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Caste Cauldron

Caste Cauldron

While we all were wishing one another happiness and success on the first day of 2018, Maharashtra was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Earlier, when we woke up, we heard about the way a pub in the Kamala Mills building in Mumbai was gutted in fire, thanks to the negligence of the pub owner who, despite warnings from the local authorities, violated the safety norms.

Even before we could come to terms with the incident, we heard about another. Apart from being the first day of the new calendar year, it was also the 200th anniversary of the battle that the Dalits won against the ruling Peshwas. It is another question whether it should be viewed as a caste war. Until January 1, few knew about this battle called the Bhima-Koregaon battle.

Fought on the banks of the Bhima at Koregaon on January 1, 1818, it was the last battle of the Anglo-Maratha war. Peshwa Baji Rao II, who had faced defeat in November 1817 in the battle of Khadki, ran towards Pune and sent around 2000 soldiers to attack the 800 soldiers of the East India company, which  mostly consisted of Dalit Mahars. 

Even though the Dalit Mahars, at that time fought the battle alongside the British army against the Peshwas, they view it as a battle between the upper caste Peshwas and the lower-caste Dalits. It is seen as a symbol of Dalit pride as they defeated the Peshwas, who were Brahmins by caste, and who had been oppressing them for centuries.

Despite the fact that the Mahar regiment was actually abolished by the British after 1857, Dalits view it as an assertion of their clout. Even the British started preferring the upper caste soldiers later on. It was only during World War II that they revived the Mahar regiment. 

History also reveals that most of the soldiers that fought from the Peshwas’ side were Arabs, including some Mahars. In other words, what was termed as a battle between Brahmins and Dalits was not an apt description. If so, why do Dalits view it as a victory over the upper-caste Brahmins?

Two decades before Independence, when B R Ambedkar visited the memorial obelisk on January 1, 1927, which has the names of two dozen Mahars inscribed on it, who fought the battle alongside the British Army, he said, “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.”

Clearly the statement was very relevant at that time. If those words have a lot of importance in today’s India, India Inc. has to do a lot of introspection. The usually peaceful celebrations took a violent turn resulting in the death of one and vandalisation of several vehicles. The police could not control the mob. Violent reactions were seen in other parts of the state. India’s financial capital came to a halt as a bandh was declared by Dalit leaders the next day.

Over the last few years, we have seen many such incidents. The suicide of a research scholar, Rohith Vemula, in 2015 and the words that he wrote in his suicide note, “my birth is my fatal accident” has connected and added fuel to the fire that existed in Indian society for centuries. 

From Tughlakabad to Una, from Hyderabad to Udipi to Saharanpur, the incidents speak a lot about the atrocities that the Dalits have been facing and the uneasy peace that formed their lives or that formed India.

The recent election in Gujarat saw the emergence of another Dalit movement, the emergence of a new leader. Social media has played a big role in spreading news like wild fire. Apart from the traditional way of Dalit politics – quotas, sub-caste appeal, conversion, bahujan – we now see a different kind of politics. Caste is back into reckoning. 

The highly literate Dalit leadership speaks a lot against Brahaminism. While the political parties have found a new way of igniting Dalit politics to serve their own ends, caste politics will only bring India back to a point, from where we all started.

While there is discontent amongst those from the lower castes, there is a consistent demand from the upper castes as well for reservation and quotas. The Jats in Haryana, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Patidars in Gujarat are the cases in point. Does it mean that India, that takes pride in being the largest democracy in the world, is no longer a society that promotes equity?

The Dalits have a history of oppression and atrocities. The upper caste people feel being left out as 70 years of reservation and quotas have left very few opportunities for their folk to progress. So much so that they would prefer them to be labelled as other backward castes (OBCs), something that they would have never imagined when India started on its new journey after Independence.  

No doubt, as far as income is concerned, they are way above the lower castes. Many observers have dismissed their claims as they are not socially-backward. But over these years, the socio-economic realities have changed. The Patels, the Jats and the Marathas are now lagging behind the affluent OBCs and at times even the Dalits in terms of education. 

Their demand for quotas shows their insecurity and anxiety over education and jobs. The reserved categories find it easy to get into a college or a government job. This is evident from the Indian human development survey, which speaks a lot about the emerging social fabric in the state of Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The current services-led economic growth demands a certain level of education and skills. The recent survey suggests that there has been a considerable growth in the education level of backward, scheduled and other backward castes compared to the upper castes. The incremental growth among the lower castes is much higher than among the upper castes. Similarly, data suggest that the SCs and the OBCs have comparatively higher proportion of salaried jobs than the upper castes, which are still over-represented in an otherwise less-lucrative agriculture sector.  And hence the anxiety. The dominant castes would never want the lower castes to progress.

To cut the long story short, there is a rise in discontent, be it the dominant upper castes or the marginalised lower castes. India is no longer a happy state that it was. And it is a fact as we have been placed in the 122nd position in the world happiness report out of 155 countries. The sad part is that we are much behind the terror-riven Pakistan and the poorest-of-the-poor Nepal in terms of happiness.

The turn of events in Maharashtra and the tweet of Congress president Rahul Gandhi – “A central pillar of the RSS/BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of the Indian society. Una, Rohith Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance” – speak a lot about where we all are going.

The tweet does not put India’s oldest political party in a good light. Instead of condemning the incident, it actually aims at keeping the rift alive and sparking violence. This was not the only statement. We had a series of statements coming from the opposition leaders. True, this is not new and has been the line which all political parties follow.

Two local right wing leaders have been arrested. A counter complaint has been lodged against a Dalit leader and a JNU student, who were invited at the celebrations, allegedly for instigating the people to retaliate.

While the truth behind the allegations will eventually emerge, be it the ruling party or the opposition, caste-driven politics will never allow India to be called a developed nation. The new India that Modi has dreamt of will never see the light of the day in case development gives way to pseudo development. This can only happen, if the democracy and equality that we boast about are actually practised and professed.

In the haste to gain political mileage, not much energy has been directed towards rectifying the defects that the Indian society has inherited for so long. But the present political discourse offers no solace either.

The writer, a company secretary, is director communications, Deepalaya and can be reached at Jassi.rai@gmail.com

(Published on 08th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 02)