NEW DELHI -- In June, when the Pune City police arrested five activists, alleging they had links to Maoists and were plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's best-known Dalit face from Maharashtra, Ramdas Athawale, said, "There should have been no arrests of Dalits in the Koregaon-Bhima matter. It is not right to term the Ambedkarite activists as Naxalites so as to take legal action against them." Athawale, who is also the Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment, reiterated in another interview that "Ambedkarites should not be branded as Naxals" and "those arrested have no connections with Naxals".
Last month, the police arrested five more activists in connection with the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon in January. Now, however, Athawale appears to have done some rethinking. Speaking to HuffPost India, the president of the Republican Party of India said, "Those who are Ambedkarites cannot be Naxalites and the Naxalites have no right to call themselves Ambedkarites or swear by the name of Babasaheb. (Members of) other Ambedkarite organisations who (attended the Elgaar Parishad) have not been arrested but only (Naxalites) have been arrested. The police found links of those who have been arrested with Naxalites. If the charges are false, they (the arrested civil society activists) should (prove their innocence) in court. Those who have ties with the Naxalite movement should sever them."
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What is your opinion about the recent arrests of civil society activists from Maharashtra?
...In Elgaar Parishad, some people with links to Naxalites were there and the police have caught them because of having received some information about it. Some people believe that the police forged documents but I do not agree with that opinion. There is a possibility (of those who have been arrested) of having links with Naxalites; if that is not the case, they should prove (their innocence) in court. They have been arrested because of their Naxal links, not because of them being Ambedkarites. In the (Elgaar Parishad), there were other Ambedkarite organisations as well and they have not been arrested. So only those people having direct or indirect links with naxals have been arrested.
During the previous round of arrests in June, you had said that Ambedkarites and Dalit rights activists must not be labelled as Naxalites and arrested by the police. Have you received any specific information that made you change your position about this issue?
I only said that, 'Those who are Ambedkarites must not be labelled (as Naxalites) and there is no reason to oppose calling out Naxalites.' My statement was that anyone who is an Ambedkarite has not been charged. Those who are Ambedkarites cannot be Naxalites and the Naxalites have no right to call themselves Ambedkarites or swear by the name of Babasaheb (Ambedkar). (Members of) other Ambedkarite organisations who (attended the Elgaar Parishad) have not been arrested but only the (Naxalites) have been arrested. The police found links of those who have been arrested with Naxalites. If the charges are false, they (the arrested civil society activists) should (prove their innocence) in court. Those who have ties with the Naxalite movement should sever them.
My position then was, "Don't arrest those who are Ambedkarites. Those active as Naxalites must face action (as per law)." During the time of the Dalit Panther movement, we were also very militant but no one called us Naxalites then. We were never arrested this way (being labelled as Naxalites) by the police. There were some cases for other things but anybody working in the Dalit Panther movement was not called a Naxalite.
What do you think caused the violence at Bhima Koregaon, and who are the possible culprits? How is it related to Elgaar Parishad?
Elgaar Parishad was held in context with the commemoration at the Bhima Koregaon village. But the attack on January 1 was done by some people from the Maratha community against Dalits. The reason for that was the (dispute at the nearby) Vadhu (Vadhu Budruk) village, which has (Chhatrapati) Sambhaji Maharaj's samadhi. (In that same village during the times of Sambhaji) there was a pehelwan (strongman) from the Dalit community, the Mahar community, Govind Gaikwad who, when Aurangzeb killed Sambhaji Maharaj and his body was thrown at the village, with much daring, this pehelwan Govind went and picked up the body and handed it over to people to respectfully cremate it.
(This year marked) 200 years since the 1818 battle at Bhima Koregaon in which only 500 soldiers of the Mahar community defeated the Peshwas. Since we began commemorating this battle 25 years ago, till date, steadily, the number of people attending the annual commemoration (on January 1) has grown and this time it was about 3.5 lakhs.
In this context, one person (youth) from our community pointed out (some days before January 1) how brave people from the Mahar community are; when no one from the Maratha community came forward to take responsibility of the cremation (of Sambhaji), one of our Mahars dared to do it. There was some board like that there in the village which was broken. This caused a dispute. After that dispute, Maratha boys there broke the samadhi of Govind Gaikwad and they were charged under atrocity [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989], and probably apprehended by the police.
On account of that dispute, it was decided (by Marathas) not to sell tea, eatables, water and such things (to Dalits visiting on the occasion of the Bhima-Koregaon commemoration). Hotels and shops in the vicinity were closed down. Subsequently, in that village, 500-700 youth took out a procession and, the vehicles of Dalit people passing through the village were attacked. That attack was not done by Dalits but Savarnas against Dalits. Subsequently, both sides indulged in stone pelting. I have said this often that it is not as if Elgaar Parishad people went there and indulged in rioting.
Some believe that the "Urban Naxal" angle in the Pune City police's investigation came up to distract attention from the initial investigation into the role of Hindutva activists Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote in allegedly instigating violence against Dalits. What is your view?
There was a complaint by a woman from Pimpri (Chinchwad) that (Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji) Bhide and his people did it (instigated violence). Later, she said that someone asked her to (file the complaint), that is why she did it.
I spoke to Anita Savale and she denied having withdrawn her complaint...
I do not know about that. The police took her comments initially. In fact, it is not as if Bhide himself was there during the violence. It is possible that his people were there.
So why was Sambhaji Bhide never arrested for instigating the violence?
The police say that they are unable to find any evidence about Bhide's involvement with the violence. That is why he is not being arrested. Those who attacked (Dalits), indulged in stone pelting, damaging vehicles—those Maratha youth have been arrested. But any direct link of Shiv Pratishthan—Bhide's link—can't be found is what the police is saying. Yet, it is our position that there must be further investigation of that and action must be taken against him (Bhide). We are not partial towards Bhide; I have told the Chief Minister (Devendra Fadnavis) twice that if there is any connection of Bhide with it then he must be arrested. My party took out amorcha demanding Bhide's arrest. It is our position even today that Bhide must be arrested.
What about Milind Ekbote?
Ekbote has been arrested initially. He is now out on bail. The question about Sambhaji Bhide is pending.