On the path of Sambhaji Bhide: Ahead of Bhima Koregaon riots third anniversary, tracing the Hindutva leaders rise

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By: Parth MN

December 26, 2020 09:50:20 IST

It didn’t matter that Datta Khandagale had two young children. The abusive cellphone calls to his dwelling continued unabated in any respect hours, for 21 days straight. “My family was unsettled, and I feared for their safety,” recalled the 39-year previous journalist based mostly within the small city of Vita in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. “They [callers] abused me, threatened to kill me. It has been over five years, but I vividly remember those harrowing days.”

In early 2015, a proper wing outfit had launched into a mission in Sangli to construct temples to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the Maratha warrior king revered throughout Maharashtra, notably within the western area the place Sangli is situated. Khandagale wrote an editorial opposing the thought. “I essentially said that Shivaji was a great man, but let him remain a human being. Don’t make him god,” Khandagale, who publishes a weekly referred to as Vajradhari, stated on a current December night time. “That article did not go down well with the outfit.”

For the following three weeks, Khandagale’s cellphone wouldn’t cease buzzing. One of the callers who abused and threatened him was then 20-year-old Rohit Patil. “I am not proud of it,” Rohit stated. “I was taken in by the propaganda around me. A few of us working with the outfit had been incited to do what we did. I had been brainwashed into being a bigoted, communal person.”

The organisation that attacked Khandagale was the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, which claims to propagate the ideology of Shivaji. It is based by Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide, 87, who wields ominous affect within the state and has been accused of triggering the Bhima Koregaon riots. 1 January 2021 will mark the third anniversary of the riots.

The Bhima Koregaon connection

Every yr on 1 January, tens of 1000’s of Dalit-Bahujan pilgrims collect on the warfare memorial of Bhima Koregoan, about 40 km from Pune. It commemorates the historic battle received by the British Army, which had a big contingent of Dalit troopers, towards the Peshwas. For the Dalit group, the battle signifies their battle towards untouchability. Therefore, in 2018, on the 2 hundredth anniversary of the occasion, the gang at Bhima Koregaon warfare memorial was bigger than traditional. However, the gathering was assaulted allegedly by higher caste mobs belonging to right-wing teams.

(Above: The warfare memorial at Bhima Koregaon. Image through Wikimedia Commons.)

The day after the riots, Pune-based anti-caste activist Anita Sawale filed a grievance naming Hindutva chief Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide because the “masterminds” of the assault. “They did not have to be there physically,” she advised Firstpost. “But the mob executing the riot openly chanted slogans in their name. I saw the violence closely. I have mentioned all of that in detail in my complaint.”

The Pune Police’s rural wing arrested Ekbote, however he obtained bail inside months. Bhide, then again, has not even been questioned regardless of being named within the First Information Report (FIR). In February 2018, a workforce of Pune police’s crime department had visited the city of Sangli, from the place Bhide operates. Nitin Choughule, Bhide’s proper hand man and secretary of Shiv Pratishthan, stated that the workforce returned with out assembly him. “Guruji was with Jayant Patil [Nationalist Congress Party leader and cabinet minister in the current state government] at the time of the riots,” Choughule advised this reporter. “His mother had passed away. The police met me, took testimonies of Guruji’s security guards. Guruji was not troubled personally.”

The reverential therapy of Bhide, known as Guruji, by the hands of regulation enforcement companies isn’t a surprise, stated Dalit activist Rahul Dambale. “His political clout cuts across party lines,” he stated. “Congress and NCP [when] in the opposition were vocal against him. Why are they not acting now? Bhide’s proximity to current chief minister Uddhav Thackeray is also well known. The fact of the matter is he has a tremendous following, and he controls the politics and politicians of Sangli, and, to an extent, Western Maharashtra. The entire case is being fabricated to protect him.”

