Cover Story

Dalit defiance

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Jignesh Mevani, Radhika Vemula and other Dalit activists at the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017, held at Pune's Shaniwarwada fort. The venue was chosen specifically for its historical context and also the name of the conference, Elgar, means battle cry. Dalits wanted to send out a strong message of their unity and their political resurgence. Photo: Mandar Tannu

The Bhima Koregaon Ranstambh (victory pillar), which stands as a symbol of Dalit victory over centuries of caste repression by the Peshwas. On January 1 every year, the place comes alive as a pilgrimage centre of sorts. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Dalit groups protesting at Thane railway station during the Maharashtra bandh on January 3 following the violence in Bhima Koregaon. Photo: PTI

The Bhima Koregaon violence and the spirited response to it from Dalits bring into focus the churning in their communities and their growing resistance to social and economic discrimination in an atmosphere of Hindutva dominance.

On the road from Pune to Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra stands an obelisk. The inscription proclaims that Captain Staunton’s force “accomplished one of the proudest triumphs of the British Army in the East”. It lists the names of the 49 soldiers of the East India Company killed in the battle. To passers-by, it is just another relic from the past; for most of the year it stands like a lonely sentinel. But on January 1 every year the place comes alive and becomes a pilgrimage site of sorts. What seems a small piece of history of British rule in India is actually a place of inspiration for Dalits.

Ever since Dr B.R. Ambedkar visited the Bhima Koregaon memorial on January 1, 1927, it has been a tradition for Dalits to gather at the spot on the first day of the New Year. The day marks an important date in Dalit history because it was when the British East India Company’s soldiers defeated the army of Peshwa Bajirao II in the battle of Koregaon on January 1, 1818. Among the fighting units was a battalion of the Bombay Native Infantry, which consisted of about 500 Mahar soldiers. For them and future generations of Dalits, the victory was not just a military one but a victory over centuries of caste repression by the Peshwas. For them, visiting the site is like a pilgrimage, an assertion of pride for the community. Prakash Ambedkar of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh party, grandson of Dr Ambedkar, said Dalits were not concerned with the victory of the British and has termed the battle of Bhima Koregaon “a social liberation movement from caste prejudice”.

On January 1 this year, Dalits gathered as usual for the commemorative event. The numbers were larger this time because it was the bicentenary of the battle, but the celebrations ended before they began. Hindutva forces waving saffron flags and chanting “Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji” attacked the Dalits who had gathered. The riot that followed left one person dead and many injured. There were spontaneous protests across the State because the community felt the police reaction had been inadequate and tardy. Prakash Ambedkar’s call for a bandh on January 3 received overwhelming support. Mumbai, especially, came to a halt.

Brewing tension

So what was it that triggered the violence? Tension had already been brewing at the site of the war memorial.

There is a bit of history here that goes back to the time of the Maratha leader Shivaji. In 1689, Sambhaji, Shivaji’s son and successor, was captured by the Mughals who apparently dismembered him and threw his body parts into the Bhima river. A Dalit, one Govind Mahar, living in the nearby Vadhu Budruk village, collected the parts of the corpse and gave it a dignified ending by performing the last rites (one version even says he sewed the parts together). This was a brave act at the time because Govind Mahar could easily have invited the wrath of the Mughals on himself and his community. However, he survived, and a memorial was erected to Sambhaji, and when Govind Mahar died his samadhi was erected near Sambhaji’s.

Vadhu Budruk is near Bhima Koregaon. On December 29, 2017, a board was erected in the village (Koregaon Bhima is the official name of the village but the memorial is referred to as Bhima Koregaon, taking its name from the battle on the banks of the Bhima) extolling Govind Mahar’s benign act. This angered the Marathas who believed it was their ancestors who had performed Sambhaji’s last rites. Both sides filed complaints with the local police station. But the Marathas went a step further and vandalised Govind Mahar’s samadhi. Even this act of desecration did not assuage their rage, and on January 1, a mob of over 1,000 armed with stones, bottles and rods attacked buses that were ferrying Dalits to the Bhima Koregaon site. The violence lasted for more than four hours. The bandh call that followed was partly prompted by the knowledge that although the administration knew of the gathering of so many people en route to Bhima Koregaon, they took no pre-emptive action.

More than a local clash

But there is more to the story than just a local clash. Apparently two men—Manohar Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote—fanned the flames that led to the hostility at the memorial site. Neither is a resident of Koregaon Bhima or Vadhu Budruk. And both have histories that involve communal and saffron activities. Cases under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention ofAtrocities) Act, 1989, have been filed against Ekbote and Bhide for their alleged involvement.

Bhide, 85, is from Sangli and is a former professor of physics; he is affiliated to an organisation called Shiv Pratisthan Hindustan. He has told investigators that he lectures the youth on the greatness of Shivaji and his rule, and for this he travels all over Maharashtra. A Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) pracharak , he met Narendra Modi during his 2014 electoral campaign. There are also cases against him for provoking protests against the film Jodha a Akbar , and he is believed to have been involved in the Sangli-Miraj riots of 2009 in which Muslims had objected to a poster depicting the slaying of Afzal Khan by Shivaji. The poster had been displayed in Miraj one day before Ganpati visarjan (immersion of the Ganpati idol). While the administration was attempting to resolve the dispute, some miscreants created further provocation by throwing beef in temples and placing pigs outside mosques.

