(This article was first published on 1 January 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives five years after the Bhima Koregaon violence in Pune.)
A police personnel accompanies 60-year-old Panduram Gaikwad everywhere he goes. "He is here for my protection, in case they come to kill me," says Gaikwad. A Dalit Mahar farmer, he is the owner of the land which was at the heart of the controversy which allegedly led to the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence in Pune.
The land in question is a plot — 3 km from the Bhima Koregaon Vijay Stambh — which houses the samadhi (memorial) of Gopal Govind Mahar, who according to the Gaikwads was their ancestor and performed the last rites of Maratha king Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj. This piece of history, however, is disputed by the dominant Maratha community in the village.
On the intervening night of 28 and 29 December 2017, the Gaikwads erected a board near the samadhi which stated that Gopal Govind Mahar performed the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj. Next day, the board was removed by the members of the Maratha community, which led to an altercation.
Even as the police intervened and settled the matter, this instance is seen as a trigger to the violence that erupted between the Marathas, and the Dalits who had gathered at the Bhima Koregaon memorial on 1 January 2018 for the bicentenary celebrations of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon.
Four years on, an uneasy tension simmers through the otherwise peaceful village, and Gaikwad and his family claim that they fear for their lives and are victims of an "economic and social boycott" imposed on them by the Marathas.
Bahujan History of Vadhu Budruk
Accounts by right-wing historians such as Kamal Srikrishna Gokhale, who authored the book, Chhatrapati Sambhaji, and RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, claim that after Sambhaji's defeat in the Battle of Wai in 1687, Mughal ruler Aurangzeb cut his body into pieces which were thrown into a river. Death threats were issued in the name of anybody who would dare to collect those body parts and perform the last rites of the Maratha ruler.
The Dalit Mahars in Vadhu Budruk believe that it was their ancestor Gopal Govind who went against the sermons issued by Aurangzeb, collected the body parts of Sambhaji Maharaj, and brought them to their village, where a memorial was built for the Maratha emperor.
"For years, it was believed that Sambhaji Maharaj's samadhi was located in Tulapur which is 13 km from Vadhu (Budruk)," says Sunny Kamble, Panduram Gaikwad's son-in-law.
"It was sometime in the second-half of the 20th century that Maratha historian Vasudeo Sitaram Bendrey along with a few others discovered that Sambhaji's samadhi is in Vadhu Budruk, that too, right across the road from the samadhi of our ancestor Gopal Govind Mahar."Sunny Kamble, Resident, Vadhu Budruk
The Maratha community in the village, on the other hand, believes that it was their ancestor Shivle who performed the last rites of the emperor against Aurangzeb's wishes. Umesh Shivale, a 20-year-old college student from the village, says that the Gaikwads have built the samadhi of Gopal Govind Mahar only a few years ago.
"These people (Gaikwads) have constructed this samadhi only a couple of years ago. Did they not know about this history before that?" he says. "We don't even know if someone like Gopal Govind (Mahar) existed at all."
Responding to this, Kamble says that the samadhi was renovated a few years ago and has existed way before that.
The Engineering of Caste Fault Lines
Sitting in their drawing room, Panduram Gaikwad and Sunny Kamble argue about what would happen to the family if the police protection is withdrawn. "I think we will be forced to run for our lives. We will have to leave this house and this village," says Gaikwad. Kamble disagrees. "Why should we leave? This is our ancestral land, our heritage. We were born here and we will die here," he declares.
Both Gaikwad and Kamble claim that since violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon in January 2018, several Mahar families have left their village.
"There were as many as 20 Mahar families in Vadhu (Budruk). In the last four years, at least 12 families have left the village," says Gaikwad.
This narrative, however, is not supported by the Marathas in the village. "Most of these people have left the village because of the pandemic. They had no work here, so they migrated elsewhere," claims Jaisingh Bhandare.
Bhandare is a police patil, a person who isn't a part of the police force but does the job of mediating between residents of the village and the police. Ankush Shivale, husband of village sarpanch Sarika Shivale, and a former sarpanch himself, too agrees with Bhandare. "What happened in December 2017 and January 2018 was a one-off incident. People in this village live harmoniously with each other and there have been no cases of violence since then," he adds.
Shivale is partially correct. There have been zero instances of violence between the two castes in Vadhu Budruk since 2018, as per the Gaikwads and the local police constables posted in the village.
