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Dalit Narrative Of History

Dalit Narrative Of History

One of the most agonising incidents I witnessed was at Patna, soon after I shifted to the Bahadurpur Gumti area in the early eighties. I saw my neighbour, who is a Kurmi by caste, getting down from a cycle rickshaw. From their gestures, I could make out that he hired his services from the Patna Junction.

As soon as he got down from the vehicle, he asked him what the fare was. He mentioned some amount and what followed was a little haggling over the fare. Finally, my neighbour tried to thrust some money into his hands.

Instead of accepting the money, he threw it on the floor and tried to speed away on his vehicle. At that, the neighbour got angry and gave him a slap. He did not retaliate but cursed him and left the scene. My neighbour looked around and picked up the money. He did not know that I was watching the whole episode.

The rickshaw-puller was most probably a Dalit or an Adivasi and my neighbour a Kurmi, as I have already mentioned. The Kurmis are known as the Other Backward Caste (OBC), officially referred to as an educationally and socially backward class, entitled to reservation under the Mandal formula in force in the country. The present Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, belongs to this caste, whose members are known for cultivating vegetables in Barh and Nalanda areas.

The latter half of the seventies and the whole of the eighties in Bihar were notorious for caste-based clashes in the neighbouring districts of Patna. It was also the period when Senas like the Bhoomi Sena, the Kuer Sena, the Srikrishna Sena and the Bramharshi Sena sprang up in the state. Each represented a particular caste.

Caste clashes in which dozens of people were massacred were quite common those days. I have myself visited some villages where caste carnages occurred. I often wondered when such clashes would end.

I remember meeting a Naxalite leader, Dr Vinayan, on whose head the Bihar Police had fixed a price, one evening at his hideout, right under the nose of the police in Patna. He told me that the caste clashes in Bihar would end sooner than later. He had an explanation for the phenomenon.

The victims of caste feelings in the state were the Dalits. They were the ones who had to suffer oppression and inequities for centuries. In one carnage I reported, the proximate cause was the naming of a Dalit child. “How dare he name his child after my grand-daughter’s name!” the upper caste landlord is believed to have thundered. Another reason mentioned was the audacity shown by the Dalits to draw water from the village well. Only the upper castes were entitled to draw water from the common well.

 

Over two dozen Dalits, mostly the old, women and children, were killed one night. The rise of Naxalism scared the upper castes for they began to realise that the Dalits, too, could retaliate in good measure. Dr Vinayan said that the clashes would end once the upper castes realised that the Dalits were no longer disunited.

Small wonder that the clashes of the kind the area witnessed in the seventies and the eighties have, more or less, ended. The last time I went to Patna I realised that gone were the days when a rickshaw-puller could be slapped and driven away. In retrospect, violence of a certain kind was welcome. In the olden days, the Dalits would suffer inequities without protest. Today they are ready to retaliate.

Nowhere else is the Dalit movement as powerful as in Maharashtra. That Dr BR Ambedkar belonged to the state was one of the reasons why the Dalits in Maharashtra are stronger than their counterparts elsewhere.

No state has produced as many Dalit writers, intellectuals and political leaders as Maharashtra. They are unlikely to accept any insult lying down. It is against this background that the recent violence in the state should be seen.

History is often written by the victors. If the losers had written history, we would have known how deceit, treachery and dishonesty played a role in the so-called victory. Even the Mahabharata story would have been different if Maharshi Vyasa had enumerated every single cheating involved in the havoc wreaked on the Kauravas.

Few people realise that at no time did the number of the British soldiers in India exceeded one lakh. Then, how could they defeat so many powerful armies and occupy an area that included the present India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, not to mention Burma?

Soon after they arrived at Surat in Gujarat, the British realised that there was no unity among the people of India. The people were divided on caste lines. They also realised that certain professions were reserved for certain castes. For instance, soldiering was a noble profession reserved for the upper castes.

So when the Battle of Plassey occurred in 1757, ordinary people stood as onlookers even as the soldiers of the East India Company trounced the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies. If every Dalit who watched the war had taken a stone and pelted it at the British soldiers, they would have been roundly defeated.

The people lacked a sense of nationalism. They did not even know what patriotism was when they were asked to extol the treacherous conduct of Ravana’s brother. It was deeply ingrained in the minds of the Dalits that only Kshatriyas could fight a war.

The British realised the potential of the Dalits and their ability to face hardships and fight a war. The Dalits were recruited in large numbers in the Indian Army.

Dalits from the Punjab were used decisively in suppressing the outbreak of violence following the 1857 Sepoy Revolt, also known as the First War of Independence. The British used them to wrest power from Bahadur Shah Zafar and defeat the likes of Rani Lakshmi Bai and Tatya Tope.

Incidentally, the Rani of Jhansi had promised that she would withdraw the abolition of Sati brought into force by the British during the regime of Lord William Bentinck. A spirit of nationalism was not what drove those who took part in the first of War of Independence. The soldiers were encouraged to revolt using the propaganda that their religion was in danger.

The Hindu soldiers were told that cow fat was used in the weapons they were given to fight. The Muslims were told that the fat used was that of the pig. Where was nationalism in this?

