PUNE/NEW DELHI: Even as thousands of Dalits have started arriving at the Bhima Koregaon war memorial in Pune, the Maharashtra government has flooded the place with police and paramilitary. Reports suggest that far from being intimidated by the prohibitory orders, “preventive” detentions and the arrests of well known activists, lawyers and others over the past months, the Dalits are expected to turn up in even larger numbers than before.

Justice PC Sawant, a leading figure behind Elgar Parishad that has been accused by New Delhi and Maharashtra of having “Maoist” links remained feisty in his response, despite being ill and in bed. He told The Citizen that while the Elgar Parishad was not connected with the Bhima Koregaon violence in any way, it would continue to hold meetings despite the arrests, and in fact the intention now was “to increase the number of meetings we hold through the year.”

Justice Sawant who was also the Chairperson of the Press Council of India at one time, said that by stopping persons from coming to Pune for the Dalit gathering the government was guilty of violating fundamental rights, “not just of speech and expression, but also movement.” He said he was sure that these actions would be challenged in court, as these defied all legal parameters.

He said that the government could have taken all the precautions it wanted, but was well out of line in stopping the movement of persons to Bhima Koregaon. “I do not know where they have gained this power but I am sure it will be challenged in the court,” Justice Sawant said.

He added that the actions of the government were “very immature” and that these would “recoil in them in the coming elections.” “There is no doubt of that” Justice Sawant said.

Elgar Parishad held a meeting addressed by several leaders, including Jignesh Mewani, Sonio Sori, Radhika Vemula and others on December 31, 2016 on the even of the Bhima Koregaon event. On January 1, 2018 thousands of Dalits converged as per long standing tradition to commemorate the battle Violence led to one death, and three injured with the government coming under flak. Since then the government has sought to hyper-link the two events --although Justice Sawant has repeatedly denied the connection---and insist the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) was responsible for instigating Dalits against the state.

Justice Sawant stoutly denied these linkages. He said that Elgar Parishad has been holding meetings for decades on issues of concern, and will continue to do. He said that no one could stop the organisation from carrying out its work, and that the meetings are likely to increase this year. “We will hold our conferences as often as required,” he added. He agreed that this was a first since 1996, with the government becoming increasingly insecure.

Dalits today are observing the 20th anniversary of Bhima Koregaon, as a triumph of the marginalised over the upper castes. This is in essence the anniversary of the third Anglo-Maratha battle between the 834 strong British force comprising sopldiers mostly from the Dalit Mahar community. They fought the 28000 strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II that was defeated. The Dalits have been celebrating this annually since the past 200 years.

This year the event has grown substantially with reports of Dalits thronging to the village coming in. Thousands of cops have been pressed into service by the government after a series of ‘preventive detentions’ crossing 1000 according to media reports from the state.

Meanwhile Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad who was detained in his hotel room in Mumbai initially, has arrived in Pune. He is expected, according to activists, at the jai stambh symbolising the battle but this could not be independently confirmed. One of the many videos posted by the Bhim Army registers his movement through Pune: