Bhide is a man with friends in high places, and a string of controversies behind him due to his speeches and statements. In his late 80s now, he was an active full-time worker of the RSS before he formed his own Hindu right-wing outfit, Shri Shivpratishthan Hindusthan, in the 1980s. Based in Sangli, he has followers running into a few lakhs across not just the state but other parts of the country.
In January 2014, Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat and a prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, had attended an event organised by Bhide’s outfit as a key speaker. Bhide also had links with the late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thakeray, which have continued with his son and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and other Sena leaders, despite the Sena now being part of a coalition with the NCP and Congress.
Bhide’s celebration of the legacy of Maratha kings Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj means he aligns closely with the Sena’s politics. Every year, thousands of youngsters associated with his outfits, calling themselves “Dharkari”, participate in activities like the Gadkot Mohim, where a mountaineering expedition is held to historic forts related to the Maratha Kingdom.
Leaders of both the NCP and the Congress are also known to participate in programmes of his outfit, such as the “Durga Mata Daud” event held in different parts of the state every Navratri.
If this makes him a public figure with links across parties in Maharashtra, Bhide is as well known for his controversial and often abusive statements. In 2008, FIRs had been lodged against him and his supporters for protests against Bollywood film Jodha Akbar; in 2009, members of his outfit were said to be linked to the Miraj, Sangli, riots which started over an arch dedicated to Shivaji Maharaj; in 2017, an FIR was lodged against Bhide and activists for allegedly obstructing a procession in Pune.
In the Miraj case, police had later arrested a local NCP leader for masterminding the riots.
Following the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1, 2018, Dalit political activist Anita Sawale had filed an FIR naming Bhide and fellow Hindutva leader Milind Ekbote, accusing them of instigating the violence, which claimed one life and left hundreds injured. While there were also allegations that Bhide and Ekbote had been seen in the Bhima Koregaon area on the day of the violence, a probe had given them a clean chit.
On Thursday, while deposing as a witness before the Bhima Koregaon Commission of Inquiry, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who had earlier blamed right-wing forces for the violence, said he did not know Bhide in personal but had read about him through media.
Bhide has consistently denied any role in the violence and said he was open to any probe. He is currently hospitalised following an accident.