As the world stepped into 2019, a million Dalits from across India poured in Pune in western Maharashtra state to celebrate the victory of lower caste marginalized Dalits over upper caste Maratha community. They came out in large numbers as a protest against last year’s riot at the Koregaon Bhima village, which they say was instigated by upper castes.

Amid heavy police presence, Dalits gathered to celebrate the 201st anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, which was fought on January 1, 1818, between the British army and the soldiers of Maratha Peshwa Bajirao II. The British army, mainly consisting of soldiers from the Dalit Mahar community, emerged victorious.

The Dalits are the lowest caste of people in Hindu society and were formerly known as ‘untouchables’. There are thought to be more than 160 million Dalits in India.

The main sight of the celebration was the war memorial — Jay Stambha or Victory Pillar — in Perne village, adjacent to Bhima Koregaon and 170 kilometers from Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra.

In 1927, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a Mahar by birth and framer of the Indian Constitution, visited the victory pillar. Since then, Dalits from across Maharashtra visit it on January 1 every year. They consider it a Mahar Memorial.

The number of Dalits visiting the Victory Pillar reaches around 700,000 nowadays. But this year the number spiked to a million, implying that they were not deterred from visiting their site of pride because of people who instigated a riot. Surprisingly, many of the visitors had come to the Bhima Koregoan for the first time.

Last year, the event ended in unprecedented violence leading to the death of one person and hundreds being injured. There was no water and shelter for visitors after clashes broke out between Dalit and Maratha communities. Dalit activists left no stone unturned this time to spread the message that it was safe to visit the pillar.

Dalit youths took on themselves to offer help, protection, and guidance to devotees who came to pay obeisance to the Vijay Stambha. Over 1,000 volunteers of Samata Dal served the devotees.

Bhima Koregaon riots

“Last year on the 200th anniversary of the battle, [hundreds of thousands] of Dalit thronged to Bhima Koregaon and were allegedly attacked by Hindutva right-wing extremists. Over 800 vehicles of Dalits were damaged or torched, hundreds of Dalits were injured and one upper caste boy died. No charge sheet has been filed in the court over 23 FIRs [First Information Reports] lodged with the police in connection with the riots,” young Dalit activist Rahul Dambale, said.

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The Victory Pillar war memorial was decorated for celebrations in Perne village in Pune, Maharashtra. Photo: Varsha Togalkar

Dalits were extremely angry about the riots but police are yet to arrest right-wing leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, who allegedly instigated the mob attacking Dalits. Instead, the police and state government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which dominates the national government, arrested social activists working for Dalits. The activists had organized a program to unite all lower castes under the name of Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017. The police branded them as ‘Urban Naxals’ – communist hardliners supposedly engaged in anti-national activities.

The riots created the opposite result, as many Dalits who were not aware of celebrations of the Bhima Koregaon battle made it here this year.

Manoj Garbade, a Dalit youth who volunteered to help visitors, said:  “Dalits did not want plans of right-wing extremists to deter them from visiting it [the Victory Pillar] to become successful and they came in large numbers. They [Dalits] were not scared of getting hurt or killed even if riots or other problems crop up.”

A female visitor, Sarika Sonawane, who traveled 300 kilometers from Beed district, said: “After riots, I had decided that I have to be there to pay respect to the soldiers who showed courage centuries ago amid tough times.”

Every road leading to Koregaon Bhima was full of people for many kilometers with no vehicles allowed in the area. People held blue flags with the name ‘Bhim’ – the Dalit leader Dr Prakash Ambedkar – or slogans hailing him as they walked towards the pillar. Many wore their best clothes or the white and blue colors of the Dalit movement.

Dr Ambedkar is the grandson of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a social reformer who campaigned against discrimination against the Dalits. After paying respect to the pillar, he said: “People have shown they no longer get scared by threats like riots by right-wing extremists.”

After the trouble last year, police deployed heavy security and organized all facilities in case there was a big turnout this year. Naval Kishor Ram, the district magistrate of Pune, under whose jurisdiction the village falls, said: “After last year’s riots, police prepared heavy security including over 6,000 police, and intelligence services [being deployed], while administration has put enough help desks, food stalls, water stalls, mobile toilets, and ambulances.”

Indeed, visitors were grateful to the police for organizing the event well.

Bhim Army leader 

Chandrashekhar Azad, founder of the Bhim Army that works to uplift the Dalits and other lower castes in Uttar Pradesh state, received a huge response at the war memorial. He led a bike rally from Pune, 35km away, and thousands of youths road along with him. They started in the afternoon and reached Koregaon at 9pm. After paying his respects to the Victory Pillar, he said: “Every year I will visit the Victory Pillar that is the pride of all Dalits.”

Earlier, Pune and Mumbai police refused permission for three public meetings he planned without giving any reason. Azad criticized the police and the BJP-led state government, saying freedom of expression was his fundamental right and police had sought to deny him that.

Azad said in Pune the upper caste “Brahminical government” had failed to deliver justice to victims of last year’s riots, and he had come to help them get justice.

The Bhim Army leader has condemned by many in the government for his activism. The Mumbai police only released Azad from house arrest on Sunday, so his journey was an impromptu event. He is also banned from attending public rallies by a court order. Azad was in prison in Uttar Pradesh for over a year in preventive detention under the National Security Act and released last September. The state government had accused his Bhim Army of instigating inter-caste violence in Saharanpur district in 2017.

Meanwhile, many upper caste local residents preferred to go to other places for two days as they did not want any problems. One resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Many of the accused in the riots last year were upper-caste people but not all local residents were culprits. But after the riots, police troubled us with inquiries and we had to go to police stations. Common people did not want this to happen again and they preferred to stay away.”

The large turnout of Dalits was a show of strength against the string of prohibitory orders, detentions and arrest of well-known activists, lawyers, and others over the past few months. This may not bode well for the BJP in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.