As I write this, the “breaking news” is that caste-tensions have brought the state of Maharashtra to a halt. It all began on the New Year day when Dalits gathered at Bhima-Koregan village in Pune to commemorate 200th anniversary of the war between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy. It is said that a 28,000-strong force led by Peshwa Baji Rao II intended to attack Pune, which was held by the British. On their way, they were met by an 800-strong Company force that was on its way to reinforce the British troops in Pune. The Peshwa dispatched around 2,000 soldiers to attack the Company force entrenched in Koregaon. Led by Captain Francis Staunton, the Company troops defended their position for nearly 12 hours. The Peshwa’s troops ultimately withdrew, because of the imminent arrival of a larger British force led by Brig. General Joseph Smith.
The Company troops of Indian origin included a number of Mahar Dalit soldiers belonging to the Bombay Native Infantry, and therefore Dalit activists regard the battle as a heroic episode in Dalit history. Strictly speaking, this was a small war between the British and the Marathas, a war which neither side regarded to have ended in a victory or defeat. But what happened was that the Company commissioned a “victory pillar” to commemorate its fallen soldiers, 49 of whose names were written on it. Of these 49, 22 happened to be belonging to Mahar caste (Dalits).
Incidentally, the commemoration has become an annual ritual for the Dalit-activists since January 1, 1927, not for the last 200 years something that the veteran leader from Maharashtra Sharad Pawar will like us to believe. It was on that day that B. R. Ambedkar had visited the site. These rituals were always peaceful and symbolic. But this time what seems to have happened was that the celebration was marked by wild and aggressive slogans against Marathas as a community and the upper-caste Hindus in general, with a clear view to send a message to the BJP government in the state and the Narendra Modi-led government at the centre.
Just see who were present on the occasion this time. One can understand the presence of Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of BR Ambedkar and a native at the commemorative rally. But what about Gujarat’s newly elected independent MLA and Dalit agitation face Jignesh Mevani (who is issuing highly tasteless and often provocative statements against Modi these days), controversial JNU student leader Umar Khalid (who is not sure whether Kashmir belongs to India), and Radhika Vemula, mother of the deceased Hyderabad university “Dalit” student Rohith Vemula (she is now being actively used by all the opposition parties in the electoral campaigns against the BJP, whether it is in Uttar Pradesh or in Gujarat). It is said that their provocative slogans drew protests from the locals; there were some stone-throwing incidents. But the “Dalit-retaliations” to these were fierce – vandalisms in the streets of Pune, Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, Dombivilli and Ulhasnagar. The matter was further aggravated by the tweets of the Congress President Rahul Gandhi (now an ally of Jignesh Mevani); he unconditionally supported the Dalits’ protests. “A central pillar of the RSS/BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohit Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance”, Gandhi said in a tweet. Predictably, the Communist parties (CPI, CPM) and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party led by Mayawati have all joined hands with Rahul Gandhi.
And here lies the problem. The problem is the perverse politicisation of the Dalit issues that do not help the overwhelming majority of the Dalits. At the most, it helps only a handful of more articulate and educated Dalit-leaders in pursuit of their political careers, nothing more. Let me elucidate this point.
It is true that Dalits have been an exploited community for the ages. But that has nothing to do with the Hindu religion as such. It has been a more socio-economic phenomenon than the religious one. How does one describe the miseries of the Blacks in the countries like the United States and Europe ? Did “slavery” originate from “Christianity” and “Islam”? No. Phenomena like injustice and inequality have been prevalent throughout ages everywhere and these have been addressed to regularly and steadily (even though slowly) with the corresponding progress made by the mankind. The same is the case with our Dalits. Nobody questions their legitimate rights. But you cannot assert your rights by denigrating others – in this case the Marathas – and by resorting to violence.
