It didn’t matter that Datta Khandagale had two little youngsters. The abusive phone calls to his dwelling continued unabated in any respect hours, for 21 days straight. “My family change into as soon as unsettled, and I feared for his or her safety,” recalled the 39-yr archaic journalist basically basically based in the little town of Vita in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. “They [callers] abused me, threatened to abolish me. It has been over 5 years, but I vividly be aware those harrowing days.”
In early 2015, a aesthetic cruise outfit had launched into a mission in Sangli to present temples to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the Maratha warrior king revered across Maharashtra, particularly in the western plan the place Sangli is found. Khandagale wrote an editorial opposing the premise. “I essentially said that Shivaji change into as soon as a mountainous man, but let him remain a human being. Don’t develop him god,” Khandagale, who publishes a weekly known as Vajradhari, said on a new December night. “That article did no longer whisk down well with the outfit.”
For the next three weeks, Khandagale’s phone wouldn’t cease buzzing. One amongst the callers who abused and threatened him change into as soon as then 20-yr-archaic Rohit Patil. “I’m no longer snug with it,” Rohit said. “I change into as soon as taken in by the propaganda around me. Just a few of us working with the outfit had been incited to raise out what we did. I had been brainwashed into being a bigoted, communal individual.”
The organisation that attacked Khandagale change into as soon as the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, which claims to propagate the ideology of Shivaji. It’s basically based by Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide, 87, who wields ominous have an effect on in the divulge and has been accused of triggering the Bhima Koregaon riots. 1 January 2021 will model the third anniversary of the riots.
The Bhima Koregaon connection
Each and each yr on 1 January, tens of hundreds of Dalit-Bahujan pilgrims procure on the warfare memorial of Bhima Koregoan, about 40 km from Pune. It commemorates the historic fight won by the British Navy, which had a foremost contingent of Dalit troopers, in opposition to the Peshwas. For the Dalit community, the fight signifies their fight in opposition to untouchability. Therefore, in 2018, on the 200th anniversary of the match, the team at Bhima Koregaon warfare memorial change into as soon as greater than normal. On the opposite hand, the gathering change into as soon as assaulted allegedly by greater caste mobs belonging to aesthetic-cruise groups.
(Above: The warfare memorial at Bhima Koregaon. Image by arrangement of Wikimedia Commons.)
The day after the riots, Pune-basically basically based anti-caste activist Anita Sawale filed a criticism naming Hindutva chief Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide because the “masterminds” of the attack. “They did no longer favor to be there physically,” she instructed Firstpost. “Nevertheless the mob executing the rise up openly chanted slogans in their name. I noticed the violence closely. I hold talked about all of that in element in my criticism.”
The Pune Police’s rural cruise arrested Ekbote, but he received bail within months. Bhide, on the many hand, has no longer even been wondered despite being named in the First Info Epic (FIR). In February 2018, a team of Pune police’s crime division had visited the city of Sangli, from the place Bhide operates. Nitin Choughule, Bhide’s aesthetic hand man and secretary of Shiv Pratishthan, said that the team returned without meeting him. “Guruji change into as soon as with Jayant Patil [Nationalist Congress Party leader and cabinet minister in the current state government] on the time of the riots,” Choughule instructed this reporter. “His mom had passed away. The police met me, took testimonies of Guruji’s security guards. Guruji change into as soon as no longer apprehensive for my fragment.”
The reverential therapy of Bhide, continuously known as Guruji, by the fingers of law enforcement companies is never any longer aesthetic, said Dalit activist Rahul Dambale. “His political clout cuts across social gathering traces,” he said. “Congress and NCP [when] in the opposition were vocal in opposition to him. Why are they no longer acting now? Bhide’s proximity to new chief minister Uddhav Thackeray is also well identified. The true fact of the matter is he has a large following, and he controls the politics and politicians of Sangli, and, to an extent, Western Maharashtra. The general case is being fabricated to offer protection to him.”
Astonishingly, the investigations into the Bhima Koregaon riots hold transpired over a solitary FIR filed by a Pune-basically basically based businessman, Tushar Damgude, who’s an avid fan of Bhide. The day ahead of the riots, two retired judges, BG Kolse Patil and PB Savant, had organised a rally, Elgar Parishad, the place hundreds of attendees vowed to never vote for communal forces. Damgude’s FIR pins the blame for the Bhima Koregaon riots on the rally. Town cruise of Pune police and NIA hold acted without be aware on his FIR, raiding and intelligent reputed human rights attorneys, scholars and activists — 16 to date — blaming them for the violence, accusing them of being “city Maoists” and even plotting the assassination of Top Minister Narendra Modi.
The impunity Bhide enjoys on the brand new time is since the political class grew to change into a blind request in direction of him in the early days for political positive aspects. A senior cop who broken-all the draw down to be deployed in Sangli said the police would robotically web calls from senior leaders in the divulge asking them to whisk easy on Bhide. “He is a troublemaker,” the cop said, inquiring for anonymity. “Within the inner police diaries, Bhide has been described as a Dharmaveda Mathefiru, which roughly interprets to ‘loopy non secular fanatic’. Nevertheless he enjoys political patronage. Curiously, the people asking the police officers to whisk easy on him mostly belonged to Congress and NCP. Now we hold considered them piece the stage with him.”
The political patronage Bhide receives has made it stressful for law enforcement companies to raise out their job impartially. In 2008, Bhide’s activists had forcibly shut down a screening of the movie Jodhaa Akbar. Bhide had instructed the assembled protestors that the movie distorted historic previous. At the time, Krishna Prakash, in the intervening time the commissioner of the city of Pimpri-Chinchwad, change into as soon as the superintendent of police, Sangli. “After we arrested about a of Bhide’s followers, his bodyguards barged into the police assign, created a ruckus, and even manhandled the police officers,” Prakash instructed this reporter. “We might perchance perchance no longer arrest Bhide because my officers instructed me it would lead to a law and repeat downside.”
(Above: Nitin Choughule is Bhide’s aesthetic hand man and secretary of Shiv Pratishthan. Below, he’s considered with Bhide. Photos courtesy the creator.)
Judging by the proof in the general public domain, Bhide’s clout isn’t being exaggerated. Sooner than the 2014 total elections, Narendra Modi had referred to him as “most precious Bhide guruji”. The Maharashtra government below Devendra Fadnavis recommended him for Padma Shri in 2016, and dropped three conditions of rioting in opposition to him in 2018. The new chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, had also sought Bhide’s blessings sooner than the 2014 divulge meeting elections. Amongst media personalities, said Choughule, one in every of the chief guests at their capabilities has been Suresh Chavhanke, who change into as soon as no longer too long ago pulled up by the Supreme Court docket for his level to, UPSC Jihad.
Choughule insists, on the opposite hand, that Bhide’s political proximity is never any longer restricted to aesthetic cruise ideology. “Now we hold had the gradual RR Patil, Patangrao Kadam, Pratik Patil and so a lot more as chief guests at our gatherings,” he said, citing examples of Congress and NCP leaders. “Now we hold also had Raj Thackeray. They’ve all graced the occasions selflessly, out of cherish and respect for Shivaji and Guruji.”
Sarcastically, Bhide before the entire lot broken-down Congress and NCP leaders’ patronage to propagate the ideology of the BJP below the garb of being a Shivaji follower, said Shivraj Katkar, a senior journalist basically basically based in Sangli, who has adopted Bhide’s upward push closely. In 1992, a statue of Shivaji had been defaced in Sangli. “A severe rise up unfolded after that,” recounts Katkar. “Muslim-owned retail outlets were burnt, a masjid change into as soon as vandalised. Nevertheless no longer many assume that Muslims in Sangli would raise out one thing cherish that to a Shivaji statue. There are rumours that it change into as soon as Bhide’s manner of engineering an expand up.”