Astonishingly, the investigations into the Bhima Koregaon riots have transpired over a solitary FIR filed by a Pune-based businessman, Tushar Damgude, who’s an avid fan of Bhide. The day earlier than the riots, two retired judges, BG Kolse Patil and PB Savant, had organised a rally, Elgar Parishad, the place 1000’s of attendees vowed to by no means vote for communal forces. Damgude’s FIR pins the blame for the Bhima Koregaon riots on the rally. The city wing of Pune police and NIA have acted swiftly on his FIR, raiding and arresting reputed human rights attorneys, students and activists — 16 so far — blaming them for the violence, accusing them of being “urban Maoists” and even plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The impunity Bhide enjoys at present is as a result of the political class turned a blind eye in the direction of him within the early days for political beneficial properties. A senior cop who was once deployed in Sangli stated the police would typically get calls from senior leaders within the state asking them to go simple on Bhide. “He is a troublemaker,” the cop stated, requesting anonymity. “In the internal police diaries, Bhide has been described as a Dharmaveda Mathefiru, which roughly translates to ‘crazy religious fanatic’. But he enjoys political patronage. Interestingly, the people asking the cops to go easy on him mostly belonged to Congress and NCP. We have seen them share the stage with him.”

The political patronage Bhide receives has made it arduous for regulation enforcement companies to do their job impartially. In 2008, Bhide’s activists had forcibly shut down a screening of the film Jodhaa Akbar. Bhide had advised the assembled protestors that the film distorted historical past. At the time, Krishna Prakash, at present the commissioner of the city of Pimpri-Chinchwad, was the superintendent of police, Sangli. “When we arrested some of Bhide’s followers, his bodyguards barged into the police station, created a ruckus, and even manhandled the police officers,” Prakash advised this reporter. “We could not arrest Bhide because my officers told me it would lead to a law and order situation.”

(Above: Nitin Choughule is Bhide’s proper hand man and secretary of Shiv Pratishthan. Below, he’s seen with Bhide. Photos courtesy the author.)

Judging by the proof within the public area, Bhide’s clout isn’t being exaggerated. Ahead of the 2014 common elections, Narendra Modi had referred to him as “most respected Bhide guruji”. The Maharashtra authorities beneath Devendra Fadnavis recommended him for Padma Shri in 2016, and dropped three instances of rioting towards him in 2018. The present chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, had additionally sought Bhide’s blessings forward of the 2014 state meeting elections. Among media personalities, stated Choughule, one of many chief visitors at their capabilities has been Suresh Chavhanke, who was not too long ago pulled up by the Supreme Court for his present, UPSC Jihad.

Choughule insists, nonetheless, that Bhide’s political proximity will not be restricted to proper wing ideology. “We have had the late RR Patil, Patangrao Kadam, Pratik Patil and many more as chief guests at our gatherings,” he stated, citing examples of Congress and NCP leaders. “We have also had Raj Thackeray. They have all graced the events selflessly, out of love and respect for Shivaji and Guruji.”

Ironically, Bhide initially used Congress and NCP leaders’ patronage to propagate the ideology of the BJP beneath the garb of being a Shivaji follower, stated Shivraj Katkar, a senior journalist based mostly in Sangli, who has adopted Bhide’s rise carefully. In 1992, a statue of Shivaji had been defaced in Sangli. “A serious riot unfolded after that,” recounts Katkar. “Muslim-owned shops were burnt, a masjid was vandalised. But not many believe that Muslims in Sangli would do something like that to a Shivaji statue. There are rumours that it was Bhide’s way of engineering a riot.”

Ever since, Katkar added, Shiv Pratishthan has stored communal tensions effervescent in Sangli. However, the decisive blow got here simply forward of the 2009 state meeting elections.

Power play

Less than 10 kilometers from Sangli, within the city of Miraj, the Shiv Sena’s metropolis chief had put in an arc depicting the slaying of Afzal Khan by the hands of Shivaji. The metropolis chief, Vikas Suryavanshi, continues to be with Shiv Pratishthan. “Ganpati celebrations were on, at which point a group of people landed up in the streets opposing the arc,” stated Katkar. “A heated argument ensued between two groups, when a Muslim youngster threw a stone that knocked over a Ganpati idol. That triggered the riot.”

The NCP-backed mayor of the city was amongst these named because the perpetrators of the Miraj riots. However, it’s extensively believed that Bhide was one among many concerned in fanning the flames. An activist who was a part of Shiv Pratishthan in 2009 stated he witnessed a number of of his fellow employees take part within the riots. “Many of my colleagues had gone to Miraj at the time on their motorbikes,” he stated. “They attacked paan shops owned by Muslims. They pelted stones at Muslim households. They vandalised their cars. Bhide’s people were at the forefront of the riots. The atmosphere in the region was tense.”

