Maharashtra has been gripped by protests by Dalit outfits since Monday. Here’s a guide to what’s happening and why.
Just how did the financial capital come to a standstill on Wednesday?
Thousands of Dalit protestors were on the streets in Mumbai and elsewhere on Wednesday, squatting on railway tracks at various railway stations and on arterial Mumbai roads, stalling rail services repeatedly and blocking roads for long stretches through the day. Shops, restaurants and other establishments remained closed in large parts of the city, voluntarily in some areas and owners threatened to pull down shutters elsewhere. Attendance in offices was poor, the small percentage of schools that functioned had to send children home early owing to poor attendance of staff and students, while the school bus owners’ association kept its fleet of 40,000 buses across the state off the roads.
Which were the areas affected?
Areas such as Chembur, Mankhurd and Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar were among the worst hit, with rail services as well as roads blocked for residents of and commuters passing through these suburbs. Roads that serve the bulk of Mumbai’s traffic were blocked – Eastern Freeway at Panjrapol, Eastern Express Highway at Ghatkopar, the Sion-Panvel Highway at Chembur and other spots and Western Express highway at Kala Nagar in Bandra.
Was there violence?
There was no serious violence apart from stone throwing, mainly at public transport buses. At least 50 BEST buses had their windscreens smashed. In short, those who stayed home fearing trouble were lucky. Those who ventured out on the assurance of preparedness by the police found themselves stuck for hours. The unluckiest had their autos stopped, their drivers threatened.
What are the Dalit protesters angry about?
On Monday, as nearly three lakh people thronged the village of Bhima-Koregaon and nearby villages to pay tributes at a memorial to Mahar soldiers who fought alongside the British 200 years back, some groups of Dalits were attacked, allegedly by men wielding saffron flags. Footage of these attacks and subsequent scuffles in the villages of Vadhu-Bhudruk, Sanaswadi and Bhima-Koregaon located along the Pune-Ahmednagar highway has now been shared very, very widely by Dalits on Whatsapp and on Facebook. While clashes broke out soon after the initial attack on January 1 itself, January 2 saw angry Dalits protest across Maharashtra — no arrest had been made, one man (a Maratha) was dead, no FIR had been filed against the assailants visible quite clearly in the footage, and no assurance had been forthcoming from the state government to bring the perpetrators to justice. Even as CM Devendra Fadnavis quickly announced a judicial probe into Mondya’s attack, Dalit groups rejected the enquiry and staged protests across Maharashtra.
Sensing opportunity, Dalit leaders announced a bandh and a show of strength by Dalits to be staged on Wednesday. Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of the architect of the Indian Constitution, who leads the Bharatiya Republican Party Bahaman Mahasangh, called the strike that was backed by left parties. Ambedkar rejects the viewing of the clashes as a reflection of Dalit-Maratha rivalry — a subject that set the political agenda for Maharashtra through most of 2017. He said instead that at least one Maratha group, the Sambhaji Brigade, which played a central role in the silent protests by Marathas against Dalits through 2017, had actually organised an event on December 31 at Koregaon. That Koregaon event was attended, among others, by Rohith Vemula’s mother, Soni Sori, Umer Khalid, Prakash Ambedkar himself, and Jignesh Mevani — newly elected Dalit MLA from Gujarat. So what started in Koregaon as a show of strength by one set of Dalit groups from across India continued in Mumbai on Wednesday as a re-assertment of the Dalit identity by thousands of protestors.
Why Bhima-Koregaon? What exactly is the relevance of this little village near Pune, where this trouble actually began?
January 1 marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon which is regarded as the last of the great Anglo-Maratha wars. At Koregaon on the banks of the Bhima, over 800 British troops are said to have held off a 30,000-strong Maratha army led by Peshwa Baji Rao II himself. After an overnight march to Koregaon, the tired British forces were facing certain defeat, according to some accounts. Though there have been several versions of this retelling of history, the British forces that day included the second battalion of the first regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry, which included soldiers from the Mahar community. The Mahars, a backward caste, were considered a valiant group, and with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s visit to Bhima Koregaon many years later, the memorial pillar erected by the British at the site of the battle came to be referred to as Shaurya Bhoomi by Dalit activists.
The Koregaon obelisk is itself a beautiful war memorial, with inscriptions in Marathi and English, the names of the fallen listed. About 15,000 to 20,000 Dalits, including thousands of Mahars, visit the obelisk every year on January 1, seeing it as a memory of their forefathers overthrowing the casteist rule of the Peshwas. To them, this was the beginning of the Annihilation of Caste, even if it included war against their fellowmen. The obelisk was even part of the official insignia of the Mahar Regiment for some years.
What’s next for Maharashtra politics?
2018 will be a busy year for those watching Maharashtra politics. There are two elections in 2019 — general elections in the summer and state Assembly elections later. The Gujarat results have led to the inevitable flexing of muscle by those whose support the BJP would like to continue enjoying, as weeks as by those who sense an opportunity to get a foot in the door.
While 2017 was dominated by the Marathas demanding dilution of the Prevention of Atrocities Act (the central law that protects Dalits) as well as reservations in jobs and higher education, the perpetrators of the violence against Dalits in BHima-Koregaon are not Maratha. The Pune Police have registered an FIR against two Hindu right-wing leaders, and Dalit leaders as well as thousands who were at the Bhima Koregaon site on Monday have concurred, that this clash is to be framed as a Hindutva Vs Dalit confrontation.
But one cannot understand the Dalit anger pouring on the streets without framing it against the Maratha protests. Dalits have seen the establishment as supportive of the Maratha morcha protests. The Marathas, politically dominant and a land-owning class in general, are out of the power equation in Maharashtra since the BJP came to power in 2014. Agrarian distress, juxtaposed with the slow collapse of traditional caste barriers, has led to testing times for the Marathas, but certainly the BJP would like to woo this large, powerful, well-organised community.
The Marathas’ demands are still hanging in balance, and 2018 will see Dalit groups make their political presence felt. A side-plot is also the contests among the severely factionalised Dalit leadership — the most prominent leader of the Dalits in Maharashtra, Ramdas Athawale, is a minister at the Centre, but Prakash Ambedkar and other groups grabbed the headlines this week. Wednesday was their first show of strength and won’t be the last.