Bhima Koregaon: A History and a Report


The Battle at Bhima Koregaon (1818)

The chain of events that led to the raids under scrutiny began with the outbreak of violence on members of the Dalit community at a public meeting held on December 31, 2017, in Pune to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle at Bhima Koregaon.

The battle at Bhima Koregaon was fought on 1st January 1818, between the British East India Company forces and the Maratha army of Peshwa Baji Rao II. The commemoration is in lieu of the 22 Mahar soldiers who were killed in battle fighting for the Company. The Mahars are a traditionally stigmatised class of people. They faced acute discrimination as untouchables in the lower rungs of the caste system prevalent in nineteenth century India.  The Bhima Koregaon battle holds special significance for the Dalit community since it effectively did away with the already diminishing power of the Marathas against the Company.  It has been an important marker for Dalit pride.

The Violence at Bhima Koregaon (2018)

This year the trouble began even before the 200th celebrations when several right wing groups denounced the same as being anti-national and casteist. They contended that the celebration was organized to defame the Peshwas by calling them oppressors of the Dalit community. Furthermore, on 29th December 2017, the tombstone of Govind Gopal Mahar (Gaikwad) was desecrated. Gaikwad was a Dalit wrestler who defied the death threats issued by the British to perform the last rites of the slain and mutilated Sambhaji, son of the great emperor Shivaji. Although he was put to death by the British, he became a prominent figure of Dalit pride. This created further strife between the right wing Marathas and the Dalit community.

During the 200th celebrations on 1st January 2018, incidents of violence broke out resulting in the death of one civilian. The communal undercurrents so begun, took an unpleasant turn with an initial FIR naming over 49 individuals as perpetrators of the violence at Bhima Koregaon. Subsequently, Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of the Dalit rights activist and legal luminary Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and the leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh named Sambhaji Bhide, founder of the Shivpratishthan Sanghatana and Milind Ekbote, president of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi as the masterminds behind the violence. What followed was a deluge of FIR’s being registered across the state and a statewide crackdown on Dalit youth and prominent persons in lieu of the Bhima Koregaon violence. Bandhs were called and over the course of the year, riots broke out in several parts of Maharashtra.

Live Law

The Raids and Arrests

The bubbling turmoil from the Bhima Koregaon protest (which had already created chaos as evinced by the consecutive bandhs in the state) snowballed into nationwide ire when the police forces raided the houses and offices of several  human rights and civil liberties lawyers, activists and intellectuals across the country.

The targets of the raids were:

  • Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, National Secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Faridabad,
  • Advocates Arun Ferreira and Susan Abraham in Mumbai,
  • Journalists KV Kumaranath and Kranthi Tekula in Hyderabad,
  • Dr. Anand Teltumbde, General Secretary of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, in Goa
  • Tribal activist Father Stan Swamy, in Jharkhand,
  • Writer and poet, Varavara Rao along with his two daughters in Hyderabad,
  • Gautam Navlakha, Founder of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights in Delhi,
  • Journalists KV Kumaranath and Kranthi Tekula in Hyderabad,
  • Professor Satyanarayana of the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, and
  • Writer Vernon Gonsalves in Mumbai.

Of these, the police arrested Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and Varavara Rao.  The arrests were made in an investigation concerning a crackdown of alleged Maoist links. There are allegations that those arrested allegedly funded the Elgar Parishad organization which organized a conclave where incendiary speeches designed to instigate violence were made a day before the 200th anniversary celebrations of Bhima Koregaon. There have been insinuations of a plot adrift to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and entire communities have come together to condemn the silencing of dissenting voices and the persecution of individuals who speak up for marginalised sections of society.

The violence at Bhima Koragaon has set in motion an entire series of unpleasant events which challenge the very core of life and law in the country. What began as a conflict in diametrically differing communal views of a historic battle mushroomed into a caste conflict before escalating into a full scale blowout on speech, freedom and choice in the country. The entire chain of events presents a grim picture for political freedom and ideological dissent in India.

Priyanshi Vakharia is a Research Associate (Legal Reform) at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Mid Day

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice