EK MARATHA, Lakh Maratha. The slogan screamed from banners, T-shirts and windscreen decals everywhere in rural Maharashtra through the latter half of 2016 and 2017. Now, days after Maharashtra’s Dalits staged a hugely successful bandh across the state, clearly defining what will be 2018’s top political agenda, Marathi writer Raja Dhale, 77, is reflective as he remembers that slogan. “The Marathas are confined to Maharashtra, and still they feel this sense of power. The achhoot (untouchables) are spread all over India, in crores. What would happen if all of us fought together?”
Coming from Dhale, a writer and founding member of the Dalit Panthers and who in the 1970s ran a newsletter called Vidroh, the thought is hardly surprising. But Dhale is not the only one harbouring ideas of a collective uprising. Messages circulating via WhatsApp, received by tens of thousands of Dalits over the past two days, refer to next year’s visit to their ‘Jaystambh’, or pillar of valour in Pune’s Perne village, with talwars (swords) in their hands.
Events around the January 1 visit of members of the Dalit community to the Jaystambh — to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon — are what led to the current reassertion of Dalit identity in Maharashtra. That day, as lakhs of Dalits gathered at the Jayastambh, there were violent clashes between Dalit and Maratha groups in the nearby villages located along the Pune-Ahmednagar highway, resulting in the death of at least one person and injuries to several others.
The spark, however, had been lit a couple of days ago, when in Vadhu-Bhudruk, a few kilometers away from Perne, a samadhi or tomb of Gopal Govind Gaikwad, a 17th century Dalit figure, was ‘desecrated’, allegedly by members of the Maratha community. About 49 Marathas were booked under the SC and ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The Battle of Bhima Koregaon is regarded as the last of the great Anglo-Maratha wars, also marking the end of the Peshwa rule. Here, about 800 British troops, including a regiment of Dalit Mahars of the Bombay Native Infantry, are said to have held off a 30,000-strong Maratha army led by Peshwa Baji Rao II. Though varying accounts exist of what transpired on the banks of the Bhima 200 years ago, Dalits believe that this battle marked the end of the Peshwas’ ‘casteist’ rule, an emancipation handed to them by Mahar soldiers. With Dr B R Ambedkar visiting the war memorial obelisk, on which are inscribed the names of those who fell in that war in 1927, an annual trip to Bhima Koregaon became part of the Ambedkarites’ essential pilgrimages of sorts.
For this year’s violence in Bhima Koregaon, the Pune Police booked two right-wing leaders, whose professed priority is Hindutva, not Maratha welfare. And at least one Maratha organisation even supported the Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh leader Prakash Ambedkar’s call for a statewide bandh on Wednesday, organised to protest the January 1 violence. But on the ground, during the bandh, the rage appeared to have more than one trigger.
A careful listening to the slogans of the thousands of men, women and also hundreds of children who blocked traffic on Mumbai’s highways suggested that 2018 will not only be the year of the Dalit morchas, after over a year of demonstrations by the Maratha Kranti Morcha, but it will also be a year that marks a new Ambedkarism. The new Ambedkarite mirrors the aggression and historic tales of Maratha soldiers and commanders in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s army with his own accounts of how his forefathers vanquished the enemy.
What stood out in the week’s events was this suddenly amplified warriorhood of the Dalits, says Professor Neetin Sonawane, who teaches political science at Abhinav College in Bhayandar, a distant Mumbai suburb. “One did not until now automatically think of soldiers when one thought of the Mahars,” he says.
Bhima Koregaon, where the visitors numbered 3 lakh this year from the usual 15,000 or 20,000, was itself a show of strength. “It indicates the possibility of more clashes and confrontations, possibly violence,” says Sonawane.
This process began a few years ago, when the Republican Panthers Jantiantachi Chalwal, a Left-Ambedkarite group, appealed to the masses to take inspiration from the battle of Bhima Koregaon to fight the new regime. They cast the RSS, Hindutva organisations and the BJP as casteist, “like the Peshwa regime”.
Incidentally, the Republican Panthers was under the scanner of the police after the arrest of its leader Sudhir Dhawale in connection with a Maoist case in Gondia in 2011, a case in which he was acquitted of all charges and released after 40 months.
Some years ago, the Republican Panthers released a pamphlet titled ‘Aajchya Peshwaishi Mukabala Karnyasathi Kamar Kasuya (Let us prepare to fight the New Peshwas)’. On January 1, 2015, the Kabir Kala Manch, a cultural group from Pune whose members have in the past faced allegations of being ‘pro Maoist’, distributed these pamphlets among the thousands who gathered at the obelisk or Shaurya Stambh or Jaystambh in Perne village near Bhima Koregaon.
The pamphlet called PM Narendra Modi and CM Devendra Fadnavis successors of the Peshwas. It also quoted Dr B R Ambedkar as saying, “Manavi mulya japnyacha shevatcha paryay shashtra dharan karne hoy (The last option to preserve human values is to take up arms).” Investigative agencies called the pamphlet “provocative”, but Vira Sathidar of the Republican Panthers, also lead actor in the award-winning Marathi film Court, had defended it as quoting an article written by Ambedkar in August 1940.
Since then, the Republican Panthers, the Kabir Kala Manch and their allies have worked on the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Prerna Abhiyaan’, a project to network with about 200 groups, mostly anti-Hindutva organisations, while using the Jaystambh as a rallying point for a new Dalit identity.
They mobilised Dalits as well as tribals and other minority communities against the BJP government, RSS and Hindutva forces, including the Shiv Sena, cow vigilantes, the Shri Ram Sene, Sanatan Sanstha and others who were presented as the “New Peshwas”. Their subjects included everything from atrocities against Dalits, vigilantism in the name of cow, Salva Judum, demonetisation, to the killing of rationalists. Their appeal to the masses was to take inspiration from the battle of Bhima Koregaon on its 200th anniversary.
So, while Dalits have for many years made the annual visit to the memorial obelisk at Bhima Koregaon, the 2018 celebration was set up for controversy, its build-up in social media tense. Even as it became clear that Dalit groups were seeing the 200th year as a milestone to rally around, contestations emerged online of the Dalit narrative of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. This was immediately seen by Dalit activists as a forcible rewriting of their history, a theft of their valour.
It was against this backdrop that the Elgaar Parishad was organised on December 31 by various Dalit groups at the Shaniwar Wada in Pune, the former headquarters of the Peshwas. Vira Sathidar, one of the organisers, says, “We realised in the last three years that what we call Indian democracy is just an illusion… The Congress regime claimed to be secular, but the bureaucracy was full of people with a ‘Peshwai’ mindset. The present regime is the reason for the rising intolerance and attacks on Dalits, tribals and minorities. So it was the need of hour to bring the masses together.”
Among others, the Elgaar Parishad was attended by newly elected Dalit MLA from Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani, JNU student activist Umar Khalid and Chhattisgarh tribal activist Soni Sori. The next day, the Dalits heading to the Bhima Koregaon obelisk were attacked, their vehicles stoned, some of them stopped, pulled out and assaulted. Mevani and Khalid were also booked for provocative speeches during the Elgaar Parishad.
From all accounts, notwithstanding the anti-Hindutva thrust of the build-up to Shaurya Din and of the Elgaar Parishad, by the time angry Dalits took to stalling rail and road traffic, their slogans were against old enemies too — Peshwa rule, caste conflict and most certainly against the Marathas.
In fact, the Dalits actually borrowed several ideas from the Maratha Kranti Morcha, the loose organisation of statewide Maratha individuals and organisations that spearheaded the planning and execution of the 2016-17 demonstrations, attended by lakhs of silently marching men and women in saffron turbans and waving saffron flags. For one, social media was used to whip up sentiment and to organise the crowds. Also, as in the case of the Maratha morchas, Dalit activists in Mumbai were keen to portray their protests as “leaderless”, spontaneous mutinies to protest the incidents of Bhima Koregaon.
The Marathas had got together to seek quick delivery of justice in a rape and murder case involving a Maratha girl, before going on to make extensive demands ranging from reservations to the dilution of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. And this week’s Dalit anger too, though sparked off by incidents in Bhima Koregaon, was fuelled by underlying anger at indignities they have had to put up with.
“There are so many issues at the root of Dalit anger, from the lack of jobs, shrinking incomes for farm labourers amid a general agrarian distress to unavailability of credit owing to the breakdown of the cooperative banks. But also at the heart of this reassertion is an identity as Ambedkarites — you continue to call us Dalits, but we are Ambedkarites first,” says Vaibhav Chhaya, 30, a Dalit activist in Mumbai who is active on social media. He asks whether a Brahmin who truly adopts Ambedkarism would be called a Dalit too. The shackles of caste haven’t been broken, he says, “and now youngsters from the community are angry that not enough has changed.”
Some also point to the “disparity” in justice delivery. “The judgment in the Nitin Aage case, coming so soon after the death sentence in the Kopardi case, is seen as an agency of the State failing a set of people,” says Prof Sonawane.
In April 2014, 16-year-old Nitin Aage, a Dalit boy who was reportedly in a relationship with an upper caste girl in his village of Kharda, in Ahmednagar, was killed and hanged from a tree. In November last year, following a series of witnesses turning hostile, all the accused were acquitted. The same month, another court handed the death sentence to all accused in the Kopardi rape and murder case, in which Dalit youth were accused of killing a Maratha girl. “Justice for Dalit families is somehow not important. Look at the Khairlanji case. Bhaiyalal Bhotmange died last year with his intervention application in Supreme Court still pending,” says Chhaya. “These are things all Dalits on the streets talk about.”
Alongside, amid disillusionment with the current leadership of the Dalits, deeply factionalised and having been unable to pass on the benefits of political power to the people, the jousting has begun for political consolidation in the run-up to 2019, when Maharashtra will vote for the general elections and also state Assembly polls.
The Bahujan Mahasangh, which currently does not enjoy the mass support that Ramdas Athawale does, took on the mantle of a nominal leadership of the current protests and will hope to galvanise its support base. The Athawale faction has already said it was out on the streets despite being an alliance partner in the current regime. And across party lines, corporators and local leaders with large numbers of Dalit voters in their constituencies either participated quietly in the bandh, or pitched in with the use of their vehicles or supplies of food and water.
Chhaya point outs the ghettoisation of Dalits in Mumbai, where not only do large numbers of those belonging to the lower castes live in shanty-towns and chawls but even within slum areas they have tended to live in segregation, with colonies named after Ambedkar, Ramabai, Bhimshakti, Siddharth, Lumbini, Buddha, etc.
In Dhale’s words, the discontentment among the people is still raw. “There is no disputing that when the Mahars joined the British Army, their status as soldiers was better than under the Peshwas. And that is why, in order to make sure they’re not enslaved once again, they fought through the night, a valiant battle to overthrow their own fellowmen who perpetrated caste violence. And now, 200 years later, is democracy for everyone? Have we been really integrated in society? The answer is no,” he says.