Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral scare in the Gujarat elections is but a month old. The general elections of 2019 are a year away, perhaps even less, depending on oil prices, onion prices and the situation on the Pakistan border. And in the new year, the Dalits and the marginalised have decisively won the Second Battle of Koregaon against latter-day Peshwas and their cohorts.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is a worried lot.
Modi, in Delhi as the Prime Minister, has not been able to articulate a warning. His major-domo, the BJP President Amit Shah, too, has remained silent. The only response from the governments at the centre and in Mumbai has been to treat the events of Koregaon ‑ three days of violence that has by now impacted not just Maharashtra but neighbouring states of Karnataka and Gujarat, and has sent tectonic ripples across the Indian landmass ‑ with police action as if it was a mob protesting a break in electric supply.
It has been left to the spokesman of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh to deflect the political impact by invoking the time-tested enemy, the Muslim. Manmohan Vaidya, Akhil Bharatiya Prachaar Pramukh and leading member of the brain trust of the RSS, in a statement said, “Some forces are trying to create hatred and animosity among communities.”
Clashes between Dalit groups and supporters of right-wing Hindutva organisations during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Bhima-Koregaon battle in Pune district had left a man dead in the New Year. The clashes broke out at Bhima Koregaon when people were headed towards the war memorial in the village, about 30 km from Pune city, for a function, the Elgar Parishad, organised to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, at Shaniwar Wada in Pune.
Sangh spokesmen on television said the violence was triggered off by the “Break India brigade of JNU”, listing the presence in Maharashtra of scholar-activist Umar Khalid and Jignesh Mevani, the newly minted, independent Gujarat legislator. Mevani and Khalid had attended the meeting.
Khalid’s presence was quickly linked with Kashmiri militants, and inevitably with Pakistan.
Mevani, whose acidic tongue is backed by remarkable organisational skills that he showed in the Una protest in Gujarat last year and in winning his seat to the state assembly thereafter, is more difficult to tackle.
He is challenging not the BJP leaderships of the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra but, seemingly, Narendra Modi himself. The youthful, mass mobiliser is now treading ground that Mayawati, four times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and supreme leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, has not been able to do, and which other established Dalit leaders, including Prakash Ambedkar, union ministers Ramdas Athawale and Ram Vilas Paswan, and lesser leaders such as Udit Raj, have not been able to accomplish. For the first time, perhaps since the Dalit Panthers of the 1980s, Mevani has linked Dalit aspirations with the angst of the general youth into a wholesome, if still unorganised, movement. He harks to Rohith Vemula’s suicide, to the continuing incarceration of Dalit Sena leaders, and to the lynching of Dalit youth by cow protectors. It is fertile ground. A crime is committed against Dalits every 15 minutes or so, and Dalit women remain the main targets of gang rapes in India’s villages and towns. Raging unemployment is compounded by continuing discrimination, even in academia and the justice hierarchy.
Mevani and Khalid now have criminal cases registered against them for inciting hatred between communities. However, the communities are not identified in the police reports.
Khalid too has denied he has anything to do with the violence, though the general media has chosen to ignore his denial while buying the Sangh’s diatribe against him.
Mevani’s argument that he did not foment violence in his speech was supported by Union Minister Ramdas Athawale, who said, “Police must have acted if Jignesh Mevani’s speech was instigating. But he has no relation with this incident.”
The Opposition’s comments have been oral, and there has been no move yet for any grassroots or national outcry against the violence and the government inaction, or the state government’s support for the Sangh associates who had protested the Koregaon celebrations as an insult and provocation to the upper caste groups in India. Mayawati claimed the RSS and other caste forces were behind the violence. Congress President Rahul Gandhi said both the ruling party and its parent organisation had worked towards suppressing the Dalit community. “A central pillar of the RSS-BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohith Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance,” Rahul Gandhi had tweeted.
In the current wave of rewriting of national history, the Koregaon battle is being touted by the Sangh as a struggle against British colonialism, and not as the last stand of the Peshwas whose usurpation of the powers of the traditional kings of the region had led to an unprecedented humiliation of the downtrodden. Then called the “untouchables”, they were made to walk with brooms tied to their waist to clean the streets of the impress of their footsteps, and a spittoon around their necks lest their sputum pollute the earth and air where the upper caste co-existed.
Many Indian Army regiments, some of which trace their roots 200 years back in the forces of the East India Company, have proud battle honours of victories past, against kingdoms within the present national boundaries of India and Pakistan, and in faraway lands of West Asia, East Asia and Africa.
The Battle of Koregaon has a meaning for the Mahar community in general, which still constitutes the bulk of the Army’s Mahar regiment, and for several other related communities of west and north India.
In the battle, which was fought between the British East India Company, containing Mahars in its infantry, and the Peshwas, who were upper-caste Brahmins, at Koregaon Bhima on January 1, 1818, the Marathas ultimately withdrew. Since then, the Mahars and other communities have seen it as a symbolic victory for themselves. This, and similar victories, also smashed the popular myth of martial classes that had held sway in India since the Varna system enforced rigid caste hierarchies.
Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a member of the Mahar community, visited the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial on the 109th anniversary of the battle in 1927. The memorial is inscribed with the names of 22 Dalit Mahars who had fought in the battle. Since Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s visit, the place has become popular as an annual pilgrimage and victory-celebration site among the Dalit communities, especially the Mahars.
Dr. Ambedkar also referred to the battle of Koregaon in 1930 during the First Round Table Conference in London, as he underlined the vital role played by the “Untouchables” in helping the British to conquer India. “Who were these people who joined the army of the East India Company and helped the British to conquer India? … The people who joined the Army of the East India Company were the Untouchables of India. The men who fought with Clive in the Battle of Plassey were the Dusads, and the Dusads are Untouchables. The men who fought in the Battle of Koregaon were the Mahars, and the Mahars are Untouchables. Thus, in the first battle and the last battle (1757-1818) it was the Untouchables who fought on the side of the British and helped them conquer India. The truth of this was admitted by the Marquess of Tweeddale in his note to the Peel Commission, which was appointed in 1859 to report on the reorganisation of the Indian Army.” This was Dr Ambedkar’s reminder to the British who by then had co-opted the ruling castes to enforce the rule of the British Sovereign. The British had apparently started excluding the “lower castes” from the army to which he asserted that “nothing can be more ungrateful than this exclusion of the Untouchables from the Army”. Dr Ambedkar was very angry with the exclusion of Mahars and other “lower castes” from recruitment in the Army.
Today’s army recruitments still focus on northern states with its tall and sturdy youth, and the caste exclusion is perhaps more by default than by intent. In the police forces, the mandatory 15 per cent reservation ensures a visible presence of the community, even if it seldom gets its men in positions of command.
Patently, the Koregaon eruption and the Dalit protests elsewhere have been a challenge to the government of the day, and to the Sangh’s exclusivist ideology. The Indian Express in its Editorial said, “The Dalit mobilisation in Maharashtra could unsettle the BJP’s carefully calibrated outreach to the community while attempting to build a consolidated Hindu base. The BJP’s discomforts are a fallout of its own success. As the party expands its social base, contradictions between the interests of its “core” vote and the new sections it wants to woo and attract, are coming to the fore.”
The newspaper noted that the tension also interrogated “the ideas of nationalism and nation-building that the party upholds. In one of the readings of the current unrest, in Koregaon -Bhima, the Dalit imagination of communal pride and self-respect has clashed with Sangh Parivar notions of national pride. The party has sought to contain the fallout in Maharashtra by portraying it as a local event, the result of tensions between the Marathas and Dalits. For now, it is refusing to acknowledge it as a symptom of a larger political unrest. Indeed, the Maratha mobilisations of the past few months had a distinct anti-Dalit edge, but to view the Dalit protests, particularly in Mumbai on Wednesday, as exclusively directed against the Maratha community may be to misread them. Koregaon-Bhima appears to have been a trigger for Dalit anger simmering over issues of self-respect and constitutional rights, jobs and livelihoods. It is separate from, but also connected to the student unrest in Hyderabad Central University, the Una flogging of Dalits by gau rakshaks, and tensions in Saharanpur. Each of these incidents threw up new, articulate Dalit leaders, challenging the Sangh Parivar’s homogenising vision.”
It remains to be seen if those who want to challenge Prime Minister Modi in the 2019 general elections can harness the Dalit energy. It is not an easy job. Most parties are themselves prey to casteism and have no holistic vision for the Dalits. The Dalit parties in turn, such as the BSP, are bogged down with sub-caste controversies and a fear of young leadership.
The one thing that can be said is that 2018 opens to an interesting political situation which needs be watched carefully before a prognosis is made on who will form the next government in New Delhi.
(Published on 08th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 02)