Sitting targets

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Jignesh Mevani and Radhika Vemula among others at the Elgar Parishad held at Pune’s Shaniwarwada. Photo: Mandar Tannu

The Bhima Koregaon Ranstambh (victory pillar), which stands as a memorial to the struggles of Dalits. On January 1 every year, it becomes a pilgrimage site of sorts. Photo: The Hindu Archives

With its political compulsion to woo Dalits, contain the growing Maratha resentment and protect its upper-caste base, the BJP government goes after the Elgar Parishad activists and allows the real perpetrators of the Bhima Koregaon riots to walk free.

On December 31, 2017, over 250 Dalit organisations held an Elgar Parishad at the historic Shaniwarwada. It was a typical meeting of activists, with slogans, songs, and rousing speeches on justice, equality and human rights—all in keeping with the elgar, or battle cry, motif. The venue was Shaniwarwada, the historic seat of the Peshwas in Pune. The meeting was a precursor to the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon in which a regiment of Mahars fighting on the side of the East India Company vanquished the Peshwa army. For Dalits, even now, the battle stands for pride, and every year on January 1 it is celebrated as a significant event in Dalit history.

The year 2018 was extra special since it was the bicentennial celebration of the battle (“Dalit defiance”, Frontline, February 2, 2018). But it was not just Dalits who recognised the strong symbolism of the day. Forces that were wary of emerging Dalit power also realised the potency of this particular celebration and its power to re-energise the Dalit movement. It was difficult to miss the symbolism of the Elgar Parishad and the battle celebrations the next day—a pro-Dalit meeting held at Shaniwarwada, which used to be the headquarters of the upper caste Peshwas who were oppressors of Dalits. For the Parishad organisers, it was a way of thumbing their nose at the Peshwai. It was a red rag for those who wanted to preserve the old order of caste oppression and those who contrived to see this as an upturning of the social order or, the more convenient accusation of the day, as an instance of anti-national activities. Their rage was fed by the fact that the gathering had people like Jignesh Mevani, Umar Khalid, Soni Sori, Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula and members of the Kabir Kala Manch among others.

Two reasons

There are essentially two reasons for the witch-hunt that led to the arrest of the activists. One is to quell the voices that speak for the voiceless and the other is to prevent Dalits from emerging as a political force.

A day after the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, thousands of Dalits headed to the commemoration pillar of the battle at Bhima Koregaon village for the celebrations. The buses they were travelling in were waylaid and stoned by Maratha mobs. A riot ensued and spread across the State. Once the riot was quelled, blame was almost immediately put on the organisers of the Elgar Parishad. They were accused of inciting violence and anti-national activities.

The actual nature of the charge of “anti-national activities” is yet to be fully explained. What specifically were the activities that allegedly posed a danger to the nation? There is no satisfactory answer to this. But there is evidence to the contrary. At the conclusion of the Parishad, a pledge was taken by all participants to protect the Constitution and democracy and to oppose any challenge to both. The pledge, read out by the activist Harshali Potdar (who was ironically named in the first information report (FIR)) and repeated by the audience, also swore not to support those who spoke against the Constitution or support those who opposed it.

As the days passed, the investigations focussed on the Parishad and its participants. In June, the Pune Police arrested prison rights activist Rona Wilson from Delhi, Dalit activist Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, and lawyer Surendra Gadling, Professor Shoma Sen and Adivasi rights proponent Mahesh Raut from Nagpur.

On August 31, Pune and Mumbai Police held a joint press conference where they displayed printouts of weaponry ostensibly found on Rona Wilson’s computer. The police attempted to link this finding with a plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The police’s plan backfired when they presented the “incriminating” material at a press conference. In the Bombay High Court, where the case is being heard, judges questioned how a press conference could be held about a case that was sub judice.

FIR against Hindutva activists

After the Bhima Koregaon riots, an FIR had been filed by a Dalit activist who said that the vehicle she was travelling in to the venue of the celebration was stopped, fellow Dalits were beaten up, the blue Dalit flag was burnt and the bus was torched. She said she believed Milind Ekbote, executive president of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi, and Sambhaji Bhide, president of the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, were responsible for instigating the mob. Both were booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. While Elgar Parishad participants and organisers have had the police doggedly at their heels, neither Ekbote nor Bhide seem to be much troubled by the investigations. This, despite the FIR stating that they were the main perpetrators of the riots and despite their track record of violently promoting Hindutva.

A close associate of the activists who requested anonymity said, “The people who are being targeted are those who speak for the downtrodden and the voiceless. These activists are ‘active’ in ensuring the rights of the poor. This is part of the democratic process. Instead of accepting this constitutional right, the government chooses to see their work as challenging the government’s power. If ensuring that the poor get their due is viewed as a challenge by the authorities then we are even closer to a dangerous breakdown of democracy than I would have thought. Now, what is really happening is that the government wishes to throttle any dissent, and uplifting the poor is seen as dissent because this means that the poor will be aware of their rights over their land, their forest, their women, their water, their mineral rights…. And that makes it all the more difficult for the government to hand it on a platter to the creamy layer of industrialists who, in turn, finance the political parties. This cosy relationship is what is being broken up by making the poor aware. The government is not only betraying the greater part of the Indian population by not looking after them but it is attacking those citizens who are doing their bit.”

Political alignments

The other aspect of the witch-hunt against the activists is to do with politics. For years Maharashtra politics was dominated by Marathas. Dalits had a significant political presence but little power after the 1990s when the Republican Party of India went into a slide. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appointed Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, as Chief Minister, a new churn began in Maharashtra politics. The Peshwas were Brahmins. In fact, when Jignesh Mewani, the Dalit MLA from Gujarat, spoke at the Elgar Parishad, he referred to the BJP as the modern-day Peshwas. With the economic security of communities becoming more and more uncertain, new alignments have been taking place.

Marathas, who themselves belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) category, have more in common with Dalits in the social pecking order, but over the years they have tremendously improved their economic status and political power. This has meant that they distance themselves from Dalits even more and move with the traditional elite. Marathas want to keep a grip on the political power that they have accrued and they want to keep Dalits from getting back the political strength they had before the 1990s. The two massive Maratha rallies that took place last year in the State are proof of this.

To keep the Dalit community in check, Marathas have also been protesting against the Scheduled Caste and Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and calling for its dilution on the grounds that it is being misused. Frequent application of the Act has increased the latent hostility between Dalits and Marathas, with the latter claiming that it is unfairly applied and the former saying it is used only when applicable. The stringent nature of the Act—the onus is on the accused to prove their innocence and the offences are non-bailable—has further inflamed old antagonisms.

But this is just a sidelight to the main show. Marathas form about 32 per cent of the State’s population. They rule rural industry, including sugar factories and cooperatives, and have a stronghold over politics. But the appointment of Fadnavis as Chief Minister by the BJP was a clear indication of new political directions, and the Marathas felt that the political power is slipping away from their hold. The BJP makes no bones about its leanings towards the upper castes, thereby further threatening Marathas.

Dalits, on the other hand, form only about 15 per cent of the population and they have not tasted the sort of political power Marathas have. So the current situation for them is merely an extension of the past, i.e., fighting the establishment. And actually Dalits have a slight edge over Marathas because the BJP has set out to woo them as a vote bank. This realisation has further angered Marathas who are trying to consolidate their position by demanding reservations in government jobs. The BJP is caught in a bind. If it accepts the demand, it will end up alienating other OBCs. If it rejects the demand Marathas will go against it in the 2019 election.

It is in this scenario that the witch-hunt of the activists has to be seen. The administration obviously cannot blame Dalits for the Bhima Koregaon riots. It chose to go easy on Hindutva elements who have been named as agents provocateurs. This leaves only some participants at the Elgar Parishad as its easy targets.

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