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Of Old and New Peshwai

Anti-Hindutva Dalit mobilisation at Bhima Koregaon goads upper castes into violence.


The bicentenary commemoration of the battle at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018 in Pune district, Maharashtra was marred by dispersed but organised attacks on Dalit participants who had congregated from all over the state. In response, an enraged Dalit community led protests against the attacks in city centres across Maharashtra. The key to these attacks seems to lie in the distinct anti-Hindutva theme underlying the commemoration, which was presided over by Dalit and minority leaders who have become the faces of dissent against dominant right-wing forces today.

The battle of 1818 between the British imperial army and the Peshwa regime of the day at Bhima Koregaon is upheld as a watershed moment in Dalit history. The victory of the colonial forces was secured by a predominantly Mahar battalion, heralding the end of the Brahmanical Peshwa rule. This cultural memory was revitalised by B R Ambedkar himself, as a symbol of Dalit valour and victory over oppressive forces. Subsequently, the event became part of a longer list of milestones and anniversaries celebrated annually as part of Ambedkarite counterculture—in opposition to and departure from caste-Hindu culture. Some milestones in the months of December and January include Ambedkar’s death anniversary on 6 December wherein Dalits congregate in thousands at ­Chaityabhoomi, Mumbai to pay homage to their leader; Ambedkar’s burning of the Manusmriti on 25 December (celebrated as Bharatiya Stree Mukti Divas by Dalit–Bahujan feminists); anniversary of the victory at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January (celebrated by congregating at Koregaon village in Pune, the site of the battle); the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule (also celebrated as teacher’s day) on 3 January; and Republic Day on 26 January when India adopted the Constitution drafted by Ambedkar. Participation in these events has harnessed the formation and internalisation of an Ambedkarite identity and consciousness among Dalits in the state.

However, the celebrations at Bhima Koregaon this year were marked by explicit anti-Hindutva political overtures. Various Dalit civil society and cultural outfits led by Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of B R Ambedkar and leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh party, under the banner of Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerna Abhiyan (campaign) announced an Elgar Parishad (conference) on 31 December 2017 to precede the bicentenary commemoration. The venue was Shaniwarwada (the erstwhile Peshwa palace in Pune city) and the conference theme was “Speak up Against Neo Peshwahi (or neo-fascism).” The theme was a political attack on the ruling political forces of the day and their Hindu right-wing politics. The prime speakers at the event included Prakash Ambedkar, Jignesh Mevani (Dalit leader and independent member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Gujarat), social activists Soni Sori (from Chhattisgarh) and Ulka Mahajan (from Maharashtra), Radhika Vemula (mother of the late student leader Rohith Vemula), and student leaders Dontha Prashanth and Umar Khalid. All of these speakers are prominent and fierce critics of the Hindutva ideology and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the country. It is this anti-Hindutva pitch of the celebrations that irked the upper castes and fuelled the attack. The attacks took place on 31 December 2017 and 1 January 2018 targeting individuals/groups and property of the participants, leaving one murdered, many injured and several cars severely damaged.

The mere announcement of the Elgar Parishad had invited opposition from the dominant Brahmin community in Pune, who later buckled under public pressure and issued an open
invitation to the organisers to discuss the history of Bhima Koregaon. The community had also come under pressure a few months ago in 2017 when Medha Khole, a scientist, had sought to sue her cook for concealing her true caste identity and thus defiling the ritual purity of the former’s household. The BJP, after defeating the non-Brahmin, Maratha politics of the Congress–Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance, has brought forth a Brahmin–Other Backward Classes social alliance in the state. The chief architects of the attack have been identified as Sambhaji Bhide of the Shiv Pratishthan, and Milind Ekbote of the Hindu Ekta Manch, both of whom had strong links to the ruling parties in the state and centre as well as
several cases of rioting and communal incitement, specifically so against the Dalit community.

The BJP is said to be walking a tightrope with this current outbreak of Dalit protests. Even though they comprise only about 10% of Maharashtra’s population, the highly politicised community with “well-oiled networks” transcending the ­rural–urban divide has left the BJP smarting for its inability to control Hindu vigilantes. The party had hoped in the last two years to capitalise on the (anti-Dalit) Maratha mobilisation to curry favour with the Dalit community, crucial to their political project of a larger Hindu unity. However, between Maratha dominance in the political economy and Brahmin hold in the cultural sphere of Maharashtra, Dalits are hard-pressed for strategic/real allies in the state. The stark contrast in the fate of the Nitin Aage and Kopardi cases, or from public reactions to the Padmavat(i) protests by Rajputs and Bhima Koregaon protests by Dalits reveals the unrelenting caste bias that Dalits face, from the judiciary to the streets. However, successful mobilisation of the Dalits against ­Hindutva forces on the plank of Neo-Peshwai can hurt the cultural and political prospects of the Hindu right wing in India tremendously.

Updated On : 9th Jan, 2018


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