“Dissent is the safety valve of Democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst.”
– Justice DY Chandrachud
Elgar Parishad was an event organized on 31st of December 2017 at Pune’s Shaniwarwada fort as a symbol of Dalit assertion to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. According to retired Justice P.B Sawant, ‘Elgar’ means loud invitation or loud declaration.
Battle of Koregaon
The battle ended with the defeat of the Peshwa’s army (led by Peshwa Bajirao II) by the British East India Company on 1 January 1818. What makes it of significance for the Dalit community is the participation of a regiment of Mahar Dalits, serving in the British Army, and their subsequent victory, which is seen as a victory over “high-caste” Brahmin Peshwas. The Koregaon obelisk (around 30 Km from Pune) features 22 names of Mahars killed in the battle. Though the pillar was built by the British and contains a total of 49 names. Presently, the memorial is celebrated as a triumph over caste-oppression by Mahars and the Dalit community.
The Elgar Parishad Event
The evening event was organized by a coalition of about 250 non-profit organizations with largely an Ambedkarite and Left-leaning worldview. It had more than 35,000 attendees. The 6 tents premise was fully occupied.
The event held many anti-caste and anti-communal cultural performances, speeches and slogans denouncing the Naya-Peshwai or Neo-Peshwa regime, inter alia. It saw participation from Dalit Rights activists, artists, political leaders and former judges. Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Dalit activist Radhika Vemula, Adivasi activist Soni Sori, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, Bhim Army President Vinay Ratan Singh, retired Bombay High Court Justice BG Kholse-Patil, and student leader Umar Khalid were some of the notable participants.
Before the event, two marches were organized through several districts of Maharashtra to rally support for Dalit victims of atrocities and collect donations for the Elgar Parishad. These marches held public meetings with artists, activists, theatre performers and musicians among others.
On 1st of January 2018, the erstwhile Elgar Parishad had become “Elgar Parishad Case” after violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon where Dalits, majorly Mahars, had gathered in huge numbers for the commemoration of 200 years of the Battle of Koregaon like every year. The clash was between Hindutva groups (allegedly Shiv Prathishthan Hindustan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi, led by Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote) and the Dalits.
The instigation of this incident was also a rejuvenated rift between the Marathas and Mahars at Wadhu Budruk (a village near Bhima Koregaon) where Sambhaji, the eldest son of the Maratha ruler Shivaji, was cremated after being killed and thrown into a river by Aurangzeb in 1689. Sambhaji’s body was mutilated. As of the legend, it was Govind Mahar (Gaikwad), a Dalit who made arrangements for the last rites. Sambhaji’s memorial was said to have been erected by the Mahars of that village. But upper-caste Marathas refuse to acknowledge any role played by Gaikwad in the cremation of Sambhaji. The other trigger was the anti-Hindutva Elgar Parishad conference, held a day before the riot.
28-year-old Rahul Phatangale died in the violence and many others were injured. Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi’s president Prakash Ambedkar called for Maharashtra Bandh on 3rd January 2018. The episode of the riot was pursued by violent protests in Pune, Mumbai and other cities of Maharashtra. As a result of which several people were detained and this followed a series of staggered consecutive arrests later.
Arrests and Aftermath
Two FIRs were filed, one by the Pune Rural Police and other by Pune City Police. Rural police registered FIR against right-wing leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote for orchestrating the anti-Dalit violence; while City Police registered FIR against the Elgar Parishad for inflammatory speeches and Maoists links.
Pune City Police alleged that the Elgar Parishad event was organized and funded by members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). However, former Justices BG Kolse-Patil and PB Sawant refuted that it was the two of them who were the main organizers and sole funders of the event among other participating organizations. Kolse-Patil said that those attempting to link the event to Maoists were only tarnishing the image of former members of the judiciary.
Pune police also claim that while carrying out the investigation; it had found material that provided clues about the operations of a larger underground nexus of banned Naxalite groups.
