On the trail of Sambhaji Bhide: Ahead of Bhima Koregaon riots' 3rd anniversary, tracing the Hindutva leader's rise

Parth MN
·20-min read

It didn't matter that Datta Khandagale had two small children. The abusive phone calls to his home continued unabated at all hours, for 21 days straight. "My family was unsettled, and I feared for their safety," recalled the 39-year old journalist based in the small town 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 right wing outfit had embarked on a mission in Sangli to build temples to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the Maratha warrior king revered across Maharashtra, particularly in the western region where Sangli is located. Khandagale wrote an editorial opposing the idea. "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 called Vajradhari, said on a recent December night. "That article did not go down well with the outfit."

For the next three weeks, Khandagale's phone wouldn't stop buzzing. One of the callers who abused and threatened him was then 20-year-old Rohit Patil. "I am not proud of it," Rohit said. "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 founded by Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide, 87, who wields ominous influence in 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 year on 1 January, tens of thousands of Dalit-Bahujan pilgrims gather at the war memorial of Bhima Koregoan, about 40 km from Pune. It commemorates the historic battle won by the British Army, which had a significant contingent of Dalit soldiers, against the Peshwas. For the Dalit community, the battle signifies their fight against untouchability. Therefore, in 2018, at the 200th anniversary of the event, the crowd at Bhima Koregaon war memorial was larger than usual. However, the gathering was assaulted allegedly by upper caste mobs belonging to right-wing groups.

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(Above: The war memorial at Bhima Koregaon. Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The day after the riots, Pune-based anti-caste activist Anita Sawale filed a complaint naming Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide as the "masterminds" of the attack. "They did not have to be there physically," she told 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, but he received bail within months. Bhide, on the other hand, has not even been questioned despite being named in the First Information Report (FIR). In February 2018, a team of Pune police's crime branch had visited the town of Sangli, from where Bhide operates. Nitin Choughule, Bhide's right hand man and secretary of Shiv Pratishthan, said that the team returned without meeting 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 told 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 treatment of Bhide, referred to as Guruji, at the hands of law enforcement agencies is not surprising, said Dalit activist Rahul Dambale. "His political clout cuts across party lines," he said. "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 is an avid fan of Bhide. The day before the riots, two retired judges, BG Kolse Patil and PB Savant, had organised a rally, Elgar Parishad, where thousands of attendees vowed to never vote for communal forces. Damgude's FIR pins the blame for the Bhima Koregaon riots on the rally. The urban wing of Pune police and NIA have acted swiftly on his FIR, raiding and arresting reputed human rights lawyers, scholars 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 today is because the political class turned a blind eye towards him in the early days for political gains. A senior cop who used to be deployed in Sangli said the police would often get calls from senior leaders in the state asking them to go easy on Bhide. "He is a troublemaker," the cop said, 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 hard for law enforcement agencies to do their job impartially. In 2008, Bhide's activists had forcibly shut down a screening of the movie Jodhaa Akbar. Bhide had told the assembled protestors that the movie distorted history. At the time, Krishna Prakash, currently the commissioner of the town 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 told this reporter. "We could not arrest Bhide because my officers told me it would lead to a law and order situation."

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

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Judging by the evidence in the public domain, Bhide's clout isn't being exaggerated. Ahead of the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi had referred to him as "most respected Bhide guruji". The Maharashtra government under Devendra Fadnavis recommended him for Padma Shri in 2016, and dropped three cases of rioting against him in 2018. The current chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, had also sought Bhide's blessings ahead of the 2014 state assembly elections. Among media personalities, said Choughule, one of the chief guests at their functions has been Suresh Chavhanke, who was recently pulled up by the Supreme Court for his show, UPSC Jihad.

Choughule insists, however, that Bhide's political proximity is not limited to right wing ideology. "We have had the late RR Patil, Patangrao Kadam, Pratik Patil and many more as chief guests at our gatherings," he said, 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 under the garb of being a Shivaji follower, said Shivraj Katkar, a senior journalist based in Sangli, who has followed Bhide's rise closely. 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 kept communal tensions bubbling in Sangli. However, the decisive blow came just ahead of the 2009 state assembly elections.

