Mumbai: Two days after Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar led a march, ‘Elgar March’, in Mumbai to call for the arrest of Sambhaji Bhide Guruji, the founder chief of Shiv Pratisthan Hindustan, for allegedly instigating violence against Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon near Pune on 31 December, supporters of Bhide on Wednesday organised counter marches and public meetings in three cities to rally behind the Hindutva leader.
The marches in support of Bhide came a day after chief minister Devendra Fadnavis told the Maharashtra legislative assembly that the police probe into the violence at Bhima-Koregaon had so far found no evidence against Bhide. His supporters demanded that the case lodged against him be withdrawn immediately.
The ‘Elgar March’ organised by Ambedkar on 26 March set a deadline of eight days for the police to arrest Bhide. Bhide’s supporters held rallies in Mumbai, Sangli and Amravati. Sambhaji Bhide Guruji, 85, whose real name is Manohar Bhide, hails from Sangli in Western Maharashtra and he taught physics at Pune’s reputed Fergusson College before his retirement.
The police denied permission to the march in Pune though a large number of Bhide’s supporters assembled in the city and held a public meeting. In Mumbai too, the permission to march from Byculla to the legislature building in South Mumbai was denied after which the supporters held a public meeting at Azad Maidan, the same venue where Ambedkar held his ‘Elgar March’ demanding Bhide’s arrest.
Titled ‘Sanman Morcha’, the march organised by Bhide’s supporters too demanded action against the culprits behind violence at Bhima-Koregaon. A statement issued by Shiv Pratishthan and submitted to the Pune Collector said that a conspiracy had been hatched by the opponents of Bhide on the basis of a bogus complaint. At all the places where marches and public meetings were held, the supporters and speakers demanded that the case against Bhide be withdrawn. The supporters also claimed that Bhide and Milind Ekbote, executive president of another organisation called Samasta Hindu Aghadi, who has been arrested, were engaged in a number of social and educational initiatives.
On 26 March, Ambedkar, who is the grandson of B.R. Ambedkar and president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, held a public meeting in Mumbai where a large number of Dalit activists demanded Bhide’s arrest.
Bhide has been named in a police complaint filed by Anita Salve, member of the Bahujan Republican Social Party, after vehicles carrying Dalits to Bhima-Koregaon on 30 and 31 December were stoned and attacked. Thousands of Dalits had assembled in Bhima-Koregaon on the outskirts of Pune to observe the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon between the British Army and the Marathas led by the Peshwas on 1 January 1818, which the British won, according to one of the narratives, due to the valour of the Mahar (a Dalit caste) Regiment which was part of the British Army.
Since the Brahmin Peshwas are identified by Dalit activists as caste oppressors, the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon and the role of Mahar Regiment in it have assumed a place of pride in Dalit folklore. In the violence that followed incidents of stone pelting, a Maratha community youth was killed near Bhima Koregaon. Two police complaints were filed against Ekbote who was arrested on 14 March from Pune.