Despite ongoing police investigations, the then CM of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis set up a 2 member inquiry commission with retired Chief Justice of Calcutta High court, Jai Narayan Patel (head) and Ex-Chief Secretary and the Chief Information Officer of Maharashtra, Sumit Mullick.
Milind Ekbote was arrested briefly on 14 March 2018 and released in April on bail with some conditions, but Sambhaji Bhide aka Guruji was never arrested.
Police conducted raids on several activists in April 2018. On 6th June 2018, the Pune police arrested five activists and lawyers – Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut from Nagpur, Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, and Rona Wilson from Delhi – asserting they had links to CPI (Maoist) and were engaged in destabilizing the country. Also that there was a plot to assassinate PM Narendra Modi in the ‘Rajiv Gandhi style’.
On August 28, 2018, the police arrested five more prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, P Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha – after carrying out simultaneous searches at their houses. They were put under house arrest on the Supreme Court’s intervention. But Pune police managed to arrest 4 of them after a few months. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navalakha had managed to obtain judicial reprieve against their arrests.
Unlike Pune City Police who had filed a 5000-page charge sheet, Pune Rural Police did not do so, citing that an inquiry commission is in place. The ‘draft charges’ charge sheet stated that the accused had arranged the Elgar Parishad through “frontal” organization Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) for “creating communal disharmony” and had “enacted provocative songs, short plays, dance, and distributed books and circulated printed Naxal literature to exploit the communal sentiments of Dalits and other classes across the state, and provoked them in the name of a caste in order to create violence, instability and chaos in district Pune, at various places, including Bhima Koregaon, and in the state of Maharashtra.”
The Elgar Parishad-Maoist Link case was transferred from Pune police to NIA (National Investigation Agency) under section 173(8) of CrPC on January 24 this year. Section 6(5) of the NIA Act was invoked that permits the central government to direct the agency (NIA), suo motu, to investigate any offence if it feels that a crime is a scheduled offence fit to be probed by the NIA.
This was observed as a politically motivated move since BJP lost power in Maharashtra assembly elections. Moreover, this came after the day Sharad Pawar wrote to Uddhav Thackeray that it is wrong to imprison activists on sedition charges and that there has been a gross abuse of power. A special investigation team needs to probe the matter.
On April 14 this year, amidst the pandemic, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde (alumnus of IIT Kharagpur & IIM Ahemdabad and professor at the Goa Institute of Management) both in their 70s with co-morbid health conditions, surrendered to the NIA, after the Supreme Court declined to extend protection from arrest orders.
Those booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act (UAPA) are activists Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde.
NIA even summoned DU professor Hany Babu M Tarayil for questioning, this Friday (24 July) in the Elgar Parishad case. According to him, he works against caste-based discrimination and has been associated with the defence committee for GN Saibaba, a former DU professor who was earlier convicted for his alleged Maoist links.
At present, the nine male detenus are lodged in Taloja Jail, outside Mumbai, while the 2 women detenus are lodged at Byculla Jail, in Mumbai.
On July 19, 145 international scholars issued a collective statement demanding the immediate release of Rao and the other activists in the Bhima Koregaon / Elgar Parishad cases. The signatories said that the poet-activist is a “long-time speaker of truth to power”, and purported that over the past two years the government has failed to bring the charges to court and start the trial.
Varavara Rao, 80, is undergoing treatment in Mumbai hospitals since July 16 after being tested Covid-19 positive. He and others have been behind bars for about 22 months. Rao approached special NIA court, seeking bail on medical grounds and the prevailing COVID-19 situation but was denied as earlier. Rao was shifted from St. George Hospital to Nanavati hospital after his condition deteriorated.
Teltumbde’s bail plea, citing NIA’s failure to file a charge sheet in the 90 days period, was also rejected by the special NIA court this Friday (24 July).
Varavara Rao’s family is fighting to get transparent health updates of his. They have approached NHRC for the same.