why did the police not make an attempt to arrest the accused despite having evidence. And if they were keen, the police intelligence could have even sensed the riots and nipped it in the bud. The events at Vadhu Budruk in December 2017 obviously showed an indication of what was going to happen. Why hundreds of dalits are now reduced to complain that the police were standing and watching when they were being attacked on the day of riots? Their eagerness to not let the issue escalate should have been shown at that time.”
Amit Bhongale, another youth who got injured in the riots and was in Sassoon General Hospital for treatment for over four months including a month in ICU, and now has lost his hearing and walking ability partially, had to sit for a hunger strike for over 30 days in front of the collector’s office in November this year to get help. He, along with another riot victim Rama Athawale, sat on strike demanding proper compensation, but for 30 days nobody paid attention. It was only when their conditions worsened, they were promised by the collector that they would be given compensation.
Bhongale said, “Most of the riot victims are struggling to get proper compensation as most of them have lost their houses or livelihood and/or have become handicapped.”
Dambale said, “Dalits don’t want to lose hope, and helping and participating in the preparation of the event is very dear and important to us. But there is so much anger and the feeling of being cheated is just so strong.”