The communal rigidity performed proper into the arms of the BJP. “The party won seven seats in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur in 2009,” stated Katkar. “BJP hardly had any footprint here. In the process of expanding his organisation, Bhide created fertile ground for BJP to make inroads in Sangli and western Maharashtra. And all of that happened under the watch of the NCP and Congress which ruled the state for a major chunk of this period. I don’t think they expected Bhide to become as influential as he is. Today, it is clear as daylight that Bhide’s supporters are voters of the BJP, and he is furthering their ideology.”

Towards the tip of 2019, when nationwide protests erupted towards the National Register of Citizenship and Citizenship Amendment Act, which critics stated discriminate towards India’s Muslims, Bhide’s outfit organised an enormous rally in Sangli supporting the 2 payments. “When you go to a hotel, they ask for your identity card,” stated Choughule. “Then shouldn’t the country have the right to ask the identity of its citizens? We need to get rid of the intruders in our country. Those protesting against the bills are conspiring to create unrest in India by provoking the Muslim community.”

(Bhide exterior his dwelling in Sangli. Photo courtesy the author.)

Explaining the Shiv Pratishthan’s “social work”, Choughule stated the organisation works towards “Love Jihad” as effectively. Two BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have introduced in ordinances towards “Love Jihad”, which has been challenged within the Allahabad High Court for its constitutional validity. Commentators say the ordinance prevents inter-faith marriage, which is completely authorized in India. But Choughule insisted the idea is actual. “We have rescued a lot of Hindu girls,” he claimed.

The Pratishthan’s ideological boundaries weren’t all the time as clearly demarcated as they’re at present. Because he claimed to propagate Shivaji’s ideology, Bhide’s early followers by and huge belonged to the Maratha group. Many of them had been voters of the NCP and Congress up till 2009. When he received from Sangli within the common elections of 2009 on the Congress ticket, Pratik Patil, 46, stated Bhide’s supporters campaigned for him, which drastically improved his possibilities. “No political leader wants to touch Bhide because of his cult-like following,” stated the two-time MP from Sangli. “His supporters were our potential voters. Who would want to alienate that?”

Building mass assist

Upon being requested to elucidate Shiv Pratishthan’s reputation, Choughule took out his cellphone and began scrolling by the picture gallery. Images and movies from Bhide’s current rallies had an ocean of individuals thronging the streets to hearken to him. “Sangli and Western Maharashtra is our stronghold, but we have lakhs of volunteers from every caste spread across every district in the state,” he stated. “Ninety percent of our followers are aged between 14 and 40. Most of them are men. We have come a long way since Guruji founded the outfit in 1985.”

Prior to that, Bhide, born to a small-time lawyer based mostly out of Tuljapur in Osmanabad, had been a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the guardian organisation of the BJP. “He walked out after having a verbal skirmish with the then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras, and vowed to form an even bigger organisation,” stated Krishna Prakash.

Sangli, which has had a legacy of Hindutva leaders, was fertile floor to put the muse. In the late ‘80s, Bhide made his first public appearance after the mega play, Jaanta Raja (All-Knowing King), based on the writings of controversial author Babasaheb Purandare, who has often portrayed Shivaji as a king that opposed Muslims.

(Bhide stops for a word with Choughule. Photo courtesy the writer.)

Shivaji was an obvious crutch for Bhide, who based his outfit out of Western Maharashtra, where the warrior king is revered like a demi-god. In the early ‘90s, Bhide started organising treks, where he took enthusiastic crowds to scale forts that Shivaji conquered during his rule. A huge chunk of Bhide’s loyal supporters started their journey with Shiv Pratishthan on one among these treks. For a trek he organised earlier than the pandemic, Choughule stated the group had greater than 10,000 folks.

When you develop up in Western Maharashtra, you develop up with songs and tales of Shivaji, stated Tanaji Jadhav, 39, a lawyer based mostly out of Vita, who was a part of Shiv Pratishthan between 1998-2000. “Every kid, therefore, wants to see the forts that Shivaji conquered,” he added. “In that sense, the treks were a masterstroke. Parents did not mind sending their children because on the face of it, it seemed harmless. We would get some physical activity. On top of that, we would get to hear stories of Shivaji. It was like a picnic of sorts.”

But the bigger mission was to unite Hindus, stated Pratik Patil. “Initially, the crowd he managed to gather belonged to the Maratha community,” Patil notes. “But when you tap into youngsters, they bring their friends too, who belong to different caste groups. That is how he slowly expanded his base.”