Ever since, Katkar added, Shiv Pratishthan has kept communal tensions bubbling in Sangli. On the opposite hand, the decisive blow came ideal sooner than the 2009 divulge meeting elections.
Much less than 10 kilometers from Sangli, in the city of Miraj, the Shiv Sena’s city chief had installed an arc depicting the slaying of Afzal Khan by the fingers of Shivaji. Town chief, Vikas Suryavanshi, is quiet with Shiv Pratishthan. “Ganpati celebrations were on, at which level a community of people landed up in the streets opposing the arc,” said Katkar. “A heated argument ensued between two groups, when a Muslim teen threw a stone that knocked over a Ganpati idol. That ended in the rise up.”
The NCP-backed mayor of the city change into as soon as amongst those named because the perpetrators of the Miraj riots. On the opposite hand, it’s widely believed that Bhide change into as soon as one in every of many enthralling about fanning the flames. An activist who change into as soon as half of Shiv Pratishthan in 2009 said he witnessed several of his fellow workers decide half in the riots. “Many of my colleagues had gone to Miraj on the time on their motorbikes,” he said. “They attacked paan retail outlets owned by Muslims. They pelted stones at Muslim households. They vandalised their autos. Bhide’s people were on the forefront of the riots. The ambiance in the plan change into as soon as traumatic.”
The communal tension played aesthetic into the fingers of the BJP. “The social gathering won seven seats in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur in 2009,” said Katkar. “BJP no longer continuously had any footprint here. Throughout of expanding his organisation, Bhide created fertile ground for BJP to develop inroads in Sangli and western Maharashtra. And all of that came about below the gaze of the NCP and Congress which dominated the divulge for a serious chunk of this length. I don’t reflect they anticipated Bhide to change into as influential as he’s. At the brand new time, it’s evident as sunlight hours that Bhide’s supporters are voters of the BJP, and he’s furthering their ideology.”
In direction of the terminate of 2019, when nationwide protests erupted in opposition to the Nationwide Register of Citizenship and Citizenship Modification Act, which critics said discriminate in opposition to India’s Muslims, Bhide’s outfit organised an enormous rally in Sangli supporting the 2 bills. “Whenever you whisk to a resort, they inquire of for your identity card,” said Choughule. “Then shouldn’t the nation hold the cultured to inquire of the identity of its residents? We favor to assign away with the intruders in our nation. These protesting in opposition to the bills are conspiring to receive unrest in India by upsetting the Muslim community.”
(Bhide inaugurate air his dwelling in Sangli. Photo courtesy the creator.)
Explaining the Shiv Pratishthan’s “social work”, Choughule said the organisation works in opposition to “Fancy Jihad” to boot. Two BJP-dominated states, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, hold brought in ordinances in opposition to “Fancy Jihad”, which has been challenged in the Allahabad Excessive Court docket for its constitutional validity. Commentators direct the ordinance prevents inter-faith marriage, which is perfectly factual in India. Nevertheless Choughule insisted the belief is staunch. “Now we hold rescued rather about a Hindu ladies,” he claimed.
The Pratishthan’s ideological boundaries weren’t continuously as clearly demarcated as they are on the brand new time. Because he claimed to propagate Shivaji’s ideology, Bhide’s early followers by and large belonged to the Maratha community. Many of them were voters of the NCP and Congress up unless 2009. When he won from Sangli in the total elections of 2009 on the Congress ticket, Pratik Patil, 46, said Bhide’s supporters campaigned for him, which very a lot improved his probabilities. “No political chief needs to contact Bhide thanks to his cult-cherish following,” said the 2-time MP from Sangli. “His supporters were our attainable voters. Who would favor to alienate that?”
Building mass make stronger
Upon being asked to repeat Shiv Pratishthan’s recognition, Choughule took out his phone and commenced scrolling thru the picture gallery. Photos and movies from Bhide’s new rallies had an ocean of people thronging the streets to hear to him. “Sangli and Western Maharashtra is our stronghold, but now we hold lakhs of volunteers from every caste unfold across every district in the divulge,” he said. “Ninety p.c of our followers are archaic between 14 and 40. Most of them are men. Now we hold arrangement a protracted manner since Guruji basically based the outfit in 1985.”
Sooner than that, Bhide, born to a little-time licensed professional basically basically based out of Tuljapur in Osmanabad, had been a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP. “He walked out after having a verbal skirmish with the then RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras, and vowed to develop a ideal bigger organisation,” said Krishna Prakash.
Sangli, which has had a legacy of Hindutva leaders, change into as soon as fertile ground to lay the basis. Within the gradual ‘80s, Bhide made his first public appearance after the mega play, Jaanta Raja (All-Sparkling King), basically basically based on the writings of controversial creator Babasaheb Purandare, who has in total portrayed Shivaji as a king that adverse Muslims.
(Bhide stops for a notice with Choughule. Photo courtesy the creator.)
Shivaji change into as soon as an evident crutch for Bhide, who basically basically based his outfit out of Western Maharashtra, the place the warrior king is revered cherish a demi-god. Within the early ‘90s, Bhide started organising treks, the place he took enthralling crowds to scale forts that Shivaji conquered for the length of his rule. A large chunk of Bhide’s genuine supporters started their hasten with Shiv Pratishthan on one in every of those treks. For a plug he organised ahead of the pandemic, Choughule said the community had more than 10,000 people.
Whenever you grow up in Western Maharashtra, you grow up with songs and tales of Shivaji, said Tanaji Jadhav, 39, a licensed professional basically basically based out of Vita, who change into as soon as half of Shiv Pratishthan between 1998-2000. “Each and each child, due to the this fact, needs to glance the forts that Shivaji conquered,” he added. “In that sense, the treks were a masterstroke. Of us did no longer thoughts sending their youngsters because on the face of it, it regarded harmless. We would web some bodily exercise. On high of that, we would web to hear tales of Shivaji. It change into as soon as cherish a picnic of kinds.”
Nevertheless the upper project change into as soon as to unite Hindus, said Pratik Patil. “At the origin, the team he managed to procure belonged to the Maratha community,” Patil notes. “Nevertheless whenever you faucet into youngsters, they invent their web page visitors too, who belong to assorted caste groups. That’s how he slowly expanded his rotten.”
To unite Hindus, Bhide essential a classic enemy. The choice change into as soon as easy. These which hold gone on treks with Bhide said he in total invited a prime guest, who unfailingly delivered a “hateful speech” on the terminate of the plug. Bhide himself would develop anti-Muslim statements below the garb of telling historic previous.
Datta Khandagale, who also worked with Bhide between 1995-2002, said he handiest has three narratives up his sleeve so a ways as Shivaji is concerned. “He keeps repeating how Shivaji killed Afzal Khan; how he sever off Shaista Khan’s fingers; and the draw Aurangzeb tortured Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji,” he said. “The undercurrent in all of those narratives is consistent. Mughals were Muslims, they veritably are the villains. For impressionable formative years, it in truth works.”
(Viewed here: Journalist Datta Khandagale, whose 2015 editorial made him the Shiv Pratishthan’s aim. Photo courtesy the creator.)
Each and each yr, Shiv Pratishthan observes a ‘Balidan (Sacrifice) Month’ in Sangli in March; for the length of this time, Bhide’s communal speeches whisk a notch greater, said Khandagale. “The month is presupposed to model the length when Aurangzeb captured Sambhaji, and tortured him ahead of ending his life,” said Khandagale. “Bhide’s followers handiest consume unprecedented meals for the length of the length. Because we are presupposed to be in mourning, no one eats sweets or non-vegetarian meals for the month.”
