A popular Marathi saying goes like this, Pune tithe kai une, which loosely translates to “Pune lacks absolutely nothing”. It is a confident reference to the city’s rich cultural history, excellent living conditions and academic supremacy. But beneath the façade of a modern Pune—with slinky new cars, fancy apartment complexes and malls with dazzling neon signs—is a metropolis caught in a violent clash of ideologies.
Over the past few years, a series of events have put the city in the headlines—from the murder of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, to arrests of suspects from Hindu right-wing organisation Sanatan Sanstha, to a politically-charged rally and subsequent arrest of rights activists for allegedly inciting violence, and protests by civic action groups against the government. India’s most liveable city, according to this year’s Ease of Living Index, it appears, is living a double life.
“Increasingly, we have bipolar groups, who are being brainwashed and are accepting propaganda without questioning, just like one adopts religion. People need to understand that human rights is a subject related to good governance and are not mutually exclusive,” lawyer Aseem Sarode tells Outlook. “I also believe that having two separate schools of thought following Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar has not helped our society. Historically, they never rejected each other and the present separation is being used by the right-wing.”
In recent times, it all started with the assassination of Dabholkar in 2013 and the half-hearted investigation by the police. A few months later, techie Mohsin Sheikh, on his way back from work, was killed by a mob driven by allegedly derogatory Facebook posts about late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and Maratha king Shivaji. The Film and Television Institute of India, one of India’s premier institutes, also witnessed a long-drawn agitation over the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as its chairman. Beyond the city, the flourishing industrial belt of Chakan-Pimpri-Chinwad and nearby rural areas were pulverised by a violent Maratha agitation, a farmers’ upheaval and even a crackdown by police on protesters and whistle-blowers.
Last month, the Bombay High Court-monitored Dabholkar murder probe saw a breakthrough when the anti-terrorism squad (ATS) arrested several suspects and seized weapons and explosives. The suspects are allegedly linked to the Sanatan Sanstha and are also said to be connected to the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bangalore. Even as demands for banning the Sanshta grew louder, Pune police arrested five well-known activists across India, claiming they were plotting to destabilise the government. Activists and opposition leaders claim the police action is a diversionary tactic to shift the focus from alleged Hindu terrorism suspects.
Congress leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil says, “It’s unheard of that the police will hold a political press conference instead of submitting the evidence in the court. Why did the Pune police not hold a similar press conference when they arrested suspects in case of the Sanatan Sanstha? Fundamental rights are being enc-roached upon by this government.”
At least 30 organisations came together to protest the police action in Pune. Kiran Moghe from All India Democratic Women’s Association says, “We gave a ‘certificate of dishonour’ to the Pune police.” In a joint statement, the organisations questioned the rationale behind the arrests. “Is it not shocking that an organisation such as the Sanatan Sanstha which is found to harbour weapons and material for manufacturing bombs is not banned, but those found to have literature by Savitribai Phule, Karl Marx and Ambedkar are arrested on the charge of being anti-national.”
Activists demanding the arrest of Dabholkar’s killers during a protest march.
Across the cultural history of Pune, there is no dearth of civilian action and participation in the process of democracy. From academia to theatre and cinema, Pune has always been the hub of progressive thought. The historical seat of Peshwas, the Brahmin rulers of the state, has also been Pune. And there are strong support groups for Sambhaji Bhide and Millind Ekbote, the alleged perpetrators of violence at Bhima Koregaon, the place where Dalits commemorate their victory over the higher caste rulers. It is neither a coincidence that Dabholkar lived and worked in Pune, nor is it that the Bhandarkar Institute was attacked by the Sambhaji Brigade or those who feel that Bramhins “need protection” are attempting to regroup.
Joseph Pinto says the current government is merely using the Gujarat model of using the organs of the state such as the police and is individually going to each communityone by one—Dalits versus Marathas versus Bramhins. “The middle class is with PM Modi and focusing on stock markets. Naxalism is a bogey driven by the Congress and so it is easy to target the left-wing as that and get mass support. However, the case pertaining to Elgar Parishad is a cooked up story and will not stand in the court of law.”
Sociologists speak of Pune having the entire spectrum of socio-political thoughts and support groups. However, there is marked polarisation over the past few years. Shruti Tambe, head of the sociology department at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, says the rampant growth of city has taken the nearby rural areas in its scope, causing multi-layered psycho-socio challenges such as migration, lack of health and education facilities, widening gap between the labour force and the highly-skilled upwardly mobile upper middle class, mostly employed with the IT sector. “There is one big section which has one foot in the US or Europe. The other is the section of workers that struggles at multiple levels. There is absolutely no connection bet-ween the two and when a society gets divided into such two sections, they become indifferent to something as serious as who lives and who dies. Today’s Pune is fast becoming a city where people are disconnected from each other and have no sympathy or sensitivity for the other.”
Despite the alienation of the middle class, one of the conspiracies revealed by the ATS about suspects arrested in the Dabholkar case is that of attacking the Sunburn festival, scheduled from December 29 in Pune. While those who could attend the electronic music festival may feel that they have nothing to do with politics or either of the cases, but may now be forced to worry about their safety—all because of identity and religious politics.
On the other hand, political expert and veteran journalist Nikhil Wagle believes that overall degradation in Maharashtra’s progressive quotient is getting reflected in the happenings in Pune. “The Congress and NCP are also responsible for this mess. A person like Sambhaji Bhide had protection from NCP and hence grew so much. Not just Pune but the whole of Maharashtra is no longer what it stood for historically in terms of civic action and progressive thought,” says Wagle.
Activist and socialist Abhijit Vaidya finds in the recent happenings in Pune and elsewhere in the state a reflection of what he calls de-intellectualisation of Maharashtra. “Failed economic policies have resulted in unemployment. You see young boys spending their time in playing musical instruments for festivals and have illusions that it is about religion and culture. We have already reached the medieval ages where mob lynching is acceptable. The middle class has been pro-dictatorship but the common, poor classes have been more democratic. The state’s youth is falling prey to the politics of the BJP. However, I believe that even now the common man will intervene, as he always has, to protect democracy.”
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai