Bhima Koregaon Inquiry Commission: Police evasive when questioned about its failure to prevent violence

THE ongoing proceedings before the Bhima Koregaon Inquiry Commission took an interesting turn on Friday with the police giving evasive replies to the counsel, who posed probing questions on its role during the days leading to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon (when the British, aided by Mahar soldiers, defeated the Peshwas) on January 1, 2018, which ended in violence, and subsequent arrests of several activists and academics.

The Bhima Koregaon Commission was constituted to probe the violence that led to the death of one and injuries to several others after thousands of Dalits and anti-caste groups had gathered to commemorate the event on January 1, 2018.

The Commission’s proceedings, currently being held in Mumbai, have invited considerable media interest. On Friday, Indian Police Service officer Sandip Pakhale, who is presently Deputy Commissioner of Police, Nagpur city, and who was Additional Superintendent of Police [ASP], Baramati Division of Pune (Rural) during the outbreak of violence at Koregaon Bhima on January 1, 2018, deposed before the Commission.

Advocate Kiran Channe, who represents the independent witness Ravindra Chandane, questioned Pakhale on police mechanisms for monitoring of social media, asking what preventive steps were taken by the Pune police regarding circulation of sensitive material pertaining to religious sentiments, and disturbance of law and order, among other things, in media.

Prior to the outbreak of violence, a letter calling for a ‘bandh’ by villagers of Vadhu Budhruk in Pune was submitted to the Shikrapur Police Station on December 30, 2017. Channe noted that the villagers declaring bandh were accused of offences under the Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and questioned the police for “serious lapse” in acting on this letter. Pakhale responded that the constable who received the ‘bandh’ letter did not inform his superiors, for which the ASP initiated an inquiry and took action against the constable. He added that he only came to know much later of the letter, on January 2, 2018.

The letter addressed to the Shikrapur police claimed that the Koregaon Bhima village bandh had been called to maintain law and order after caste-tensions over a historical dispute pertaining to a statue next to the memorial of Shivaji’s son Sambhaji in the nearby Vadhu village. The letter bore the signature of Sangita Kamble, the then sarpanch of Koregaon Bhima. It also named the deputy sarpanch Ganesh Phadtare as the proposer and Yogesh Narhari Gavhane as the person who seconded it.

Deputy Sarpanch Ganesh Phadtare was also apprehended by police for planting saffron flags in the area. During the deposition, Channe questioned Pakhale on ‘saffron colour flags’ displayed across the route from Koregaon to Vadhu Budhruk village on December 31, 2017. Pakhale responded that he had instructed the Senior Police Inspector of Shikrapur Police Station and accordingly got the flags removed.

Pakhale also submitted that offences were registered under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Phadtare and his associates held for planting the saffron flags. However, when questioned on the police’s failure to take preventive action such as detaining the accused and whether it would have helped avoid violence, Pakhale said he did not know.

Earlier in the week, the then Additional Commissioner of Police, Pune (South), Ravindra Sengaonkar, made a detailed deposition before the two-member Inquiry Commission led by retired High Court justice J.N. Patel and former Maharashtra chief secretary Sumit Malik. Sengaonkar, according to one report, told the Commission that the Elgar Parishad event’s speeches made by Umar Khalid, Jignesh Mevani, Dontha Prashant and Sudhir Dhawale were “provocative”. However, he testified that he “did not find anything objectionable” in the pledge administered amongst attendees at the end of the Parishad asking to “protect the Constitution and never vote for opponents of the Constitution, the RSS and BJP”.

On Thursday, following Sengaonkar’s deposition, officer Pakhale’s chief examination was recorded by lawyer Ashish Satpute, the advocate appointed for the commission.