Ekbote, 56, was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) corporator in the Pune Municipal Corporation. After he lost the Corporation election in 2007, he formed the Samasta Hindu Aghadi whose most notable actions have been to protest against Valentine’s Day. He too is close to the RSS.

Prakash Ambedkar has pointed a finger at both Bhide and Ekbote as well as the organisations they run as being responsible for the conflict. According to him, they are polarising the politics of the State and are gunning for Dalits because of the unity and cohesiveness displayed by the community and also because of their caste.

Before the January 1 event, there had been a gathering of Dalits on December 31 at Pune’s historic Shaniwarwada fort for a public conference called the Elgar Parishad. Shaniwarwada was the seat of the Peshwas until 1818 (when they lost the battle). The venue was chosen specifically for its historical context and the name of the conference, elgar, means battle cry. Dalits wanted to send out a strong message of their unity and their political resurgence on the 200th anniversary of the battle. The message was to the Hindutva forces and to Marathas, who are being drawn in by the Hindutva forces. Choosing Shaniwarwada was like an open challenge as if to say: “We take you on from the old seat of power of the Peshwas who our Mahar soldiers had vanquished.”

On the conference dais, among others, were Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula (mother of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit research scholar who committed suicide in the University of Hyderabad in 2016), the activists Jignesh Mevani, Umar Khalid and Soni Sori and the Bhim Army’s Vinay Ratan Singh. The talks, songs and street plays at the Parishad were all about the fight against the new Peshwai (rule of the Peshwas). To have Hindutva likened to the Peshwas riled the right-wing brigade, and some Hindutva and Brahmin organisations tried to halt the conference at this venue. A first information report was also lodged against the Parishad by a Pune-based businessman named Tushar Damgude, who is unknown and apparently inactive in the sociopolitical sphere. The Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) played an active part in the proceedings and its presence gave the detractors something of a handle. They alleged that KKM members had links with Maoist parties who roused Dalits to take the violent, instead of the constitutional, path to resolve conflicts.

Politics is at the heart of Bhima Koregaon. What happened was politically dictated and was an outcome of Dalits rising politically. Possibly the most recent “provocation” was the victory of Mevani in the 2017 Gujarat election. The 37-year-old practising lawyer is a Dalit and his political career has been on the upswing ever since 2016 when so-called cow protectors flogged Dalit men in Gujarat’s Una village for skinning cow carcasses. This act was filmed, and it went viral, leading to an uproar. One of those who were deeply affected by this was Mevani, who led a march of some 20,000 Dalits from Ahmedabad to Una. Many of them pledged to give up their caste-dictated occupation of disposing of carcasses. His win from north Gujarat’s Vadgam constituency was a jolt to the BJP, especially since he contested as an independent candidate though with the support of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party.

Dalit movement

Inviting Mevani to Shaniwarwada was akin to poking a tiger in the eye. It riled Hindutvavadis who saw it as the beginning of some sort of a pan-Dalit movement that had to be nipped in the bud. But the fact remains that a joining together of forces across States is the natural direction in which the Dalit movement is headed. Over the decades Dalits in their own States have worked hard at consolidating their positions at different levels ranging from individuals who have striven to educate themselves, to panchayat-level politics and higher levels.

The Achilles’ heel of the Dalit community in Maharashtra has been its leadership. In recent years its leadership has been a great disappointment to the community and even now lies in tatters. The old Republican Party of India has disintegrated. Leaders who were stalwarts at one time destroyed themselves and the community’s political chances with infighting and vested interests. The community itself marched on, but its political presence shrivelled. It is only now—after Bhima Koregaon—that some semblance of cohesiveness and leadership seems to be emerging once again. After the bandh call, Prakash Ambedkar has come back into the spotlight and also given some sort of direction to Dalit politics. And this, for the right-wing forces, is unacceptable.

The riots and the ensuing bandh were a blot on the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra. Ever since his surprise appointment as Chief Minister three years ago, Fadnavis has had to fight off the allegation that he was selected because he would be a yes-man to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After the bandh was called off, Fadnavis took indirect credit by praising the police force for handling the bandh well. He said that the security forces had averted a major crisis at the site. At a press conference he said that about three lakh people had assembled for the celebrations and the six companies of security personnel that had been posted there controlled the situation.

The fact of the matter is that the police force was ill-equipped in terms of manpower to really do much apart from a show of presence and to guard “sensitive” spots like Mantralaya and various statues of leaders that faced likely desecration. The bandh and the rioting were almost like a dance, with both the rioters and the police knowing the steps. The police seemed to have taken the position of wait and watch and the rioters knew this.

