The commemoration of 200 years of a historical event that Dalits in Maharashtra celebrate as a moment of collective pride, will see the participation of a firebrand young community icon — the newly elected member of the Gujarat Assembly, Jignesh Mevani.
The Independent MLA from Vadgam, who rose to national prominence after leading the Dalit agitation that followed the Una flogging incident of July 2016, has been invited to speak at a conference that will be part of a massive celebration of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon over the last day of this year and the first of the next.
On January 1, 1818, a small army of the British East India Company succeeded in thwarting the advance of the forces of Peshwa Baji Rao II into Pune despite being outnumbered three to one. Over the past several decades, this “victory” in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon has become an important symbol of Dalit assertion in Maharashtra.
In the Dalit narrative, the East India Company’s force on that day was made up largely of soldiers from the Dalit Mahar community, who waged a war for “freedom” from the alleged castiesm of the Peshwas, who were upper caste Brahmins.
Every New Year’s Day, tens of thousands of Dalits from Maharashtra and elsewhere gather at Perne village in Pune where a jaystambh (victory pillar) erected by the British commemorates the memory of the soldiers who fell in that battle. Dr B R Ambedkar is said to have paid a visit to the memorial in 1927 and Ambedkarites have since then been visiting the jaystambh as a “source of inspiration”.
The coming New Year’s Day is special — being the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. The scale of the event this time is likely to be unprecedented, some organisers say. They claim between four and five lakh Dalits from across the country are expected to join the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Prerna Abhiyan, making it one of the largest Dalit mobilisations of recent times.
Mevani is scheduled to speak at the “Elgaar Parishad” conference on December 31 at Pune’s historic Shaniwar Wada, the headquarters of the Peshwas. The following day, Mevani, along with thousands of activists, is expected to march 30 km to the jaystambh, the venue for the main event.
Mevani is not the only attraction at the Elgaar Parishad. Also invited to speak at the event are Umar Khalid, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student who was at the centre of the controversial slogan-shouting incident last year, Chhattisgarh activist Soni Sori, and Vinay Ratan Singh, the national president of the Bhim Army.
Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Prashant Dontha of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, Hyderabad, Maulana Abdul Hamid Azhari, national secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and artists of Kabir Kala Manch — some of whom are alleged to have Maoist links — are also expected to participate and speak at the all-day event, which will be presided by the retired Supreme Court Justice P B Sawant. Dalit groups from all districts of Maharashtra and outside have been mobilising people for the conference.
The organisers are making no attempt to conceal the strong political current underlying the events. A pamphlet for the conference makes an appeal to masses, mainly Dalits, tribals and minorities, to unite and take inspiration from the heroes of the Bhima Koregaon battle to defeat the “new Peshwas” — BJP, RSS and other “Hindutva” forces like the Shiv Sena, Abhinav Bharat, Sanatan Sanstha, and Sri Ram Sene, as well as gau rakshaks and the “anti-Romeo squad”. The pamphlet names the ATS (Anti-Terrorist Squad), CBI and even R&AW, as allies of “casteist” forces.
In a related event, a group of Dalits will begin a “Prerna” (inspiration) march on December 25 from Kharilanji village — the site of the infamous Dalit massacre of 2006 — in Bhandara district. The group will reach Shaniwar Wada on December 31, and continue to jaystambh the following day.
The plans have sent a frisson of apprehension through several groups. The Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh (ABBM) and Udaysinh Peshwe, a descendant of the Peshwas, have asked Pune Police to deny permission for the Shaniwar Wada event. “Peshwas represented Indian forces comprising soldiers from different castes. Defeat for the Peshwas means defeat of Indian forces and victory of the British. But some sections believe it was a defeat of Brahmins and celebrate it. Such celebrations will only increase caste differences,” Anand Dave, Pune district chief of ABBM, said.
But Manoj Garbade of the Samata Sainik Dal (SSD), an organisation founded by Babasaheb Ambedkar, said fears of caste tensions were misplaced. “Jaystambh gives us inspiration to fight against fascist forces and bring equality and brotherhood in society. So, 2,000 SSD volunteers in uniform will be saluting the jaystambh, and 3,000 more would be looking parking and traffic to ensure the occasion goes off smoothly,” he said.
Maharashtra’s Minister for Social Justice Rajkumar Badole has held meetings with Dalit groups and government officials regarding crowd management and activities at the jaystambh.