Throughout that month, Bhide delivers speeches with graphic essential facets of how Aurangzeb tortured Sambhaji, said Khandagale. “Aurangzeb potential Muslim, and as Shivaji’s followers, that’s our enemy on the brand new time — [this] is continuously the essence of the account,” he added.
At one in every of those occasions that Shiv Pratishthan had organised, they invited Prakash when he change into as soon as the superintendent of police in Sangli. “I accredited the invitation,” he said. “It change into as soon as for the length of my initial days in the district.”
The match soon grew to change into accurate into a platform to distort historic previous and unfold communal disharmony. “I right now intervened and said I can not enable this to occur,” said Prakash. “Nevertheless I change into as soon as instructed handiest Bhide Guruji will get to direct and no chief guest in the previous, including high politicians, had objected to the speeches. I despatched him a glance the following day, after which they ran a campaign in opposition to me, falsely claiming I entered a temple wearing shoes. Wherever I hold served, I hold continuously worked in direction of communal unity. Nowhere did I face the hostility I faced in Sangli.”
On the face of it, Bhide might perchance perchance hold united Hindus to a large extent, but people which hold noticed him closely direct the inner workings of the organisation are encumbered with casteism. Pratik Patil, who has also gone for treks with Bhide’s community as a teen, said Bhide’s potential in direction of a Maratha and a Brahmin child is in total assorted. He would divulge a Maratha boy “arrangement along for the plug despite the fact that exams were around,” he said. “That rule did no longer prepare to Brahmin youngsters. Brahmins were presupposed to be scholars. Marathas were to be warriors.”
When one in every of the Shiv Pratishthan workers belonging to an oppressed caste fell in sad health, Rohit Patil visited him with Bhide. At their colleague’s dwelling, Bhide “did no longer consume one thing announcing he’s fasting,” recalled Rohit. “Just a few hours later, I noticed him feasting on the dwelling of one in every of our Brahmin activists.”
That change into as soon as the moment Rohit reconsidered his affiliation with Bhide. “I change into as soon as 17 when I joined Shiv Pratishthan out of my fascination for Shivaji,” he said. “I change into as soon as at an impressionable age. Nevertheless when I noticed him discriminate between castes, I thought one thing change into as soon as depraved. Then I threatened Khandagale, which grew to change into out to be a blessing in hide.”
Khandagle had filed a police criticism in opposition to Rohit, after which he apologised. Khandagale withdrew his criticism, and defined what Bhide is certainly doing below the garb of being a Shivaji disciple. “That opened my eyes,” said Rohit. “I simply stopped attending the conferences.”
For Tanaji Jadhav, the tipping level came when Bhide criticised the teachings of Mahatma Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. “They’re mountainous men,” he said. “Nevertheless Bhide instructed us to push apart them and handiest be aware Shivaji. I thought why does it favor to be either or. These of us who received out were lucky enough to fulfill ideal those that helped us reflect about thru his ulterior motive. Nevertheless we are in the minority. Most web sucked into it thanks to his austere standard of living.”
A fastidiously calibrated image
(Above and below: Bhide’s spartan room. Photos courtesy the creator.)
Bhide lives in a microscopic room on the foremost flooring of a two-storeyed constructing in a quiet lane in the city of Sangli. The room has no furnishings, no bed, no longer even a fan. A thin sheet is unfold on the ground, surrounded by piles of books and newspapers. Below the constructing, a bicycle that seems as archaic as his organisation, and which Bhide uses to whisk to the market, rests in opposition to a wall.
When this reporter met Bhide in March 2020 with Choughule, he change into as soon as on his manner to the market. Clad in white kurta and dhoti, Bhide answered in monosyllables, and said Choughule’s notice is as correct as his. “I hold devoted my life to (Shivaji) Maharaj,” he said and bought on the bicycle. Just a few his security guards adopted him.
Choughule said that “Guruji” would no longer hold tea or coffee, let alone non-vegetarian meals. “He would no longer even hold biscuits,” he added. “He uses public transport for outstation hasten. He would no longer assign on chappals.”
