In 2018, less that 48 hours after the violence breaking out under the BJP government, Pawar had called it the handiwork of “outsiders”, and said he had learnt from some locals that it could be the work of right-wing leaders.
While his attacks on right-wing forces had come at a time when the BJP was in power, the NCP perhaps sees little advantage in the same now, particularly with the investigation in the case making little headway in that direction. Plus, Pawar might be also trying to spare the blushes for ally Shiv Sena, which kept company with the same forces back then.
The Bhima Koregaon violence had erupted as Dalit groups had gathered to celebrate a victory in an 1818 battle against the Peshwas by the East India Army, in which the Dalits had played an important role. The Peshwas were part of the upper-caste Maratha Empire, which the Dalits saw as oppressors. Tension had been building up between the Dalit groups and Hindutva supporters, which erupted during the gathering.
On Thursday, the Pune Police submitted a report to the State Human Rights Commission saying it had dropped Bhide from the investigation after finding no evidence against him in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Bharip Bahujan Party chief Prakash Ambedkar, who had led protests seeking the arrest of Bhide and Ekbote over the Bhima Koregaon violence, says: “The inaction of the police against right-wing leaders is not a surprise. Both the BJP and NCP used the Bhima Koregaon violence to pursue their respective political agendas.”
While the NCP had pointed fingers at Hindutva groups for the violence, then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP had given a clean chit to Bhide in March 2018 itself, while saying the probe was continuing.
Now, when police have cleared Bhide, it bears the stamp of approval of the state Home Ministry, which is led by senior NCP minister Dilip Walse Patil.
A senior BJP functionary says it is up to the NCP to explain its change of stance, and if the earlier allegations were meant to just undermine its government. “Why did Pawar show such haste to accuse right-wing activists even before the police probe? Secondly, why did he decide to backtrack saying he had no knowledge of any organisation or individuals (involved in the violence)?” the BJP leader asks.
Pawar had also made his allegations in an affidavit filed before the commission investigating the Bhima Koregaon violence, on October 8, 2018. He had stated that he was “not in a position to specifically make allegations against any particular organisation” for the violence, but that “the active role of right-wing forces” could not be ruled out.
In December 2019, after the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress together formed the government in the state, Pawar had called the arrests of nine activists over speeches made at an Elgaar Parishad event, that police have linked to the Bhima Koregaon violence, as “wrong” and “vengeful”. He had also promised to ask Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray for a Special Investigation Team to probe the action taken by the Pune Police.
Days later, the case had been taken over by the Central agency NIA, despite questions over this when the Pune police had already filed two chargesheets in the case. A petition in the High Court against the transfer, calling it “due to mala fide and political expediency”, is yet to come up for hearing.
Then, at a press conference on February 18, 2020, Pawar had questioned the investigation conducted by the Pune Police, leading to the arrest of the nine activists, and again alleged that Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide had created a “different” atmosphere in Bhima Koregaon.
In September 2020, Pawar had called an urgent meeting on the issue, with Deputy CM Ajit Pawar and other ministers present. While officials said the status of the investigation was discussed, there was no movement on the promised SIT.
Asked about it recently by The Indian Express, NCP state president Jayant Patil said that once the probe had been shifted to the NIA, there was no legal scope for the state government to conduct an investigation. And hence no SIT had been set up.