To unite Hindus, Bhide wanted a standard enemy. The selection was simple. Those who’ve gone on treks with Bhide stated he typically invited a chief visitor, who unfailingly delivered a “hateful speech” on the finish of the trek. Bhide himself would make anti-Muslim statements beneath the garb of telling historical past.

Datta Khandagale, who additionally labored with Bhide between 1995-2002, stated he solely has three narratives up his sleeve so far as Shivaji is worried. “He keeps repeating how Shivaji killed Afzal Khan; how he cut off Shaista Khan’s fingers; and how Aurangzeb tortured Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji,” he stated. “The undercurrent in all of these narratives is consistent. Mughals were Muslims, and they are the villains. For impressionable youth, it works.”

(Seen right here: Journalist Datta Khandagale, whose 2015 editorial made him the Shiv Pratishthan’s goal. Photo courtesy the author.)

Ideological flex

Every yr, Shiv Pratishthan observes a ‘Balidan (Sacrifice) Month’ in Sangli in March; throughout this time, Bhide’s communal speeches go a notch greater, stated Khandagale. “The month is supposed to mark the period when Aurangzeb captured Sambhaji, and tortured him before ending his life,” stated Khandagale. “Bhide’s followers only eat ordinary food during the period. Because we are supposed to be in mourning, nobody eats sweets or non-vegetarian food for the month.”

During that month, Bhide delivers speeches with graphic particulars of how Aurangzeb tortured Sambhaji, stated Khandagale. “Aurangzeb means Muslim, and as Shivaji’s followers, that is our enemy today — [this] is always the essence of the story,” he added.

At one among these occasions that Shiv Pratishthan had organised, they invited Prakash when he was the superintendent of police in Sangli. “I accepted the invitation,” he stated. “It was during my initial days in the district.”

The occasion quickly was a platform to distort historical past and unfold communal disharmony. “I immediately intervened and said I cannot allow this to happen,” stated Prakash. “But I was told only Bhide Guruji gets to speak and no chief guest in the past, including top politicians, had objected to the speeches. I sent him a notice the next day, after which they ran a campaign against me, falsely claiming I entered a temple wearing shoes. Wherever I have served, I have always worked towards communal harmony. Nowhere did I face the hostility I faced in Sangli.”

On the face of it, Bhide, who’s a Brahmin, might have united Hindus to a big extent, however those that have noticed him carefully say the inner workings of the organisation are laden with casteism. Pratik Patil, who has additionally gone for treks with Bhide’s group as a teen, stated Bhide’s strategy in the direction of a Maratha and a Brahmin youngster is usually completely different. He would insist a  Maratha boy “come along for the trek even if exams were around,” he stated. “That rule did not apply to Brahmin children. Brahmins were supposed to be scholars. Marathas were to be warriors.”

When one of many Shiv Pratishthan employees belonging to an oppressed caste fell ailing, Rohit Patil visited him with Bhide. At their colleague’s dwelling, Bhide “did not eat anything saying he is fasting,” recalled Rohit. “A few hours later, I saw him feasting at the house of one of our Brahmin activists.”

That was the second Rohit reconsidered his affiliation with Bhide. “I was 17 when I joined Shiv Pratishthan out of my fascination for Shivaji,” he stated. “I was at an impressionable age. But when I saw him discriminate between castes, I thought something was wrong. Then I threatened Khandagale, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”

Khandagle had filed a police grievance towards Rohit, after which he apologised. Khandagale withdrew his grievance, and defined what Bhide is definitely doing beneath the garb of being a Shivaji disciple. “That opened my eyes,” stated Rohit. “I simply stopped attending the meetings.”

For Tanaji Jadhav, the tipping level got here when Bhide criticised the teachings of Mahatma Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. “They are great men,” he stated. “But Bhide told us to forget about them and only remember Shivaji. I thought why does it have to be either or. Those of us who got out were fortunate enough to meet sensible people that helped us see through his ulterior motive. But we are in the minority. Most get sucked into it because of his austere lifestyle.”

A rigorously calibrated picture 

(Above and beneath: Bhide’s spartan room. Photos courtesy the author.)