The propaganda disseminated amongst his followers is that Bhide refuses to position on chappals because he would no longer favor to kick mom earth. There are more legends about him that are in total heard in Sangli, half of his fastidiously calibrated image. There are tales of how he’s a gold medalist in Nuclear Physics or how he broken-all the draw down to be a sought-after lecturer. “None of those legends hold been corroborated,” said Katkar. “Nevertheless these are issues that fascinate and attract gullible people. He quiet does regular workout routines, he’s half of the treks even at this age. He participates in the annual speed (Durga Mata Daud), which is one other match he has been organising for a protracted time with mountainous success. He locations up a entrance of sacrifice, and lures people into being his followers.”
On the opposite hand, an austere standard of living would no longer develop him a saint, said Prakash: “When people exercise time with him, they web brainwashed, and the draw.”
About 25 years ago, Pratik Patil had participated in a plug organised by Bhide. “We had gone to Gagangad, Kolhapur,” he said. “On high of the cliff, there might perchance be a temple that seems cherish a mosque. It’s inexperienced in colour. Some of his followers said this must be torn down. I attempted to cease them but they started pelting stones at it. Some of us helped restore the enchancment. Nevertheless I left the plug midway.”
Rohit said he can accept as true with what must hold came about on the plug. “I change into as soon as constantly charged up and mad for the length of the three years I change into as soon as with Shiv Pratishthan,” he said. “Bhide gradually known as Hindus impotent, servile and ineffective in his speeches. He would direct the loudspeaker on high of the mosque wouldn’t be there if Hindus unite. Many people were youngsters of farmers and labourers, battling funds. He would fake to present make stronger. Nevertheless it made all of us youngsters very hateful. It has ruined lives.”
(‘He is relentless,’ Khandagale says of Bhide. Photo courtesy the creator.)
More than 20 years later, a archaic employee with Shiv Pratishthan quiet regrets being half of the organisation. In a match of rage, he had painted an eidgah in Sangli in saffron colours as a teen. “Bhide did no longer inquire of me to raise out it,” he clarified, inquiring for anonymity. “Nevertheless whenever you exercise time with lovers, you terminate up doing fanatical issues.”
The employee change into as soon as caught, and a case registered in opposition to him. “I’m from a farm family,” he said, breaking into tears. “The case price us rather about a cash. My family ostracised me. In actual fact, the Muslim community in Sangli helped me web abet on my toes after they realised I’m in actuality repenting my actions.”
Khandagale said here’s exactly the receive Bhide has on people. “Even I broken-all the draw down to assume Muslims as terrorists,” he said. “I had as soon as asked Bhide if we would web fingers training to fight the threat to Hindus. He replied, we are able to organize for it whenever you occur to is at possibility of be severe.”
Explaining how Shiv Pratishthan operates, a senior cop who has served in Sangli drew parallels with Sanatan Sanstha, the radical aesthetic cruise cult accused in the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh. Staunch cherish Sanatan, he said, the footsoldiers on the ground hold shrimp clue of what’s occurring on the tip level. “Bhide in total visited leaders of Sanatan Sanstha in Sangli,” he said, inquiring for anonymity. “We had been tailing him to defend an request on his activities.”
To rob out the activities, and at that scale, organisations need resources. Choughule said the volunteers and followers of Bhide glance after their “meagre costs”, but journalists in Sangli direct he’s funded by the merchants and businessmen in the plan. “Now we hold an wide alternate of turmeric in Sangli,” said a commentator, inquiring for anonymity. “The businessmen are loaded with cash. And to boot they donate to him. Amongst Hindus, there might perchance be by and large acceptance of what he does.”
All issues thought of, Khandagale said one has to credit Bhide for his dedication and dedication. “He is relentless. He has devoted his life to furthering his ideology,” he said. “The ideal danger is, it is a adverse ideology.”
— Banner image by arrangement of PTI/File Photo