Maharashtra saw sporadic incidents of violence, road and rail blockages, torching of vehicles, rallies and shutdown of markets during a bandh called by Dalit groups on Wednesday. They are protesting over the death of a 28-year-old man, who was killed in riots between Dalit and Maratha groups that erupted at the bicentenary celebration of the Bhima Koregaon Battle near Pune on January 1.
Students, office-goers, travellers and daily wagers suffered losses as the state came to a standstill for the second day in a row; on Tuesday angry Dalit groups had taken to the roads unannounced in an agitation against the saffron groups.
At the heart of the chaos are two Right-wing leaders – Sambhaji Bhide (85) and Milind Ekbote (56). Both are accused of ranging Hindutva forces against the Dalits by desecrating the tomb of a Dalit icon, Govind Gaikwad, near Pune on December 29.
Gaikwad is believed to have performed the final rites of the slain Maratha King Sambhaji (Shivaji’s son) by defying Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s order. Gaikwad was subsequently killed by the Aurangzeb regime.
Bhide and Ekbote reportedly believe that a fake narrative about Gaikwad was spun by the British and it was in fact the Marathas who cremated Sambhaji. The two are now being accused of vandalising Gaikwad’s samadhi in Wadhu village two days before the bicentenary celebration of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon barely 3 km away.
Prakash Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders have charged the duo of “planning the conspiracy” to disfigure the samadhi and create a hostile environment in Bhima Koregaon against the Dalits, who were to assemble in large numbers two days later on new year day. Stones were pelted on the Dalits attending the gathering on January 1 by a group of people allegedly holding saffron flags.
An FIR has been filed against Bhide and Ekbote and their supporters in Pune for orchestrating the violence, following a complaint by one Anita Savle. But they have not been arrested so far.
NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik accused the BJP government in the state of shielding their own men. “The FIR has been registered only under pressure. The government is not keen to arrest them as they are their own people,” he said.
Denying that the clashes were “Dalit versus Maratha”, as was being projected by some sections, Prakash Waghmare, a writer and activist from Pune, alleged: “It is clearly Hindutva against Dalits. Bhide and Ekbote not only disfigured Gaikwad’s samadhi but have also been radicalising the Maratha youth in Pune villages for the past one year.”
Bhide, known as Bhide Guruji in political circles, appears to be a frail old man whom most people tend to ignore. But the former RSS man, who now heads the saffron group Shiv Pratishthan, is a strongman from the sugar belt of Sangli-Satara-Kolhapur of Maharashtra.
Bhide has courted many controversies in the past. In 2008, he along with his followers was booked for disrupting the screening of Jodhaa Akbar.
To everyone’s surprise, he commands a massive following, especially among the youth. Guruji is known for his simplicity. He wears no footwear, has no house of his own and has never got involved with any political party.
His power and resolve were even acknowledged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Bhide Guruji did not invite me here. I came here on his orders,” Modi had said during a public rally in Maharashtra in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray also holds him in great reverence.
A staunch Hindutva activist, Bhide is a gold medallist in physics from Pune University and worked as a professor before he gave it all up to become an RSS full-timer. He, however, decided to chart out a path of his own in the late 1980s and formed his own outfit, Shiv Pratishtan.
The other man, Milind Ekbote, had been a BJP corporator in Pune. He runs Hindu Ekta Aghadi. He faces over a dozen cases of rioting, criminal intimidation and attempts to create enmity between two communities.
Siddharth Dhende, deputy mayor of Pune and Republican Party of India (A) leader, alleged: “The violence was a carefully planned conspiracy by Manohar Bhide (as Sambhaji Bhide was known earlier) and Milind Ekbote who have close links with the RSS.”
The RSS has denied involvement in the violence. Ekbote too denied all charges. He stated: “We condemn the act of rioting and inconvenience caused to the Dalits. Many Dalits are also part of my organisation.”
Pune police commissioner Rashmi Shukla was unavailable for comments.
“Both have strong association with the RSS and BJP. No need to say who are shielding them,” says Dhende.
BJP leaders and spokespersons are tight-lipped. One of the spokespersons spoke to Newslaundry but on the condition of anonymity. “Bhide and Ekbote work independently and have no association with the RSS now. Filing an FIR doesn’t mean the accused are arrested immediately. The police will do the needful once the probe is over,” he said.
The spokesperson also alleged that the opposition parties, especially the NCP, were framing the duo as they failed to spin the narrative of “Brahmin versus Dalits.”