Policemen standing outside Mumbai’s Colaba police station watched stonily as a group of about 30 bikers waving the blue Dalit flag roared past. One of them raised his flag and screamed out to the policemen in Marathi: “You can do nothing.” The actual control lay in the hands of the Dalit leaders, and indeed when Prakash Ambedkar called off the bandh the agitation came to an almost immediate halt.

A day and a half of bandh took the expected toll. Social media was churning with videos of mobs of men hurling stones, climbing on parked vehicles and smashing windscreens with small boulders, militant women daring cars to move while they stood in the middle of the road, groups of people blocking rail tracks, and young men whose faces were contorted with rage riding bikes and yelling slogans. It was like watching a new page being written in the history of Dalits.

Dalits rioting as a community is uncommon. They have consistently been at the receiving end of violence, and this time too was no exception. The last known riot that involved Dalits was the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar riots in 1997, when residents of a Dalit slum in Mumbai’s suburb of Ghatkopar woke up one morning to find a bust of Dr Ambedkar garlanded with slippers. There again, the rioting was because of provocation.

In Fadnavis’ appeal for peace, he said that Maharashtra was not a casteist State. In many ways the Chief Minister is right—the majority of the people consciously work against casteist thought and action—but violence against Dalits continues. Although last year the number of complaints registered in Maharashtra under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act showed a slight decline, it has only been in some of the districts. Ahmednagar, for instance, which is a hotbed of atrocities against Dalits, showed no change. Any drop in numbers can also be attributed to decreased reporting by victims for a number of reasons, one possibility being the high-voltage Maratha solidarity that has been on public display since 2016. Also, statistics can be manipulated by the state, especially when it comes to a sensitive sociopolitical issue like atrocities against Dalits.

Besides, it is really the conviction rate that speaks of true intentions; here there is glaring proof of failure. The architects of the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar riots were never identified. The killers of the Bhotmange family in Khairlanji (2006) have not been brought to justice. And no immediate action was taken against the two men who are believed to have instigated the violence at Bhima Koregaon.

Fadnavis’ assertion that the State “does not believe in casteist violence” is also at odds with the oft-repeated line by the BJP and the RSS that they will have Manuwadi raj again. This is unsettling enough for non-Hindu citizens, and much more so for Dalits who are emerging from centuries of repression from just such a raj. In this context, Fadnavis’ statement was not just incorrect, it was insensitive.

Changing equations

While it is true that there is an age-old antagonism between Dalits and Marathas, it would be reductive to think that this was an impenetrable barrier. Since both communities were low in the pecking order of the caste system, it was natural that some affinities would also develop. This manifested itself in a number of ways. For instance, Maratha and Dalit soldiers had fought side by side in battles as far back as that of Panipat. More notably, both communities hold Shivaji in great respect (which is why the rift over Sambhaji’s memorial is being viewed as a creation of right-wing politics).

But the old equations changed after Dalit Mahars converted to Buddhism. Their devotion to Ambedkar’s teachings and principles instilled in them a deep-seated faith in education as a path to self-improvement. In contrast, Maratha identity almost completely depended on their collective power in government. Dalits, meanwhile, did the opposite—lacking solid political power, the community grew strong through individual development. But this has worked as a double-edged sword. The Marathas perceived this new Dalit self-confidence as a threat. And this perception is being exploited by the proponents of Hindutva. The BJP, the RSS and their Hindutvavadi cohorts know that winning over Dalits as a community is unlikely, and so, working on the primitive thinking of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, they are extending a hand of “friendship” to the Marathas. The strategy is a sound one from their point of view.

An informed source who requested anonymity said: “The RSS is pampering the Marathas. They are egging on the Marathas… telling them that Dalits are trying to edge them out. Politically the Dalits are a growing force. Comparatively, the Marathas have had their day [in the sun]. Who do they have as a leader? No one, if you really consider it. They have been in power for so long with all their Ministers in government, but they had hooked on to the Congress; so when the [Shiv] Sena and BJP came to power, the Marathas were a bit confused about allegiances. While they were figuring out all this, there was no simultaneous growth of young leaders from the grass roots. Ashok Chavan is one man who has expressed open solidarity with their cause, but the other leaders are not really speaking up much. Given this rudderless situation, they will be putty in the hands of the RSS and the BJP if they are not alert. They are on edge politically and they know it.”

Prakash Ambedkar is also of the opinion that the existing social fault lines can easily be exploited. To that extent, the riots exposed the fragility of the social system. Despite the show of strength of the bandh after the violence at Bhima Koregaon, Dalits are really still an economically and socially vulnerable group. The potential for political presence is definitely there—not by numbers because Marathas outnumber them but certainly by their presence throughout Maharashtra. This is the political threat that the right wing has been prescient enough to recognise. It is this that the Sangh Parivar is going to try and destroy using the small but growing number of ominous groups that are coming out of the woodwork and claiming allegiance to Hindutva thought.

This then is the actual challenge before the Dalit community—its leaders need to regroup, reorganise and recognise that they have the potential for significant political presence despite Hindutvavadi powers working to destabilise them.

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