Union minister Ramdas Athawale on Saturday said the Gujarat MLA was not responsible for the violence at Bhima-Koregaon in Pune district on January 1.
Speaking to reporters here after meeting Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Athawale, a prominent Dalit leader, said there was tension in the area even prior to the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle on January 1.
Dalits visiting the war memorial at Bhima-Koregaon had reportedly come under attack on January 1. Dalit leaders had blamed certain pro-Hindutva leaders, who were opposed to the anniversary celebrations, for the attacks, while the latter sought to blame Mevani's "provocative speech", which was delivered a day earlier.
"Jignesh is not responsible for the violence at Bhima- Koregaon. There was tension in the area prior to January 1. I had visited the place and the tension had eased. So, I had returned to Delhi on December 31. On the same day, Jignesh had delivered his speech at the Shaniwar Wada in Pune. He had not gone to Bhima-Koregaon. Some groups had held a meeting at night and the violence took place on January 1," the Union minister of state for social justice said.
"I have congratulated Jignesh on his Assembly election victory. It is good that a young, fresh Dalit face is emerging. My advice to him is that he should focus on uniting the society and not dividing it," said Athawale, who heads a faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI).
On Mevani's demand that Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak on the January 1 anti-Dalit violence, Athawale said, "It is not necessary that the prime minister should comment on every development. After the Una incident (where Dalits were assaulted by cow vigilantes), Modi had criticised it."
Fadnavis had assured him that those responsible for the Bhima-Koregaon violence would be punished and accepted his demand of compensation for those whose properties were damaged, the Union minister said.
Athawale also said he was going to organise a "social harmony conference" in Pune on January 13.
Referring to a demand put forward by some leaders of the Maratha community, he said he was open to a debate on the "misuse" of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
If Dalits and tribals were treated with respect, there would not be any need for such a law, Athawale said, while ruling out the possibility of its abolition at present.
The January 3 Maharashtra shutdown against the Bhima- Koregaon violence had put the Dalit community's strength in focus, the Union minister said.
"If Dalits can come together to voice their anger, the RPI factions can also do so to lend political strength to the community," he added.
He was ready to work under the leadership of Prakash Ambedkar (who had called for the Maharashtra Bandh on January 3), Athawale said, adding, "United, we can decide if we should contest elections independently or align with the BJP or the Congress."
The Pune police has lodged an FIR against Mevani and Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid for their alleged provocative speeches during the "Elgar Parishad", organised in the city on December 31 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle.
The FIR was registered under IPC section 153(a) (promoting enmity between two groups).
Dalit leaders commemorate the British victory over the Peshwa's army at Bhima-Koregaon in 1818 as it is believed that soldiers from the Mahar community were part of the East India Company's forces. The Peshwas were Brahmins and the victory is seen as a symbol of Dalit assertiveness.