While the Koregaon Bhima violence is made out to be a Maratha-versus-Dalit battle, a far deeper and dangerous political game seems to be playing out behind it. In the context of the significant Maratha movement of October 2016 and the long history of strife between the two communities, it was an obvious conclusion that this attack was just another incident involving the assertion of Maratha supremacy over a lower caste.
A closer scrutiny points to the emergence of a couple of right-wing fringe groups that have a following in the region. They have been co-opting the Maratha community, currently a disgruntled, vulnerable and insecure lot, into their programmes with the message that backward communities are getting too big for their boots and must be shown their place. The project does not appear to be about Maratha rights.
The recent clashes have exposed a strange dynamic in Maharashtra. The Marathas believe Dalits are getting too strong, while Dalits say Brahmins are trying to create a divide between the two communities so that they do not join forces in the 2019 elections as they did in Gujarat. The support of the Marathas, who constitute about 50 per cent of the State’s population, is crucial to all parties. It works in favour of the saffron brigade that the Marathas are Hindu Kshatriyas and are thus amenable to the Hindutva ideology, says Jaideo Gaikwad, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council.
The Bhima Koregaon monument, which commemorates the martyrs of the Mahar community who fought with the British against the Peshwas, is an annual pilgrimage site for Dalits and had been visited by Dr B.R. Ambedkar. January 1, 2018, marking 200 years of the battle, drew hundreds of thousands of Dalits to the monument. Recent electoral victories by Dalit candidates such as Gujarat’s Jignesh Mevani and a growing Dalit movement across the country have, according to observers, set off resentment among upper castes such as the Marathas who believe that reservation has thwarted their progress and that misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, has exposed them to unfair persecution.
Jaideo Gaikwad said: “We visited the Bhima Koregaon site on December 30, 2017, to see the preparations as it was a big anniversary and we knew lakhs of people were gathering. I knew something was not right. There was tension in the air. We learnt on December 29 that some members of the Samasta Hindu Aghadi, led by Milind Ekbote, had destroyed the covering of a samadhi [memorial] of Govind Gaikwad Mahar, a Dalit who [legend has it] had gathered the body of Chhatrapati Shambhaji, which had been hacked into many pieces by the Mughals, and gave it back to his people. This desecration got people worked up, and Dalits from nearby villages had already begun gathering. The police made a few preventive arrests, but we also heard that Ekbote was mobilising young men in the area.”
Jaideo Gaikwad said the violence started on January 1 on the roads leading to the monument. “It was not a spark. It was planned. How do you mobilise so many young men to arrive at an obscure village? According to eyewitnesses, young men were threatening and throwing stones at Dalit pilgrims walking to the site. The attacks began in the morning and went out of control by 1 p.m.” He added that Ekbote and Shambhaji Bhide, who leads the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan in the Sangli-Kolhapur-Satara belt, were the linchpins. “I blame the police for not being proactive. Both are in hiding and have not been arrested. The Maratha leadership will have to step forward to ease the situation, otherwise there are forces that have other agendas,” he said.Emerging fringe
The Koregaon Bhima incident has exposed the two fringe groups: the Samasta Hindu Aghadi, led by 60-year-old Ekbote, and the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, founded by 85-year-old Bhide. The assassinations of the rationalists Narayan Dabholkar and Govind Pansare had drawn attention to the operations of the Sanathan Sanstha, a radical Hindu organisation with a wide reach in the Maratha belt. “It is of concern that several homegrown right-wing organisations are mushrooming all over the State. Obviously, the sanction comes because of the parties at the helm at the Centre and in the State, and therefore they have the courage to break out and show their might,” said a professor of sociology who was unwilling to be named. “For years, Dalits have visited Koregaon Bhima. Why the sudden interest in this memorial and why now?”
Jaideo Gaikwad said both Ekbote and Bhide had been around for some time and had Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) backgrounds. “In recent years we have seen Ekbote become very active,” he said.
Ekbote’s entire family is associated with the RSS and he harbours political ambitions, said a source. He began his political career as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) corporator in 1997. He served for five years but was denied the party ticket to contest another election. He fought as an independent and won. However, he failed to win a third term. In 2007, he floated the Hindu Ekta Manch. Its main goal was to wipe out “Western culture”, and Ekbote made a big splash with anti-Valentine’s Day protests and attacks. In 2014, the Shiv Sena gave him the ticket to contest the Assembly elections, but he lost. He started the Samasta Hindu Aghadi after that and has since been spreading the message of Hindu supremacy.
