Dalits recently protested on the streets of Maharashtra against the planned attack by Hindutvadi groups on an event organised to commemorate the “victory of Mahars” over the mighty Peshwas at the battle of Bhima-Koregaon in 1818. The protests come at a time when the BJP is trying to attract the Dalits by appropriating the legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Since the Narendra Modi government took office, the representation of Ambedkar as a Hindu reformist and nationalist icon has taken precedence over his radical anti-caste stance. The BJP wants to portray itself as sensitive to the ideas of Ambedkar.
In Maharashtra, the BJP has cultivated its pro-Dalit image through a political alliance with the Ramdas Athawale-led faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI). This has helped the BJP expand its electoral base in places like Mumbai, Nagpur and Solapur.
Importantly, the BJP has started gaining considerable support amongst the Dalit middle classes, which look at the party as a pragmatic option. The party is grooming a new Dalit leadership that often speaks the political language of the RSS without being apologetic about its communal character.
Further, the current state government understood the power of symbolism and announced a grand memorial to Ambedkar at Mumbai while commemorating his 125th birth anniversary. To attract Dalits, the BJP in its political campaigns has systematically utilised Ambedkar, promised not to disturb the reservation policy and offered affirmative action for the economic empowerment of Dalits. These strategies have surely helped the BJP to move beyond its conventional anti-Dalit image.
However, any critical assessments of such engagements will demonstrate their hollowness in bringing justice and empowerment to the Dalit masses.
The mainstreaming of Ambedkar through the state apparatus is just ornamental and does not possess the power to transform the socio-economic conditions under which Dalits have historically suffered and continue to do so.
Ironically, in Maharashtra, the state government also protected and promoted conservative right-wing groups and avoided radical initiatives to curb social discrimination and violence against Dalits. In the incident at Bhima-Koregaon, this blatant bias was clearly visible. The incapacity of the state government to protect the basic human rights and social freedoms of Dalits creates a deep anxiety and anger amongst them, leading to massive street protests.
The Ambedkarite civil society in Maharashtra has carved an independent space in the socio-cultural domain without directly attaching itself to political fronts.
The independent acts of Dalit resistance by several small and local groups makes the social sphere an arena of conflict between the proponents of the Brahmanical Hindu social order and the defenders of social equality. There are numerous NGOs, cultural fronts, social cooperatives, Buddhist faith-based organisations and other self-motivated groups, which function along with many intellectual fora, social activists and students’ organisations to propagate the ideas of Ambedkar.
These scattered bodies are creating an alternative socio-cultural symbolism against Brahmanical hegemony. Most of these fronts are engaged in social, cultural and educational activities.
The Dalits in Maharashtra are mobilised on various issues ranging from fighting everyday casteist slurs, to discrimination in schools and government institutions, harassment and rape of Dalit women, social boycott by upper caste elites in villages, non-payment of wages, social prejudices and exploitative customs and not allowing victims to lodge FIRs against caste-based violence. They are engulfed in such social tragedies and it is only through the various small and sporadic struggles, that they are contesting social injustice.
The massive public celebration of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in every important city of Maharashtra showcases that the Dalits are keen to engage with mainstream social life. The Bhima-Koregaon event, in this respect, was an act of assertion of their social and cultural right to highlight their contribution in making the Indian nation. The attacks on such gatherings show that social elites are still unable to accept Dalits as equals in defining the public sphere.
The current Dalit question in Maharashtra thus operates between two approaches. First, the political process, through which small material and symbolic doles are given to the community to satisfy their immediate quests. The political sphere is increasingly dominated by upper-caste elites and Dalits have to play a residual role here. The BJP’s alliance with a Dalit party (RPI) is too weak to make any impressive impact in the socio-economic turf. The first model is, therefore, minimalist and superficial.
The second approach is of the protest movements and mobilisation of people against everyday social injustices. The Dalit civil society in this respect distances itself from the political milieu and engages in transformative social change. It is these everyday social, cultural and intellectual activisms that define Dalit consciousness and its agenda today. The vibrant Dalit protests on the streets of Maharashtra testify that the Dalit movement has retained its radical and progressive character against all odds.