Pune — Anita Salve, 44, was with her children at a doctor's clinic at Koregaon Bhima when the riots began on January 1, 2018. She witnessed a mob pelting stone, firing, and damaging vehicles, and properties. "People were carrying rods and swords. I got stuck in that scary situation," she recollects.
Two years ago, Salve appeared before the inquiry commission as a witness.
"It has been nearly four years since the constitution of Koregaon Bhima Enquiry Commission. However, it is nowhere near completing its task of submitting the report. The Commission is working sluggishly," says Salve.
She feels hopeless, she says, as the commission is still hearing witnesses. "Justice delayed is justice denied," she adds.
Like Salve, many Dalit victims of the Bhima Koregaon riots say that the commission is a farce and it will not give them justice.
It's been nearly four years since the state government constituted the commission of inquiry to establish the causes and consequences of the riots. However, so far, only 48 out of the 500 witnesses who have filed affidavits have been heard. The witnesses say that the commission has delayed hearing the witnesses and has not heard most of them.
Koregaon Bhima Riots: The Judgement So Far
On January 1, 2018, thousands of Dalits across the state thronged Koregaon Bhima, a village 40 km from Pune, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Koregaon Bhima battle in which British Army comprising Dalits defeated Peshawa, brahmin rulers known as oppressors of Dalit. The Dalits every year gather here to commemorate the victory of Dalits over Peshwa.
On this fateful day, violence broke out during the commemoration in which one man died, while several got injured. Many vehicles and properties were fired and damaged.
Two days later, the state reported multiple instances of violence as Dalit groups called for a bandh on January 3.
Pune Rural Police had lodged 32 FIRs including 10 FIRs under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act). The key FIR filed by Anita Salwe, had named Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, both Hindutva leaders as the key conspirators of the riots.
Established in February 2018, the commission's job was to find out whether an individual, a group of individuals or an organisation was directly or indirectly responsible for the riots, whether adequate planning or preparedness was taken by the district administration and police to maintain law and order, whether steps taken by police were appropriate, to suggest short and long term measures to be taken by the district administration and police to avoid recurrence of the event and any other important suggestions regarding it.
The commission headed by retired judge J N Patel and a member Sumit Mullick, ex-chief secretary of the state, through advertisement in the media invited witnesses to file affidavits to the commission. The commission hears witnesses in Mumbai and Pune rotationally.
Why Has The Commission Delayed Hearing Witnesses?
"I am not sure why the commission has not completed its work. The report should have been out. Our only hopes were on the commission but it has been hearing witnesses even after four years," says Ashok Athwale, one of the victims in the Bhima Koregaon violence. He says upper-caste Maratha men hit him that led to a hearing disability. They burnt his fabrication workshop leading to a loss of Rs 60,0000. Athwale lodged an FIR against the culprits with Pune Rural police.
"Pune Rural police has not arrested key suspects till now. Hence all my hopes have been pinned on the commission. I appeared before the commission two years ago but now it doesn't seem like Dalits will ever get justice," he says.
The commission, though, has several explanations for the delay. The pandemic, they say, is the major one. "We wanted physical hearing of victims and not online. Two years we could not work properly. Besides we did not have a proper place in Mumbai and Pune to conduct hearings. It took time to get a place," an official told BOOM on the condition of anonymity.
Officials told BOOM that it was a "cumbersome process" to send summons to witnesses — victims, government officials and social workers because they had to arrange dates based on their availability. During the hearing, judges listen to witnesses, lawyers' questions, and cross-questions. Then the stenographer writes what the witnesses say, which is visible on the big screen for everyone to view. Judges then correct the stenographer.
Kiran Channe, a lawyer of Dalit victims, blames government agencies for the delay. "They are not cooperative. Government departments do not provide station dairies or electronic evidence as asked by the commission. That is the major reason for the delay. Otherwise, the commission's work going on good. We could establish that police have shown negligence and Hindu extremists have caused violence," he said.
Sangharsha Aapte, a social activist, said, "By delaying the process, the commission has lost important evidence of emotions. People's emotions are not that strong now. With strong, new emotions, people could have added valuable details."