“Ekbote has a great following among the youth in the Pune-Ahmednagar belt,” said the academic source. “He was reportedly seen near the villages around Koregaon Bhima a few days before January 1. He has a reasonably dynamic personality and is able to appeal to the youth. His message is largely anti-Western culture. But he has begun to speak about the lack of opportunities for the upper castes due to the allowances given to Dalits and minorities. Ekbote also speaks of Hindu supremacy. He has the knack of preying on insecurities and instigating youths to violence.”
Ekbote has issued a statement saying he has nothing against Dalits and is an admirer of Dr Ambedkar.
Bhide was an RSS activist. Fondly called Guruji, he has a sizeable following in the Sangli-Kolhapur-Satara belt. According to reports, he walks barefoot, travels only by public transport and does not own a house. During his campaign ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi, who was then Chief Minister of Gujarat, sought his blessings in Sangli, saying he was an inspiring leader. Recently, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis apparently made a special stop at Sangli to meet the elderly activist.
Bhide was a professor of physics at Pune’s Fergusson College before he joined the RSS. An ardent follower of Chhatrapati Shivaji, he floated the Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan to educate people about the life of the Maratha king. “His speeches, however, are anti-Muslim and are filled with hatred for lower castes and minorities,” said the academic source. Bhide apparently has been demanding a study of the Govind Gaikwad Mahar story in order to establish the facts. His followers were allegedly involved in the desecration of the samadhi. Ekbote and Bhide have remained below the media radar so far. “It is disturbing such people are emerging,” said Jaideo Gaikwad.Maratha might
In October 2016, Maharashtra witnessed 58 Maratha rallies across the State. The rallies, reportedly organised by a clutch of non-political Maratha groups, caused a flutter in the political classes owing to their sheer size and scale. Never before had the State seen such a show of strength. An interesting feature was that the demonstrations were silent and included women, children, professionals and members of the agrarian community. Political leaders were kept out, and technology, mainly social media, was used extensively to mobilise people. A member of the Maratha Kranti Morcha would present a charter of demands to the District Collector, and that would be it. Pravin Gaikwad, a Maratha Kranti Morcha leader, said that Marathas were assumed to be behind the clashes at Koregaon Bhima because of the October 2016 rallies. “But this is not our style of making our voice heard, and we would not resort to violence at any cost,” he said.
The trigger for the 2016 rallies was the rape of a Maratha girl from Kopardi. The three men accused of the crime were Dalits. However, rumblings among Marathas had been on for some time. The rape protest acted as a catalyst in bringing the community together to make two major demands: reservation in education and employment and amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. With no caste census available, unofficial estimates say the Marathas, including the Kunbis (96 clans), constitute just over 50 per cent of the State’s population.
Protests by a dominant community could not be ignored, and the government announced a few incentives in an attempt to placate Marathas. But revising reservation quotas was not possible because this would require a lengthy process involving the judiciary, said Fadnavis.
The 2016 rallies, sometimes compared to the Jat and Patidar agitations in Haryana and Gujarat, were seen as anti-Dalit. There was widespread resentment among Marathas over reservation for Dalits in education and employment. Anger at reservation for Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) also drove the Jat and Patidar agitations.
In an analysis the socio-economist Christophe Jaffrelot says: “The Marathas not only resent the rise of the OBCs and the Dalits in the educational system because of reservation, they also cannot compete with upper castes because of their under-representation in the English-medium colleges. As a result, the Marathas have not benefited as much as upper castes from the rise of the services, including IT [information technology], in post-1991 liberalised India. And only the richest among them could profit by the government’s support to export-oriented agriculturists.”
Senior NCP leader Ramraje Nimbalkar told Frontline that the demand for reservation was not new and the anger against Dalits was age-old. Much of the discontent within the community came from the difficulties encountered in getting an education and jobs. He said while the community members were historically landowners involved in agriculture, over the past few generations the land had been either divided or sold. The lack of options to generate an income even as other communities moved ahead was obviously causing the anger, he said.
In late 2017, the community raised the reservation issue again. “I think they will have to pay some attention to this, given that elections are coming,” Nimbalkar said. He was worried over the recent attacks and about how the lines were getting blurred between Maratha demands and political ideology. Some forces were using the Marathas’ grievances, he felt. Marathas have enjoyed political strength for decades. With the BJP in power and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar ailing, it is believed the leadership is failing. The Lok Sabha election of 2019 is a year away. Marathas will play a significant role in it, as they do in all elections in Maharashtra. Political forces realise how crucial this is and will compete to get Marathas on their side. There was once a Phule (Jyotiba)-Shahu-Ambedkar ideology that included all communities. It would have made for a more progressive future.