Caste adrift

Caste adrift

Violence at Pune, Mumbai speaks of distorted political economy, communities failed by political leaderships

pune clashes, maratha dalit clash, dalit protest, mumbai bandh, mahars, bhima koregaon, maharashtra, dalit education, employement in dalits, obc, indian express
Members of the Maratha community stage protest in Pune on Tuesday (Express Photo by Arul Horizon)

As tensions simmer in many parts of Maharashtra, allegations and counter allegations continue to be hurled. While the state government is on the back foot, allegations of incitement by sections close to Hindutva organisations are being levelled by Dalit leaders and the Opposition. A narrative pushed by the apologists of Hindutva suggests that Jignesh Mevani be held responsible for the flare-up because of his speech at a rally at Pune on December 31. At the historic Shaniwar Wada, a fort-cum-palace that was the seat of the Peshwas, Mevani made a plea befitting the Ambedkarite legacy, to end the “peshwai” of both caste domination and capitalist domination. The word peshwai, in common understanding, does refer to Brahmin rule but also has a connotation implying oppressive and illegitimate domination.

But the attack on those congregating at Bhima-Koregaon near Pune and the subsequent eruption at Mumbai-Thane has shifted the issue from debate to street violence. Violence does not allow two things to happen. One, there is no upfront recognition of the cracks that are betrayed by such inter-group violence because the entire focus is on restoration of peace and “normalcy”. Two, in the haste to gain political mileage, not much energy is devoted to thinking about the deeper causes and trends that the violence signifies. The recent developments in Maharashtra represent the many cracks in Maharashtra society. Caste mobilisations have marked the politics of brinkmanship. An eerie normalcy has prevailed and has now been broken.

The socio-political trajectory of the Dalit community is marked by frustrations and entrapments. Sections of Dalit political activists have risen to political prominence thanks to their alliance with the ruling dispensation, the BJP. But as a community, Dalits routinely fail to make an impact on the political process. There has been a slow emergence of the “middle class” among the Dalit community characterised by organisations like the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DICCI). But joblessness, informalisation and consequent lumpenisation have been afflicting the community. As elsewhere in the country, inter-caste differences and stratifications among Dalits have also persisted, if not exacerbated. This situation forces the community to take recourse to assertions of pride and status through symbolism. Thus, a community in search of justice has to fall back upon struggles for historical memories as much as struggles for material existence.

In the past couple of years, the Maratha community of Maharashtra has been mobilised on an unprecedented scale. This mobilisation has happened not only on the roads — through silent marches across the state — but fundamentally in the minds of the community, particularly the youth. While many have marvelled at the political novelty of silent yet vocal marches that have unsettled political equations, the significance of mobilising the state’s single largest community on caste basis has hardly been realised. Thus, we have two connected but contradictory dimensions of the Maratha mobilisation: On the one hand, it has brought to the forefront the internal stratification within the community; on the other hand, it has brought the community together with a sense of pride located in history combined with a sense of injury in the present.


Nowhere have these similar yet contrasting life situations of two large communities from Maharashtra been exemplified more succinctly and tragically than in the bizarre theatre of the judiciary. Two cases that have hit the headlines in the state had two distinct journeys. In a case involving the accused from the Dalit community and the victim a Maratha girl, evidence was marshalled to result in conviction while in another case where a Dalit youth was killed and the accused was from the Maratha community, prosecution failed to get a conviction because most witnesses turned hostile. The anger over the rape and murder of the girl became caste-ridden and the frustration over the acquittal of the accused became a reminder of caste-based handicap. Neither became an issue to prick the civic conscience. This brought the Dalits and the Marathas close to an unidentified brink.

Trapped in the distortions of the political economy and rendered rudderless by the political bankruptcy of their leaderships, both communities inevitably fall back upon three things: Mutual suspicion, assertion of caste pride/identity and a confrontation in the shadows of history and memory. This is a sure recipe for inter-community violence. Maharashtra has been on the boil for some time now and the provocation at Pune was only a trigger.

This trigger was caused because of another long-standing crack in Marathi society: The Brahmin vs non-Brahmin division. The Brahmanetar politics (of mobilising all non-Brahmin communities against Brahmin oppression) has a contemporary history of over a century. But the near-withdrawal of Brahmins from politics allowed this crack to subside for much of the past six to seven decades. During the past decade or so, however, assertive mobilisation of the Brahmins resumed under the auspices of caste-based platforms of the Brahmins who, apart from the usual murmurings about reservations on economic basis and about the poor among the Brahmins, focused on the tools of history and memory. Thus, they often went back to the myth of Parashuram who is believed to have annihilated the Kshatriyas. Closer home, these mobilisations sought to reclaim the glory for the Brahmin Peshwas — the 18th century rulers. When last month Dalit groups were planning the commemoration of 200 years of the defeat of Peshwa rule at Bhima-Koregaon, resistance came from groups who claimed that celebrating the defeat of native Peshwas at the hands of the British was a violation of nationalism and national pride. In one stroke, then, those seeking to celebrate the fall of the Peshwas became non-nationalist (if not anti-national) and the Peshwas became a symbol of the national fight against colonialism. Thus, history as memory of struggle against an unjust social order and history as reading of contemporary nationalism into past battles for the throne confronted each other.

It would always be an enigma as to how the contending narratives of history descended on the streets and by-lanes of Bhima-Koregaon. But the lesson is clear — when the mirror of memory is cracked, it can only widen the cracks of the present reality.

The latest violence has brought into sharp focus three cracks Marathi society is made up of. The Brahmin-non-Brahmin crack which operates at the subterranean level, the Dalit-Maratha crack that often plays out in a brutal manner and the divisions internal to caste blocs that ironically strengthen caste identities rather than weakening them. The violence at Pune and Mumbai has alerted us to these cracks once again. It has alerted us, also, to our unwillingness to recognise them as cracks leave aside overcome them. And to the consequences that have costs both in terms of human lives and the capacity to argue.