Besides when lawyers suggest hearing more people, the commission asks them to file affidavits to summon new witnesses.
On being asked why the commission only conducts one week of hearing per month, the officer says, "The judges, witnesses, and lawyers are not available to attend the daily hearing." He says that the commission requires an extension of six months to complete the hearings.
Cost Of Bhima Koregaon Commission: Rs 3 Crore
But the delay is not the only complaint against the commission. Many victims who filed affidavits say they were not called for a hearing.
Meanwhile, the state has spent over Rs 3 crore for the commission till now, as an RTI revealed.
This reporter filed an RTI on 23/10/2021 to the home department of Maharashtra asking how much the state spent on the commission, and salaries of judges. As per the reply received on 24/11/2021, the home department allocated a budget of Rs 3 crore till the end of the financial year March 2022.
The RTI report said that Sumit Mullick does not take a salary for this work while J N Patel draws Rs 2,50,000 per month.
"Upper caste Maratha men with sticks and stones attacked Boudhvihar, which is our prayer hall. They hit Dalits. Even kids were not spared. My family was so scared that they hid inside our home," says Tatyasaheb More, a resident of Sanaswadi, who had witnessed Koregaon Bhima riots that occurred January 1, 2018.
The 48-year-old farmer says he was hopeful that the Commission will offer justice to the victims. He filed an afidavit in that hope, but never got a call to appear before it.
The commission received over 500 affidavits. However, till now, it has examined only 40 witnesses completely; eight have been partly heard. The commission says that all the victims have been heard and they are now currently hearing government officials.
When asked about the complaints of victims who have not been called by the commission, a member told BOOM, "We segregated the affidavits based on applicants who witnessed riots and the ones whose property got damaged. We asked the district collector to offer compensation to victims whose properties got damaged. We only invited representatives of those who witnessed riots and have information to share."
However, More says that he was not called before the commission despite being a witness in the riots.
Sangharsha Aapte, a social activist who helped over 20 victims to file the affidavits, says, "The process to file the affidavits was complex. We had to help victims from villages who could not understand filing papers, to file affidavits."
The commission only summoned four out of the 20 people who the activist helped.
Enquiry Commission is a farce: Prakash Ambedkar
Prakash Ambedkar, chief of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, a political party, says that the commission is a "farce". "I used to appear as a lawyer in front of the commission in 2018. I had submitted applications asking that I want to examine Sumit Mullick, a member of the commission who was then chief secretary of the state, chief minister Devendra Fadvanis who was 40km away from where the riots took place, and Suvez Haque, then SP of Pune Rural Police under which riot area falls. But the commission is yet to decide on it."
In June this year, the commission summoned six political parties to appear and give suggestions on short- and long-term measures to be taken by the district admission and police to avoid the recurrence of such incidents. Among the political parties that were invited were: NC, BJP, MNS, the Republic Party of India, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, and Shiv Sena.
Ambedkar points out that political leaders can give suggestions only after the commission establishes what went wrong. "Was it a system failure, response failure, intelligent gathering failure?" he asks.
A commission member told BOOM that they will invite Ambedkar to appear before it but did not explain why he hasn't been called yet although he filed his application in 2018. "If Ambedkar feels the commission is a farce, he can go to the high court or the supreme court asking to quash the commission," the official said.
Ambedkar had also objected to the appointment of Sumit Mullick as one of the members of the commission. Mullick was the state chief state secretary when the Bhima-Koregaon riots occurred. "How can a person under whom riots took place be appointed as a member of the commission to give justice to victims?"
On the fatal day of the riots, Salve was stuck for about 8 hours. When she finally managed to escape, she saw people with swords, rods, and sticks attacking Dalits. "Upper caste Maratha men were damaging vehicles, properties, and houses. They were torching vehicles. We walked through farms to the main road towards Pune. We were scared throughout. We then got a public transport to go home to Pimpri Chinchwad," Salve narrates. She says it was the "worst day" of her life.
"I have been waiting for justice for four years," she says, adding that her hope is now flickering.
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