The Gaikwads, however, claim that the unsaid economic and social boycott imposed on the Mahars in the village has emasculated them emotionally. "Casteism was always a part of this village. Casteist statements were made by some people here and there. After 2018, however, it (casteism) is out in the open," says Gaikwad.
The Gaikwad family runs a grocery store, which Panduram Gaikwad and Sunny Kamble claim, had to be shut down after villagers stopped visiting it. They also claimed that all groups which contested the village panchayat elections in 2020 asked the Mahars to not campaign in their support.
"'If you come out in our support, other people in the village won't vote for us' is what we were told by those contesting," says Kamble. "It was then that we decided to field our own candidate — Rohit Gaikwad."
They allege that for a brief while after the violence, essential service providers such as the milkman, the newspaper delivery man and auto-rickshaw drivers did not ply in their area in the village.
Role of Hindutva Outfits
On 2 January 2018, a day after the Bhima Koregaon violence, an FIR was filed at Pune's Shikrapur police station against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote — leaders of Hindutva outfits Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi, respectively — for allegedly "orchestrating" the anti-Dalit violence.
Gaikwad and Kamble claim that Bhide and Ekbote's organisations have a strong base in Vadhu Budruk. "The men who belong to Bhide Guruji and Ekbote's organisations were planning this violence since a very long time," claims Sunny Kamble.
"Ahead of the violence on 28 and 29 December, inflammatory messages were circulated by these people on Facebook and WhatsApp. Their main targets are youth between the ages of 16 and 25 years. These people are radicalised by teaching them false history of the Maratha kings, especially Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Chhatrapati Sambhaji."Sunny Kamble, Resident, Vadhu Budruk
"They had verbally threatened us in the past. We, however, never thought that those threats will become real at any point. It was only when we saw armed men throwing stones at Gopal Govind Mahar's samadhi, did we realise what they are capable of doing," he adds.
Kamble and Gaikwad also claim that they still receive regular threats from people affiliated with these organisations. It is imperative to note here that four years after the violence, Ekbote remains out on bail granted by a sessions court in Pune and Bhide, now 88, is yet to be called for questioning.
Ankush Shivale and Jaisingh Bhandare do not agree with Gaikwad or Kamble. "There is no visible presence of Bhide Guruji or Ekbote's organisations in Vadhu," says Shivale.
Interestingly, both Shivale and Bhandare were named in an FIR filed by the Dalit community after the desecration of Gopal Govind’s memorial in December 2017.
"Ankush Shivale and Jaisingh Bhandare both work for Bhide," says Sunny Kamble. "Both of them along with several others were named in an FIR filed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, after the violence," he adds.
On 29 December 2017, Sushma Ovhal, sister of Panduram Gaikwad submitted a police complaint against 49 people including the village sarpanch Rekha Shivale, and deputy sarpanch Sanjay Shivale under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, on charges of damaging the board and an umbrella covering the tomb of Gaikwad, and “making casteist comments”.
Seven out of those who were named in the FIR were arrested and later granted bail by a Pune court.
"The discrimination now is not overt," says Sunny Kamble. "They invite us to their weddings and other functions, but just as a formality. We hear them talking behind our backs, calling our history fake and concocted. Some people genuinely have friends from the other community. They belong to the generations of our fathers and grandfathers. It is quite difficult to have real inter-caste friendships in Vadhu now," he adds.
A Sea of Policemen and an Uneasy Silence
It isn't just Panduram Gaikwad who has a police personnel stationed at his house 24/7. For an outsider to navigate through Vadhu Budruk, it is impossible to avoid being trailed by one.
Even since the night of the violence, a State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) unit has been stationed at the Gaikwad memorial by the Maharashtra government.
"Though there haven't been any instances of violence since 2018, our job mainly is to prevent large gathering near memorials in the village, be it at the Gaikwad memorial or the memorial of Sambhaji Maharaj, right across the road," says a police constable on condition of anonymity.
While the Dalit Mahars and Marathas in the village have contradictory views and observations about everything else, they all agree on one point -- they feel safe in the presence of the police force.
Four years on, as Dalits across the state of Maharashtra prepare for yet another anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2022, there is an uneasy silence on the streets in Vadhu Budruk. While people do not fear a repeat of what happened in 2018, the scars are still fresh in their memories.