Bhide lives in a tiny room on the primary flooring of a two-storeyed constructing in a quiet lane within the city of Sangli. The room has no furnishings, no mattress, not even a fan. A skinny sheet is unfold on the bottom, surrounded by piles of books and newspapers. Under the constructing, a bicycle that appears as previous as his organisation, and which Bhide makes use of to go to the market, rests towards a wall.

When this reporter met Bhide in March 2020 with Choughule, he was on his option to the market. Clad in white kurta and dhoti, Bhide responded in monosyllables, and stated Choughule’s phrase is nearly as good as his. “I have devoted my life to (Shivaji) Maharaj,” he stated and bought on the bicycle. A few his safety guards adopted him.

Choughule stated that “Guruji” doesn’t have tea or espresso, not to mention non-vegetarian meals. “He does not even have biscuits,” he added. “He uses public transport for outstation travel. He does not wear chappals.”

The propaganda disseminated amongst his followers is that Bhide refuses to put on chappals as a result of he doesn’t wish to kick mom earth. There are extra legends about him which can be typically heard in Sangli, a part of his rigorously calibrated picture. There are tales of how he’s a gold medalist in Nuclear Physics or how he was once a sought-after lecturer. “None of these legends have been corroborated,” stated Katkar. “But these are things that fascinate and attract gullible people. He still does regular exercises, he is part of the treks even at this age. He participates in the yearly run (Durga Mata Daud), which is another event he has been organising for decades with great success. He puts up a front of sacrifice, and lures people into being his followers.”

However, an austere life-style doesn’t make him a saint, stated Prakash: “When people spend time with him, they get brainwashed, and how.”

Destructive drive

About 25 years in the past, Pratik Patil had participated in a trek organised by Bhide. “We had gone to Gagangad, Kolhapur,” he stated. “On top of the cliff, there is a temple that looks like a mosque. It is green in colour. Some of his followers said this needs to be torn down. I tried to stop them but they started pelting stones at it. Some of us helped restore the structure. But I left the trek midway.”

Rohit stated he can think about what will need to have occurred on the trek. “I was constantly charged up and angry during the three years I was with Shiv Pratishthan,” he stated. “Bhide repeatedly called Hindus impotent, servile and useless in his speeches. He would say the loudspeaker on top of the mosque wouldn’t be there if Hindus unite. Many of us were children of farmers and labourers, struggling with finances. He would pretend to provide support. But it made all of us teenagers very hateful. It has ruined lives.”

(‘He is relentless,’ Khandagale says of Bhide. Photo courtesy the author.)

More than 20 years later, a former employee with Shiv Pratishthan nonetheless regrets being a part of the organisation. In a match of rage, he had painted an eidgah in Sangli in saffron colors as a teen. “Bhide did not ask me to do it,” he clarified, requesting anonymity. “But when you spend time with fanatics, you end up doing fanatical things.”

The employee was caught, and a case registered towards him. “I am from a farm household,” he stated, breaking into tears. “The case cost us a lot of money. My family ostracised me. In fact, the Muslim community in Sangli helped me get back on my feet after they realised I am genuinely repenting my actions.”

Khandagale stated that is exactly the impact Bhide has on folks. “Even I used to think of Muslims as terrorists,” he stated. “I had once asked Bhide if we could get arms training to combat the threat to Hindus. He replied, we can arrange for it if you are serious.”

Explaining how Shiv Pratishthan operates, a senior cop who has served in Sangli drew parallels with Sanatan Sanstha, the novel proper wing cult accused within the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh. Just like Sanatan, he stated, the footsoldiers on the bottom have little clue of what’s taking place on the high degree. “Bhide often visited leaders of Sanatan Sanstha in Sangli,” he stated, requesting anonymity. “We had been tailing him to keep an eye on his activities.”

To perform the actions, and at that scale, organisations want assets. Choughule stated the volunteers and followers of Bhide take care of their “meagre expenses”, however journalists in Sangli say he’s funded by the merchants and businessmen within the area. “We have a huge trade of turmeric in Sangli,” stated a commentator, requesting anonymity. “The businessmen are loaded with money. They regularly donate to him. Among Hindus, there is by and large acceptance of what he does.”

All issues thought of, Khandagale stated one has to credit score Bhide for his dedication and dedication. “He is relentless. He has devoted his life to furthering his ideology,” he stated. “The only problem is, it is a destructive ideology.”

— Banner picture through PTI/File Photo

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