Prior to January 1, a few persons had heard of Bhima Koregaon in Pune district where Dalits congregate at Vijay Stambha (victory memorial) every year. Except for the Dalits, who observe the annual ritual to celebrate the victory of Mahars over Peshwas, which has become a metaphor for their assertiveness against atrocities inflicted by the Brahmins. Close to this place is another piece of history, which is important to both the Marathas and the Dalits. This is the samadhi of Govind Gaikwad, the 17th century Dalit, who, according to Mahar accounts, defied Aurangzeb’s orders and carried out the last rites of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj. It was the removal of the board on the samadhi, commemorating the deed of Gaekwad who was hanged, that reportedly ignited a huge controversy leading to the death of one person. Thereafter, the violence reached the cities as angry Dalits marked their protest by observing a Maharashtra bandh.
Though, the fault lines between the Dalits and the Marathas remain intact, the incident has thrown up many issues – the reassertion of Dalit identity and a leadership which was not united but is now undergoing a churning. One thing is for certain, Prakash Ambedkar, the national leader of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, and the grandson of Bharat Ratna Dr B R Ambedkar, has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Dalits. He successfully stoked the angry embers to a point, and then let them cool down, when it was required. On the other hand, his one-time challenger, Ramdas Athawale, who is now at home in the National Democratic Alliance, stands isolated, with the Dalits no longer enamoured of him. The huge population of Dalits is expected to rally around Ambedkar – the new pivot – while Athawale, who has furthered his own selfish goals, will be relegated to the background. Ambedkar also did not allow the differences within the Dalit factions and their rift with the Marathas to cloud his thinking. Treading cautiously, he acknowledged the differences within and among the caste groups, which he clearly stated will persist and should not be capitalised upon. Rather, Ambedkar put the onus back on the Devendra Fadnavis government, making it accountable for the ham-handed handling of the caste flare up by allowing two Hindu right-wing leaders to fish in the troubles waters.
Result: For once, the conspiracy of the fringe groups backed by the BJP stands exposed, especially the role of Manohar Bhide, who leads the Shiv Prathisthan, and Milind Ekbote (60), who heads the Samasta Hindu Aghadi. Due to immense public pressure, cases have been registered against both, but there are minimal chances of them being arrested. Instead, the government is gunning for Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani and Umer Khalid, the Secretary of the Students’ Union of Jawaharlal Nehru University. This has given credence to a new theory about ‘outsiders’ dabbling in the state’s affairs.
There are huge challenges before Ambedkar and the Dalits, and one of them is what position to take vis-a-vis other political parties and their leaders. They will have to steer clear of the trappings of appeasement, even as they zealously guard and re-assert their identity. Ambedkar will need watching: the challenge before him is not to get co-opted and go the Athawale way.
The vast majority in the state and elsewhere do not have a sense of history: the symbolic importance of Bhima Koregaon and that of the 500 Mahars defeating the ruling Brahmin Peshwas is often lost in their clichéd understanding of the past. The challenge is to make these landmarks of Dalit assertiveness relevant to modern times and anchor them in today’s polity. While the social media provides a vast canvas to those wanting to air their views, it is often not backed with research and historic references.
The one issue that remains unresolved is the age-old simmering differences between the Marathas and the Dalits. More so, since the Dalits had allied with the British troops in 1818 to defeat the Peshwas, whereas the Marathas stood by the rulers. The differences between the two communities have been typecast with a monotonous regularity. The Marathas have been historically seen as the ‘oppressors’ by the Dalits, while the Marathas have lamented that the Dalits have misused the Prevention of Atrocities (Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes) Act against them. In 2016, after the gang rape and gruesome murder of a Maratha girl by three Dalit youth, for the first time the Marathas undertook silent morchas across the state. In the 50-odd morchas, the Marathas demanded scrapping of the Atrocities Act, death sentence in the Kopardi case and reservations in jobs and for education, all of which sharpened the innate Dalit insecurities. While the three youth accused in the case were awarded the death sentence, the Atrocities Act remains a matter of policy, and reservations a legal conundrum. The trust deficit and the political tug of war will persist, though the Marathas have more political leverage than the Dalits. It is not surprising that the Dalits, too, on the rebound, are now asserting their identity and dominance. The future contours will largely be determined by Prakash Ambedkar, who is exhibiting much maturity in his restrained political discourse.
The ensuing year is crucial for Maharashtra, because along with the general elections, the State will have simultaneous Assembly polls. There is a discernible pattern in the fringe right-wing stoking hostilities and using violence to harp on differences between the two communities. Hence the minorities, the Muslims, the Dalits, the Marathas and the women will need to find a common cause or a meeting ground. Or at least disallow the mutual differences to subsume the larger goal of defeating the divisive forces.
The writer is the City Editor of Free Press Journal.