In fact, it is shameful that mainstream political parties have fallen into the trap of the likes of Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid by creating clearly avoidable schisms between Dalits and Marathas. In doing this, they are insulting the history. The war at Bhima-Koregan should not be seen in isolation and that too through the prism of “Dalit vs. Marathas.” All told, the Mahars had also fought for the Maratha rulers such as Shivaji, Rajaram and the Peshwas. For example, Nagnak Mahar was prominent in the reign of Rajaram. Rainak Mahar fought at Raigad and Shidnak Mahar saved the life of Peshwa general Parshuram Patwardhan during the Battle of Kharda in 1795.
Secondly, contrary to the crocodile tears shed by activists and some parties that the Dalits are suffering the worst under the BJP regimes, the facts as brought out through the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) latest data show that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar recorded the maximum crimes against Dalits as on December 31, 2016. That time, the BJP was not ruling these states. In fact, the NCRB data on caste-based atrocities in 19 metropolitan cities in 2016 — released for the first time — showed that Lucknow and Patna too topped the list. According to the NCRB, Uttar Pradesh reported 10,426 cases of crimes against Dalits in 2016, accounting for 26 per cent of the total cases across the country. Bihar was second with 5,701 such incidents (14 per cent).
In fact, there have been enough studies that show that most of the violence against the Dalits in Independent India has come from the intermediate castes like the Yadavs, not upper castes like the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. Thus, it is absurd to wedge a dividing line now between the Dalits and the Marathas in Maharashtra.
Thirdly, the vocal section of the Dalits are monopolising all the benefits given to the community by the Indian Constitution. In this sense, these vocal leaders are the worst enemies of the Dalits in many a case. A public interest litigation (PIL) filed by one group of Dalits in the Supreme Court sometime back showed how these Dalit-elites, barely five to 10 communities from the scheduled castes and tribes (SCs/STs), have cornered all the benefits from reservations – when there are 1,677 Dalit communities needing those benefits. In fact, the PILmover, OP Shukla, wanted to exclude the Chamar, Mala, Mahar, Meena, Dusad, Pasi and Dhobi communities from the list of SCs because they have already benefited from it. “A select 5-10 castes/tribes among the target group have become financially so strong (as) to be compared with the higher castes of society. Therefore, further empowering them by way of giving them continued and further reservation will amount to unjust enrichment and will amount to violation of constitutional provisions,” Shukla’s PIL said.
Fourthly, as Abhinav Prakash Singh, an assistant Professor at the University of Delhil, has argued, there is now a discernible change among the some Dalit-elites. Distancing themselves from those who are only focussing on political assertions and government jobs through reservations, these elites are becoming a strong supporter of economic reforms and good governance. They have spawned a new discourse of “Dalit Capitalism” which advocates entrepreneurship and access to markets as the route to emancipation rather than old policies of reservations etc. And like others, they look towards the BJP as a business friendly, pro-growth party. It is, therefore, not surprising that almost the entire younger generation of urban Dalits is now pro-BJP in states like U.P, Maharashtra, Gujarat, etc.
In fact, in more senses than one, the ongoing unrest in Maharashtra is created specifically by some forces that are uncomfortable with the Dalits voting for the BJP these days in various parts of the country. They will now intensify their traditional campaigns asking the Dalits to leave Hinduism and convert to other religions (Mayawati often threatens to convert to Buddhism). I doubt whether this tactics will succeed.
As Prof. Singh says, going beyond the academic ‘research’ on Dalit issues and rhetorical pamphleteering, many Hindu organisations and the much-maligned RSS have been simultaneously promoting for the past several decades what is said de-Brahmanised Hinduisation of Dalits. “It was complemented by the process of Sanskritization due to works done by several Hindu & Hindutva organisations like opening of temples to Dalits, imparting scriptural knowledge, performing yajna and other sanskaras for Dalits, training Dalit priests, anti-caste advocacy etc. These two processes together fostered a strong sense of Hinduness and Hindu unity.”
In sum, in the name of fighting Narendra Modi and the BJP, protagonists of the Dalit-violence in Maharashtra are trying to break the emerging Hindu-unity. Their devious strategy must not be allowed to succeed.
By Prakash Nanda