Mumbai: A caste war spread from Pune to Mumbai affecting the eastern suburbs as protesters stopped trains on the Harbour Line, pelted stones, brought traffic to a standstill and forced shops to shut.
Thousands of Dalits took to the streets in Mulund, Chembur, Bhandup, Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar on the Eastern Express Highway, and Nehru Nagar in Kurla this morning while police officers stopped protesters marching towards Ambedkar Garden in Chembur.
Several hundreds of thousands of commuters were stranded at stations or in stationary trains and many walked on railway tracks to their destinations.
More than 100 people were detained by the police during the protests when Dalit groups demanded action against those involved in the violent clashes in Pune on January 1.
In the clashes that ensued between the two groups, more than 30 vehicles including buses, police vans and private vehicles were torched or damaged and one youth, Rahul Fatangale, 28 and from Nanded, died.
The disturbances erupted in the village of Koregaon-Bhima on January 1 during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Anglo-Maratha War between the army of Peshwa Bajirao II with a small force of the East India Company that comprised a large number of Dalits.
Several hundreds of thousands of Dalits had congregated around the Victory Pillar (Vijay Stambh) erected by the British in Sanaswadi village when suddenly the stone pelting started, allegedly by some right-wing groups carrying saffron flags.
The police fired tear gas to control the mob, and prohibitory orders were imposed in the entire Pune district, with the situation reported as tense but calm on Tuesday.
Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar blamed the state government for “lapses” that resulted in Monday’s violence.
“Why did the administration not take adequate precautions for this event which has been celebrated peacefully for 200 years? Due to its lapses, there was confusion and rumour-mongering, resulting in the violence,” Pawar demanded.
Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut on Tuesday hinted at a “big conspiracy” in the recent spurt in sporadic caste-related violence that has been erupting in the state, which needs to be thoroughly investigated and “the hidden hand” must be exposed.
On his part, Ambedkar appealed to his supporters to ensure that Wednesday’s call for a shutdown in the state passes peacefully, without inconveniencing the public, and demanded action against those responsible for the Koregaon-Bhima incident.
However, police intervened and traffic movement resumed, although it resulted in massive vehicular snarls all over the city, some several kilometres long.
At least 25 buses of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation, besides private luxury buses and other vehicles, were damaged by stone pelting.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced a judicial probe by a sitting High Court judge and a CID [Crime Investigation Department] investigation into Monday’s violence in Koregaon-Bhima.
There was heavy police deployment in Mumbai with the situation brought under control by evening.
Thousands of Dalits annually attend the event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle near Pune. British troops, along with Dalits, especially from the Mahar community who were then considered untouchables, defeated Peshwa Bajirao II’s army in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1818. For many Dalits, it was their victory over the humiliating practice of untouchability.
Some right-wing groups in Pune had opposed the celebration, and violence erupted between locals and those on their way to the war memorial.
Though the event has gone on peacefully through the years, “this is the first time that we have encountered trouble. Thankfully, my husband, who had gone to attend the event, returned safely”, said Gulbaaz Kamble, a cook in Chembur.
The violence has brought to the fore the extent of casteism prevailing in Indian society. For the past one year, the Maratha community has held massive but silent protests across the state to demand reservation.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ramdas Athawale, who is a Dalit, have called the violence a conspiracy.
With the protests and violence in Pune, Mumbai and Aurangabad, Fadnavis has asked the public not to believe in rumours or spread false messages on social media. “Strict action would be taken against all those who are spreading rumours and trying to invoke violence.”
Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, leader of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, has called for a statewide strike and said that the judicial inquiry ordered by Fadnavis “is not acceptable to us. The government should request to the chief justice of Bombay High Court to appoint a sitting judge to probe this incident.”
Meanwhile, the chief minister has ordered an inquiry by the CID for the death of a youth and an assistance of Rs1 million (Dh57,850) to his kin.