The Incarcerations: Bhima Koregaon And The Search For Democracy In India by Alpa Shah

Alpa Shah
19 Apr 2024 10 min read  Share

Jaideep said he had even been told, ‘We torched your house. If you don’t take the complaint back, we will torch people too.’

Since caste-based violence erupted in and around the twin villages of Bhima-Koregaon, about 30 km north-east of Pune, on 1 January 2019, the 200th anniversary of a Mahar regiment (of the colonial British army) vanquishing a Peshwa army, the obelisk memorialising the war, a site of Dalit obeisance that is variously called Vijay Stambh, Jay Stambh and Shaurya Stambh, is no longer the image called to mind by the words ‘Bhima Koregaon’.    

Attacks on Dalits visiting the site for the bicentennial anniversary appeared to have been prompted by the Elgar Parishad on 31 December 2017 in Pune’s Shaniwarwada, an event that included speeches and performances calling for a mass awakening to defend Indian democracy. 

Sixteen persons were arrested in subsequent years for not only conspiring to incite that violence but also for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government. 

They became the Bhima-Koregaon 16. 

All 16 had a record of working towards empowering the marginalised. One of them, the octogenarian Stan Swamy, died in judicial custody with his bail application pending. Another, the septuagenarian Varavara Rao, was granted medical bail after falling seriously ill. Only one, Dalit writer and professor Anand Teltumbde, was granted bail based on the merits of the case against him. 

Nearly five years later, the trial is yet to begin even as the ostensibly most incriminating material against them came under a cloud with studies by independent experts showing concerted efforts to sabotage electronic devices to plant evidence.

In The Incarcerations, professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics Alpa Shah now tells the chilling story of the Bhima-Koregaon case that transformed the 16 human rights defenders who were professors, lawyers, journalists and poets into alleged Maoist terrorists accused of waging a war against the Indian state and plotting to kill prime minister Narendra Modi. 

The book details cyber research (see here, here, here) that showed that emails and mobile phones of the BK-16 were hacked. It also explores the issues these 16 fought for. 

It describes the violence of 1 January 2018, the 200th anniversary of the last of the great Anglo-Maratha wars, which also marked the end of the Peshwas’ rule when 800 British troops including a regiment of Mahars of the Bombay Native Infantry held off a 30,000-strong Maratha army led by Peshwa Baji Rao II—by some views, this was an emancipation from Peshwa rule handed to the oppressed castes by Mahar soldiers.

In advance praise for the book, author and film-maker Naomi Klein has called it a “gripping and rigorous crime story about the murder of a once thriving democracy, exposing an arsenal of lethal weapons, some wielded on the streets, others in the courts and press”. 


Only when the streets in Mumbai were deserted because of the Dalit protestors, did the conflict over the Bhima Koregaon British war memorial make it into international news, at The Guardian. In fact, the Indian broadsheets and mainstream TV mainly covered the events only when there was disruption in Mumbai, and then the focus of reporting was on mobs holding the city to ransom, not the casteist violence in Koregaon that they were protesting.

Back in Pune, an angry crowd of more than 200 Dalit organisations and their leaders gathered at the superintendent of police’s office. They called for Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide to be put behind bars.

The deputy mayor of Pune, Siddharth Dhende, reported to The Caravan that, ‘To cool the activists down, they [the police] said you people make a committee, [to find] whatever facts there are, because there were multiple videos, photos, audios.’ 

Siddharth Dhende was one of ten people who became a part of this committee, which went to Koregaon Bhima, Vadhu Budruk and nearby villages for a ‘fact-finding mission’. They interviewed nearly 400 eyewitnesses, spoke to press reporters, police officials and the general public. By 20 January 2018 they had submitted to the police a report with more than 200 photos, videos and audio clips.

Siddharth Dhende said, ‘We came to the conclusion that this particular riot was a pre-planned one . . . totally a conspiracy by people and organisations with a Hindutva agenda.’

Siddharth Dhende also said, ‘The police knew . . . that something will happen on 1 January, but they did not take any precautionary measures’.

Their report said that the main perpetrators were indeed Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. It said that the rioters had even been brought from as far as Sangli, Sambhaji Bhide’s home city, which was at least 250 kilometres from Koregaon Bhima.

Not long after Siddharth Dhende’s report, in February 2018, Justice Chandra Kumar, a retired judge of the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh High Court, also led a committee of two district judges of Maharashtra, lawyers, social activists and anti-caste organisations to look into what had happened at Bhima Koregaon. They travelled to the region and recorded the testimonies of victims, witnesses, and the duty police. They said too that the events which unfolded at Vadhu Budruk and surrounding villages between 27–29 December – where Milind Ekbote had been actively inciting the Marathas against the Dalits – were behind the attack. Justice Chandra Kumar damningly said that though they were at the scene, ‘The police had intentionally not taken any action against the rioters. They allowed the riot to get out of control.’ He called the events ‘systematically planned caste violence’. 

Ganesh More, a sub-divisional police officer, on behalf of the Pune Rural Police, ascribed blame for the riots to Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on 13 February 2018 that was acquired by Mumbai Mirror. ‘It has been revealed that Ekbote had actively participated in a criminal conspiracy to execute the said offence and, therefore, the name of the accused was inserted in the present offence along with other accused,’ Ganesh More said in writing. Ganesh More said too that Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote posed a threat to witnesses and informants. He warned that Milind Ekbote had created ‘communal discord in the past’ and that, if let free, ‘there might be occurrence of a similar  situation in various parts of the state’.

Anita Sawale was warned by a well-meaning friend that the riots she had found herself amidst were nothing new. They had happened many times in the country, not least in Gujarat in 2002. She was told that there too there had been evidence that the police had just watched, had been told not to stop the rioting mobs. And that the highest levels of the state, including the chief minister of Gujarat who was then Narendra Modi, were allegedly involved, but had got away with their actions for they had silenced any critiques. Anita Sawale nevertheless decided to persist with her case.

Two months after the violence, Anita Sawale’s case finally brought some results. Milind Ekbote’s plea for anticipatory bail was rejected by a special court, the Mumbai High Court, and ultimately the Supreme Court, after which he was arrested by the Pune Rural Police on 14 March 2018. The Pune Rural Police had appealed to the Supreme Court that ‘he had not cooperated with investigations and was not forthcoming in his replies to several pertinent questions’. Sambhaji Bhide, with his clout within the ruling party, was never arrested.

But within a little over a month after Ekbote’s arrest, everything changed. 

Ekbote was released on bail. 

Ganesh More, the sub-divisional police officer who had earlier blamed Milind Ekbote for inciting the violence, filed a fresh affidavit in which Ekbote’s name was missing and in which he now said that ‘a floating mob’ was involved in the violence.

Moreover, the Pune City Police now took over the investigations from the Pune Rural Police. It was the Rural Police that had commissioned the Dhende Committee report that had concluded that the violence was instigated by Hindutva groups. This had already been rejected by the special inspector general of Police. Now, Shivaji Pawar, then an assistant commissioner of Pune City Police, took over the investigation. Pawar had already demanded search warrants for Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson and others on 8 March 2018. He said they possessed documents that needed to be seized for they linked them to the Bhima Koregaon violence. The Judicial Magistrate denied him the search warrants both then and about ten days later when he asked again. Yet, Pawar and his team would persist on this different path of investigation to the one taken by the Rural Police and Ganesh More.

Anita Sawale kept following up with the police and the courts, but her concerns were continuously sidelined. She had, ‘a lot of direct and indirect torture’. She said the seat of her scooter was slashed several times. Someone would knock on her door, but when she opened it, no one was there. A leaflet was circulated in her neighbourhood that a case needs to be filed against her. Somebody circulated a video on Facebook that went viral, which said that they were going to assassinate the lady who filed the FIR.

The chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, said in the Maharashtra State Assembly that the woman who had filed the FIR against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote had retracted her FIR. Of course, Anita Sawale had done no such thing. In May 2021, more than three years after the violence, Anita Sawale recorded a video for her community to set the record straight. She said she was a tigress of Bhim (referring to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar), she had the blood of Bhim, and she would never take the FIR back. She also published a press statement questioning the deputy chief minister and his claims, which got reported in the Maharashtra newspapers. She said the deputy chief minister was a liar, and that she will continue her fight until Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide are punished.

The state had appointed a two-member judicial commission headed by the former Chief Justice of the Kolkata High Court, J. N. Patel, and the former chief secretary of the Maharashtra government, Sumit Mullick, in 2018. And though Anita Sawale said she had spoken to them, in contrast to the fast work of the independent committee investigation by Siddharth Dhende or by Justice Chandra Kumar, that commission had still not filed its report five years after the events. The Maharashtra government has kept giving the judicial commission extensions.

Ramdas Lokhande, the local journalist of the Marathi newspaper Dainik Samrat who had described in detail the role of Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide in creating Maratha–Dalit animosity in the region, feared for his life and fled his home in Sanaswadi. 

Ramdas Lokhande’s neighbour, Ramaa Athawale, has also not returned to her home of twenty-five years, and fears for the life of her family. ‘For the first six months, we had no clue what was happening with us . . . we feared every person we met, thinking we’ll be killed.’ She said there’s been no action against the perpe- trators and, in fact, those who burnt down their house and grocery store mock them and say, ‘You people won’t be able to do anything, we keep the lawyers in our pockets.’

Pooja Sakat, who had been a witness to the violence, disappeared. Her brother Jaideep had filed an FIR against five men who had burnt down their house and shop, and the siblings had since been harassed and threatened. Jaideep said he had even been told, ‘We torched your house. If you don’t take the complaint back, we will torch people too.’ Pooja was found drowned in a well on 22 April 2018. She was nineteen years old. The police said it was suicide. Her family said it was murder. 

Meanwhile, an entirely new narrative of the Bhima Koregaon riots developed.

(Excerpted with permission from The Incarcerations: Bhima Koregaon And The Search For Democracy In India published by HarperCollins India.) 

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