Power play

Less than 10 kilometers from Sangli, in the town of Miraj, the Shiv Sena's city chief had installed an arc depicting the slaying of Afzal Khan at the hands of Shivaji. The city chief, Vikas Suryavanshi, is still with Shiv Pratishthan. "Ganpati celebrations were on, at which point a group of people landed up in the streets opposing the arc," said 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 town was among those named as the perpetrators of the Miraj riots. However, it is widely believed that Bhide was one of many involved in fanning the flames. An activist who was part of Shiv Pratishthan in 2009 said he witnessed several of his fellow workers participate in the riots. "Many of my colleagues had gone to Miraj at the time on their motorbikes," he said. "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 tension played right into the hands of the BJP. "The party won seven seats in Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur in 2009," said 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 end of 2019, when nationwide protests erupted against the National Register of Citizenship and Citizenship Amendment Act, which critics said discriminate against India's Muslims, Bhide's outfit organised a massive rally in Sangli supporting the two bills. "When you go to a hotel, they ask for your identity card," said 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."

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(Bhide outside his home in Sangli. Photo courtesy the writer.)

Explaining the Shiv Pratishthan's "social work", Choughule said the organisation works against "Love Jihad" as well. Two BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have brought in ordinances against "Love Jihad", which has been challenged in the Allahabad High Court for its constitutional validity. Commentators say the ordinance prevents inter-faith marriage, which is perfectly legal in India. But Choughule insisted the concept is real. "We have rescued a lot of Hindu girls," he claimed.

The Pratishthan's ideological boundaries weren't always as clearly demarcated as they are today. 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 until 2009. When he won from Sangli in the general elections of 2009 on the Congress ticket, Pratik Patil, 46, said Bhide's supporters campaigned for him, which greatly improved his chances. "No political leader wants to touch Bhide because of his cult-like following," said the two-time MP from Sangli. "His supporters were our potential voters. Who would want to alienate that?"

Building mass support

Upon being asked to explain Shiv Pratishthan's popularity, Choughule took out his phone and started scrolling through the photo gallery. Images and videos from Bhide's recent rallies had an ocean of people thronging the streets to listen 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 said. "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 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 form an even bigger organisation," said Krishna Prakash.

Sangli, which has had a legacy of Hindutva leaders, was fertile ground to lay the foundation. 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.

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(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 began their journey with Shiv Pratishthan on one of these treks. For a trek he organised before the pandemic, Choughule said the group had more than 10,000 people.

When you grow up in Western Maharashtra, you grow up with songs and stories of Shivaji, said Tanaji Jadhav, 39, a lawyer based out of Vita, who was 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 larger project was to unite Hindus, said 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 needed a common enemy. The choice was easy. Those who have gone on treks with Bhide said he often invited a chief guest, who unfailingly delivered a "hateful speech" at the end of the trek. Bhide himself would make anti-Muslim statements under the garb of telling history.

Datta Khandagale, who also worked with Bhide between 1995-2002, said he only has three narratives up his sleeve as far as Shivaji is concerned. "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 said. "The undercurrent in all of these narratives is consistent. Mughals were Muslims, and they are the villains. For impressionable youth, it works."

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(Seen here: Journalist Datta Khandagale, whose 2015 editorial made him the Shiv Pratishthan's target. Photo courtesy the writer.)

Ideological flex

Every year, Shiv Pratishthan observes a 'Balidan (Sacrifice) Month' in Sangli in March; during this time, Bhide's communal speeches go a notch higher, said Khandagale. "The month is supposed to mark the period when Aurangzeb captured Sambhaji, and tortured him before ending his life," said 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 details of how Aurangzeb tortured Sambhaji, said 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 of these events that Shiv Pratishthan had organised, they invited Prakash when he was the superintendent of police in Sangli. "I accepted the invitation," he said. "It was during my initial days in the district."