The success of the British was that they found that the Dalits could be trained as good soldiers. Thousands of Dalits were given jobs by the British. They were recruited as soldiers, not as officers, but they began getting a good salary.

A good income also fetched them better status in society. They were also able to travel and see the world. In both the World Wars, Indian soldiers were used extensively by the British to achieve victory.

The India Gate in New Delhi was erected by the British to commemorate the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in the First World War. Even seventy years after Independence, there is no better monument to pay tribute to the Indian soldier. Many of the names mentioned on the India Gate are that of Dalits. The British did not treat the Dalits as inferiors, as they were given status which they never enjoyed in the past.

In Kerala, which Swami Vivekananda called a lunatic asylum, the Dalits were not even allowed to walk on public roads. The Vaikom Satyagraha was to assert their right to use the public road, not to enter the temple, as many seem to believe.

They had to wait longer to gain access to the temples of Kerala. The last temple to be thrown open to the Dalits was the Guruvayoor temple where even today singer Jesudas has not been permitted to enter, though he has sung several songs in praise of the presiding deity of Guruvayoor, i.e., Lord Krishna.

The tragedy is that the art and culture of the Dalits and the subalterns are not getting their due. Take, for instance, Kerala where the deities in most temples were local gods and goddesses. Now they are all replaced by the gods and goddesses described in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Few people realise that Hinduism of a particular type in which the Gods and goddesses are all fair-complexioned and wear dazzling dresses, is being promoted even in Dravidian areas, not to mention the Northeast.

Anyone who resists this narrative is seen as an enemy. It was common for the people to mention “Ram, Ram” as a simple form of salute. Today the salutation is changed to “Jai Shri Ram”. Again,  Ram is depicted more as a warrior than as a benevolent ruler who stands beside his wife Sita.

Those who see only the warrior in Ram are the ones who rule the country now. The rise of the BJP at the Centre and in many states has revived hopes among the upper castes that they can indeed have their way as they had in the past.

The Battle of Koregaon, also known as the Koregaon-Bhima battle or the Bhima-Koregaon battle, was fought between the British East India Company and the Peshwa’s army at Koregaon Bhima on January 1, 1818. Stories abound about the battle. They are as colourful as the narrators are.

“Legend has it that about 500 Mahar soldiers under the East India Company clashed with a 25,000-strong army of Peshwa Bajirao II, who was a Brahmin. Mahars, at this point, were considered an Untouchable community and were not recruited in the army by the Peshwas”. In fact, the Dalits did not have a place in most of the armies of the princely states.

“Despite this, as per the Dalit version of the Koregaon-Bhima battle, Mahars approached Peshwa Bajirao II to let them join his army against the British. Their offer was turned down”. This story may be apocryphal but there is an element of possibility in the version as the Brahmins looked down upon their ability.

“That is when the Mahars approached the British, who gladly welcomed them into their army. The Battle of Koregaon ended with the British-led Mahar soldiers defeating the Peshwas. The victory was not just of a battle for the Mahars, but a win against caste-based discrimination and oppression itself.

“In 1851, the British erected a memorial pillar at Koregaon-Bhima to honour the soldiers -- mostly Mahars -- who had died in this battle. On January 1, 1927, started the ritual of holding a commemoration at the site of this pillar, one that is repeated every year. This year, that commemoration turned foul, for many non-Dalit Marathas don't feel the same way.

“Those protesting the commemoration of the Koregaon-Bhima battle victory are miffed because it basically celebrates the "British victory" against the Marathas.” (Courtesy: Shreya Biswas, India Today). Now the question is, why were the Dalits attacked for a ritual they have been organising for several decades? This year it was the bicentenary of the victory.

The BJP is now ruling at both the Centre and in Maharashtra. How dare the Dalits think of celebrating the victory against the Peshwas when a person like Devendra Fadnavis was in power in Mumbai?  Thus went their thinking.

Anti-Dalit atrocities are becoming common in the North. The BJP’s anti-cow slaughter campaign has affected the Dalits, more than any other community.

They are scared of skinning animals after what happened to some youths in Gujarat who were mercilessly beaten up by upper caste thugs. Leather industry used to employ a lot of them. The industry is facing a crisis as slaughter of bullocks and buffaloes is not allowed in the North. The Dalits are the ones who lost their jobs.

The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D student of the University of Hyderabad and author of the book “Caste is Not a Rumour”, was a reminder of the inequities against which the Dalits have to constantly fight. Can’t they even take pride in one battle they fought decisively against the Peshwas?

It was this thought that forced them to seize the opportunity and show their unity and strength in Mumbai and Pune. The Dalits were able to show that they have the power to resist oppression.

The Dalit assertion is also a reminder that the majority of the people who constitute what is known as the Bahujan Samaj cannot be suppressed by the wily machinations of those who had no compunction in getting good certificates from the British and who apologised to the alien rulers to escape from the cellular jail in Andamans a la Veer Savarkar.

What right do they have to say that the Dalits and the Ambedkarites were collaborators of the British when they themselves were their lackeys?

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