It may seem strange to suggest that monuments are as mouldable as memories. Are they not “set in stone” — as we aptly say — precisely to preserve memory, to prevent it from fading or losing shape? Of course, they are. But the larger truth is that the meaning of a monument is always negotiated in the present, in defiance of its intention to freeze and thus immortalise the past. And so it is that we are no longer aware of any irony in a British war memorial, otherwise known as India Gate, serving as a familiar symbol of the national capital, as a tribute to our own “amar jawans”, as an ever-popular tourist site, or even as a place that Delhi-ites might go to for a late evening ice-cream in summer.
And so it also is that another British war memorial, the Vijay Stambh at Bhima Koregaon, suddenly makes national headlines as the meanings it is sought to be given are violently contested. These contestations have little to do with the past and everything to do with the present. At a certain level, the events of January 1818 are no more — or no less — accessible to us than the events of January 2018. Already, we have many versions of many stories. Depending on the point of view, credit is being given to “communal outfits”, “anti-nationals”, “casteist elements”, and of course, the tried and trusted “outsiders”. A common cast of characters such as Marathas, Mahars, Brahmins, and newer inventions like Dalits, OBCs and Hindutvavadis is presented in sharply divergent plots and conspiracies. In short, there is not much to be gained by trying to ascertain what really happened out there; what matters are the present purposes that the past is serving.
Bhima Koregaon has become a flashpoint because it is the contingent site where at least three political projects are colliding even as they are trying in different ways to collude with each other. This is an uncertain yet nervously urgent time when friends and enemies are hard to recognise because they are seen in the blur of political movement. Matters are further confounded by the fact that none of these projects is singular, each being marked by its own internal divisions.
The most visible and most ambitious of them is the Hindutva project. The success of large-scale political projects depends on the invocation of a real or imagined enemy. This is where Hindutva has a big advantage because it has not only identified the Muslim as the enemy but has put in immense political labour to render this enmity politically viable. Its core problem is best expressed in Hindustani — dushmani kaise nibhayi jaaye? How to faithfully abide by enmity? The main internal division is between the principled ideological route and the practical route of electoral politics. The problem is that electoral compulsions may dilute ideology and dilute the purity of enmity. On the other hand, ideological goals are more effectively and lastingly achieved through state power. On a tactical plane, the challenge is to cultivate the Dalits and OBCs simultaneously, even though both have ample reason to resent the upper caste core of the Hindutva project. A further twist is added by the probability that acquiring the active support of the OBCs may require concessions to caste pride that will alienate the Dalits, and vice versa. To state this dilemma bluntly: If the process of converting the Muslims into political untouchables has almost succeeded, then how is this project to be kept alive in the face of the sort of electoral uncertainties witnessed in Gujarat and Bihar? In sum, the challenges facing the Hindutva project require the squaring of the caste circle while keeping the fires of communal hatred stoked.
The second project is the Dalit project and it also has distinct strands. The biggest factor here is the unmistakable energy it has exhibited in the past two decades. However, what was once a relatively simple and therefore powerful agenda can no longer be pursued as such because of internal divisions and external temptations. The most relevant internal divisions are those of class which often also coincide with sub-caste identities. Any successful political movement faces the temptations inherent in electoral politics, namely the attraction of power and the desire for recognition by the so-called mainstream. For both these reasons, it is not unthinkable that Dalit parties or movements may ally with Hindutva formations, even though the interests of the community as a whole are not going to be served through this route.
The third project is, of course, that of the backward castes. It is also the hardest to analyse because it is not a stable or organic entity but a volatile collection of castes. Internal differentiation here is perhaps the deepest and this makes it inevitable that processes of fission and fusion are always active. It is not only the sheer numbers of this grouping but its dominance over rural India that makes it central to any national political project. It is also the group where regional differentiation is the sharpest.
Probably the most important insight offered by the Maharashtra confrontations is that a deliberately vague and vacuous idea of the nation cannot be sacralised and politically encashed indefinitely. Can one be a nationalist and still be proud of what the Mahar soldiers achieved in Bhima Koregaon? Can Hindutva seriously contemplate the subordination of the upper caste minority to the lower caste majority? Can there be a lower caste majority in political rather than just numerical terms? And perhaps the most poignant question of all: How will Muslims or other non-Hindus seek political agency in a polity dominated by covert or overt versions of Hindutva?
The net benefits of these projects for the nation are as yet uncertain. But it is certain that the Hindutva project will impose the heaviest costs on us, no matter what our caste, class or religion.