The event soon turned into a platform to distort history and spread communal disharmony. "I immediately intervened and said I cannot allow this to happen," said 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 may have united Hindus to a large extent, but those who have observed him closely say the internal workings of the organisation are laden with casteism. Pratik Patil, who has also gone for treks with Bhide's group as a youngster, said Bhide's approach towards a Maratha and a Brahmin child is often different. He would insist a Maratha boy "come along for the trek even if exams were around," he said. "That rule did not apply to Brahmin children. Brahmins were supposed to be scholars. Marathas were to be warriors."

When one of the Shiv Pratishthan workers belonging to an oppressed caste fell ill, Rohit Patil visited him with Bhide. At their colleague's home, 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 moment Rohit reconsidered his affiliation with Bhide. "I was 17 when I joined Shiv Pratishthan out of my fascination for Shivaji," he said. "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 complaint against Rohit, after which he apologised. Khandagale withdrew his complaint, and explained what Bhide is actually doing under the garb of being a Shivaji disciple. "That opened my eyes," said Rohit. "I simply stopped attending the meetings."

For Tanaji Jadhav, the tipping point came when Bhide criticised the teachings of Mahatma Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. "They are great men," he said. "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 carefully calibrated image

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(Above and below: Bhide's spartan room. Photos courtesy the writer.)

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Bhide lives in a tiny room on the first floor of a two-storeyed building in a quiet lane in the town of Sangli. The room has no furniture, no bed, not even a fan. A thin sheet is spread on the ground, surrounded by piles of books and newspapers. Under the building, a bicycle that looks as old as his organisation, and which Bhide uses to go to the market, rests against a wall.

When this reporter met Bhide in March 2020 with Choughule, he was on his way to the market. Clad in white kurta and dhoti, Bhide responded in monosyllables, and said Choughule's word is as good as his. "I have devoted my life to (Shivaji) Maharaj," he said and got on the bicycle. A couple of his security guards followed him.

Choughule said that "Guruji" does not have tea or coffee, let alone non-vegetarian food. "He does not even have biscuits," he added. "He uses public transport for outstation travel. He does not wear chappals."

The propaganda disseminated among his followers is that Bhide refuses to wear chappals because he does not want to kick mother earth. There are more legends about him that are often heard in Sangli, part of his carefully calibrated image. There are stories of how he is a gold medalist in Nuclear Physics or how he used to be a sought-after lecturer. "None of these legends have been corroborated," said 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 lifestyle does not make him a saint, said Prakash: "When people spend time with him, they get brainwashed, and how."

Destructive force

About 25 years ago, Pratik Patil had participated in a trek organised by Bhide. "We had gone to Gagangad, Kolhapur," he said. "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 said he can imagine what must have happened on the trek. "I was constantly charged up and angry during the three years I was with Shiv Pratishthan," he said. "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."

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('He is relentless,' Khandagale says of Bhide. Photo courtesy the writer.)

More than 20 years later, a former worker with Shiv Pratishthan still regrets being part of the organisation. In a fit of rage, he had painted an eidgah in Sangli in saffron colours as a teenager. "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 worker was caught, and a case registered against him. "I am from a farm household," he said, 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 said this is precisely the effect Bhide has on people. "Even I used to think of Muslims as terrorists," he said. "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 radical right wing cult accused in the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh. Just like Sanatan, he said, the footsoldiers on the ground have little clue of what is happening at the top level. "Bhide often visited leaders of Sanatan Sanstha in Sangli," he said, requesting anonymity. "We had been tailing him to keep an eye on his activities."

To carry out the activities, and at that scale, organisations need resources. Choughule said the volunteers and followers of Bhide look after their "meagre expenses", but journalists in Sangli say he is funded by the traders and businessmen in the region. "We have a huge trade of turmeric in Sangli," said 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 things considered, Khandagale said one has to credit Bhide for his dedication and commitment. "He is relentless. He has devoted his life to furthering his ideology," he said. "The only problem is, it is a destructive ideology."

€" Banner image via PTI/File Photo

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