Memories have a politics of their own. While they can stir up pride in one social group, for another, they can be a matter of guilt and shame. So, a memory of the same event could produce two different kinds of results. That is why the famous historian Eric Hobsbawm cautioned us, time and again, about politics based on memories.
Memories are the basis of the politics of identity. The identity of social groups is both built and opposed through the use of memory. While the politics of identity constitutes a support base for certain groups or agencies, such politics also informs the opposition to these groups. The tone and tenure of Dalit politics in India is associated with the politics of identity, along with the socio-economic question. But while memory-based politics has helped Dalit groups to forge coalitions, it has also helped the groups ranged against them to come together.
Only some events are converted to memories. The memories based on such events are monumentalised. Annual events are organised around them. Remembering is a normal human process but politics has much to do with purposefully keeping memories alive. Changing the name of cities, demolition of colonial memorials or vandalising the memorials or idols of a social group, and the resulting discourse in favour of and opposition to these events, do not leave these structures as mere markers of memories. They convert them into bearers of political memories.
The novelist Milan Kundera has rightly said that the struggle of the people against the state is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Through this process, many marginalised social groups have turned their memories about caste, their heroes and events pertaining to their group into memorials. Events, including fairs and festivals, are associated with these memorials. The Bahujan movement in Uttar Pradesh, for example, has not only found many heroes such as Jhalkari Bai, Uda Devi and Bijli Pasi, but has also consecrated the history around these heroes into a source of identity pride. Ambedkar has also turned into such a hero. While on one hand, a neglected social group gets attached with these memories, on the other, there is a sense of anger in other groups.
Recently, there was violence around a memorial and a commemoration day in Bhima-Koregaon in Pune. On January 1, 1818, British forces defeated 28,000 soldiers of Peshwa Baji Rao II at Bhima-Koregaon. The soldiers of the British army were mostly from the Mahar community. Therefore, the Dalit community in Maharashtra, especially the Mahars, associates this event with community pride. They consider this victory as a part of their struggle against the Maratha state. The Dalit community in Maharashtra organises a Shaurya Din every year to celebrate the victory of the British forces against the Maratha army. It is said that even Ambedkar supported this event.
While this memorial is a sign of pride for the Dalits, it has also become a marker of shame for the Marathas. Some Maratha groups want to erase the shame associated with the narrative of the defeat at Bhima-Koregaon. But the Dalit commemoration of the event does not let them do so. Powerful Maratha social groups also see the event as a challenge to their dominance.
These groups are not happy about reservation for Dalits and the empowerment of marginalised castes through democratic processes. We have already seen the Maratha mobilisation and the rage against reservation. The opposition of certain organisations to the celebrations at Bhima-Koregaon is also a product of their longstanding jealousy of Dalit empowerment. The opposition was not a spontaneous response. Maharashtra has a Dalit population of 10.2 per cent, among which the Mahars are an influential community. They constitute more than 57 per cent of the state’s Dalit population. The community began to gather the power to raise its voice during the colonial period itself.
It is said that politics is of the present and for the making of the present and the future. The past is something that has long since happened. But in Indian society, the memories present in the myths, symbols and heroes hold immense value. In many ways, the past has more significance than the present. France is known as the country of monuments. Large memorials are seen there at every corner but these have been reduced to tourist attractions. France’s splendour, memorials and monuments have lost the power to bind or instigate people because the society and culture there is different from that in India. In India, monuments and memorials are filled with the potential to bind people and also give rise to controversies. Memories and memorials have a special significance for neglected groups that are trying to create a sense of self-esteem and pride.