On 2 January 2018, a day after violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon, an FIR was filed in Pune's Shikrapur police station against Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote — leaders of Hindutva outfits Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan and Samasta Hindu Aghadi, respectively — allegedly for "orchestrating" the anti-Dalit violence.
Three years on, while Milind Ekbote remains out on bail granted by a sessions court in Pune, Sambhaji Bhide, now 88, is yet to be called for questioning.
Sixteen other human rights activists, including Jesuit Priest Father Stan Swamy, were jailed and subsequently charged under the UAPA in the same case. While Swamy breathed his last on 5 July, 15 others continue to be stuck in an endless wait for either bail or trial.
Who is Sambhaji Bhide and What Makes Him Immune to Enquiry?
Anita Sawale, a Pune-based anti-caste activist who filed the FIR against Bhide and Ekbote, has dealt with life threats and immense pressure to withdraw her complaint over these three years. Speaking to The Quint, she says, "On 2 January 2018, I named two persons in my complaint at Shikrapur police station. It is strange that while Ekbote was arrested and, later, granted bail, Sambhaji Bhide has not yet been called for questioning."
Sawale has now filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court demanding a judicial inquiry into the role of Sambhaji Bhide and his organisation, the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, in the violence that took place in Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018, hearing in which, she says, is being delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
However, the answer to why Bhide has so far been immune to inquiry in the case, lies in the political backing he enjoys in the state of Maharashtra. Datta Khandagale, a journalist based out of Sangli who has closely observed the rise of the right-wing leader, says that parties across the ideological spectrum have patronised Bhide over the years.
"Sambhaji Bhide has enjoyed the support of popular leaders in the BJP, the Congress, the Shiv Sena, and the NCP. Bhide and his organisation have a sizeable influence on a certain section of voters and to lure those voters, these political parties refrain from taking a position against him."Datta Khandagale, Journalist
Khandagale further told The Quint that Bhide's organisation has been polarising the youth for decades in the name of Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji. "Bhide's organisation mainly targets the youth aged between 16 and 22, and polarises the society in the name of religion. They distort the history of Shivaji Maharaj vis-a-vis Afzal Khan, Aurangzeb, and the Mughals in general, to radicalise the youth," he said.
Popularly known as 'Bhideji Guruji', Sambhaji Bhide is hardly a stranger to controversies. In 2008, he led the protests against Ashutosh Gowariker's film Jodhaa Akbar, and was booked for ransacking theatres and halting screenings of the movie.
Bhide is also believed to have played a key role in the 2009 unrest in Maharashtra's Sangli where communal violence broke out after a Muslim youth allegedly threw stones at an idol of Lord Ganesha.
In 2019, amid countrywide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Bhide's outfit conducted rallies across Maharashtra in support of the Act.
Milind Ekbote, Riot-Accused Former BJP-Shiv Sena Corporator, Is Out on Bail
After activist Sawale's FIR in 2018, the Pune Rural Police booked Ekbote under IPC sections 307, 143, 148, 149, and 295 which amount to attempt to murder and rioting among other offences.
He then filed an anticipatory bail application which was first rejected by the Pune Sessions Court and then by the Bombay High Court.
On 6 February 2018, the Pune Sessions Court issued an arrest warrant in Ekbote's name. He moved the Supreme Court for an interim bail, which was granted to him the next day.
However, the top court later quashed Milind Ekbote's interim bail relief in March 2018 on grounds that he failed to cooperate with probe agencies, and he was subsequently arrested by the Pune Rural Police, only to be released on bail, a month later in April on a bond of Rs 25,000.
A leader of outfits like Samasta Hindu Aghadi and Hindu Ekta Manch, much like Bhide, Milind Ekbote has been embroiled in several controversies. Over the years, he has enjoyed popularity across Maharashtra by projecting himself as a 'gaurakshak' and by leading annual protests against Valentine's Day.
Politically, he has been associated with both the Shiv Sena and the BJP as a corporater but strayed away from these parties after he was denied an election ticket in the year 2002.
The Quint spoke to Rahul Dambale, leader of the Republican Yuva Morcha, an Ambedkarite political outfit based out of Maharashtra. Dambale said that Ekbote and his organisation created a fertile ground for the anti-Dalit violence in Bhima Koregaon.
"Tensions in the Bhima Koregaon region erupted days before when some right-wing groups desecrated the samadhi of Gopal Govind 'Mahar'. An FIR was filed against 50 people and Milind Ekbote was one of them."Rahul Dambale
Gopal Govind 'Mahar' was a Dalit labourer who many believe performed the last rites of Chhatrapati Sambhaji, son of Chhatrapati Shivaji.
Dambale said while most people talk about the violence at the memorial, very few mention this episode. He also accused Ekbote and his Hindutva outfits of mobilising people by using their huge social media influence and spreading rumours that the "Dalits have desecrated the samadhi of Shivaji Maharaj".
Ekbote has 12 cases of rioting, trespassing, and other offences registered against him, out of which he has been convicted in five.
(The Quint has reached out to Shikrapur Police and Pune Rural Police officials, but they remained unavailable for comments. This story will be updated as and when we hear from them.)