(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.)
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On 1 January 2018, 44-year-old Rama Athavale and her family received a call that saved their lives. Her son's friend informed the family that a mob of around 200 people was headed towards their area, and the Athavales must hide.
The Dalit family spent the night inside a sewage pipe behind their house in Pune's Sanaswadi village and watched their house, grocery store, and a fabrication workshop being torched by the mob.
In the same locality lived 40-year-old Ramdas Lokhande, a journalist with popular Maharashtrian newspaper, Dainik Samrat. He was covering the bicentenary celebrations of the victory of Dalits against the Peshwas in the Bhima Koregaon Battle, when a mob knocked at his door. He escaped in time after being intimated by his friends, and never returned.
Athavale and Lokhande are among many others who were forced to flee their homes following the anti-Dalit violence which broke out in Bhima Koregaon in January 2018.
What Happened on 1 January 2018?
Every year on 1 January, Dalit groups in Maharashtra visit the Bhima Koregaon victory memorial in Pune to celebrate the victory of East India Company's Bombay Presidency Army, which comprised a large number of Dalit Mahar soldiers against a numerically superior Peshwa army in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon in the year 1818.
"I had gone to Nanded to attend my wife's grandmother's funeral on 30 December 2017," says Lokhande. "When we reached there, I realised that the 1 January event is too important for me to miss because of the significance it has for our community. I left the funeral midway and returned to Pune on 1 January," he adds.
"When I reached Pune, I realised that the situation was tense. The District Collector had imposed section 144 and all shops were shut. I, along with a friend, was headed to a nearby village named Vadhu Budruk, which is three km away from Bhima Koregaon, when we saw a saffron mob of 2,000 people heading towards us."Ramdas Lokhande, Journalist
Lokhande adds that the mob, shouting anti-Dalit slogans, went on to burn everything that came in its way, including homes, shops and factories.
Tensions had started simmering on 29 December 2017, the day Govind Gopal Mahar's memorial was found desecrated in the nearby village of Vadhu Budruk.
The incident found mention in the Elgar Parishad, a big public conference organised by Dalit and Bahujan groups on 31 December 2017. Police alleged that inflammatory speeches were made in the event which led to the events which unfolded on 1 January.
In the violence, which gripped the entire state of Maharashtra, a 16-year-old boy was killed and 300 people were detained.
Four Years of Struggle
"For the first six months, we had no clue what was happening with us," says Athavale. "We feared every person we met thinking we'll be killed," she adds.
Athavale recalls how their clothes, identity proofs, educational degrees, family albums and all memoirs of 25 years long association with Sanaswadi were burnt by the mob that night.
"We are from Nanded district in Maharashtra. We moved to Pune and settled in Sanaswadi 25 years ago. Pune was a new industrial town back then, and my husband had found a job with the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC). Bit by bit, we built a life. We started a fabrication workshop, opened a grocery story, and in fact, my youngest son was born there."Rama Athavale, Activist
"That one night, however, changed our lives, forever," she says.
For Lokhande, the struggle over the years has been to save his own life as he helps other victims file complaints and claim compensation from the government.
"On 1 January 2018, while I was out reporting, my friends called to tell me that a mob which was searching for me, raided my house. Thankfully, my wife and children were not there," he says.
Ever since the day of the violence, Lokhande and his family have not returned to Sanaswadi. They have changed four-five accommodations and now live in an undisclosed location approximately 30 km away from Bhima Koregaon.
Lokhande explains that he has assumed a bigger role in the aftermath of the violence. He is not only fighting for justice for his own family but is also helping other victims of displacement.
"I am educated and I understand law. I also have contacts in the police and media. That is why I took to helping others, even though I am a victim myself," he says.
"Even on the day of the violence, I was frantically making calls to police personnel and politicians, asking them for help, but to no avail," Lokhande adds.
The Determination To Fight Back
Athavale and Lokhande both agree that money cannot compensate for what they've lost in the violence. "My husband was hit on his ear, he has difficulty in hearing and has developed hypertension and diabetes because of stress. Can money compensate for that?" asks Athavale.
"In these four years, we've lost 25 years of our life in Sanaswadi. We had good relations with our neighbours and a flourishing business. How are we expected to set it up again?"Rama Athavale, Activist
Lokhande says that in these four years Sanaswadi has changed, and he and his family do not wish to go back. He recollects how Dalits in the area were forced by the landlords to vacate their houses in the months following the violence.
"People of our community were thrown out of their homes by the landlords. Most of them have now gone back to their villages. Images and portraits of Babasaheb Ambedkar were thrown out on the streets," he claims.
"It was a conspiracy to suppress the Ambedkarite movement, but we will not give up," Lokhande adds.
Athavale concurs. "I was told by many people that I should withdraw my case because the people are up against have money and muscle power," she says.
"I am very stubborn. I have thought through this. What will they do next? Kill us? We are ready to die but we won't give up."