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Movements as Politics

Bhima Koregaon in the Times of Hindutva

Anagha Ingole ( teaches at the Department of Political Science, Tripura University.

The Dalits do not celebrate the victory of the British or for that matter even the defeat of the Peshwas. What they do celebrate is their own entry into history, which was denied to them for centuries, and what they assert, thereby, is the possibility of not being reduced to the underground ascribed to them by the caste system. The violence against them at Koregaon Bhima is a manifestation of the current contestation between homogenising Hindutva and its dissenting narratives. In turn, the Dalits manage to defeat political Hindutva through their movements.

On the first day of 2018, 200 years after the third Anglo–Maratha war to commemorate which the obelisk at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra was erected by the British, 91 years after Babasaheb Ambedkar declared it a symbol of Mahar valour and 73 years after independence from the British, some nationalists have realised that the obelisk is in fact a symbol of British conquest. And that, celebrating “anything” to do with it is an anti-national act.

Some scholars have since waxed eloquent about how the celebration at Bhima Koregaon by the Dalits is a case of misreading an imperial conquest as a “then” non-existent anti-Brahminism struggle. They add that, in fact, those reading it as a battle for equality are delving into a myth. Others have conceded, ridiculously enough, that there are two histories depending on who is the reader—the Marathas or the Mahars—and that both the histories must coexist and so will the conflict.

It is incorrect to see the violence unleashed against the gathering at Koregaon Bhima or the Vadhu Budruk peace gathering as being about contested history or anti-imperialist nationalism. There are numerous monuments erected by the British across the length and breadth of this country, which are a much stronger mark of their conquest than any war memorials. The railway network is one such. Contestations over history are, if not always, in this case certainly a product of the present. The contestation here is a product, not of Dalits reading a different history but reading their own history and claiming it. Otherwise, there is no logical explanation as to why it should take such a long time for the anxieties of these self-appointed nationalists to come to a boil.

The Dalits do not celebrate the victory of the British or for that matter even the defeat of the Peshwas (for it is known that they first offered to fight for the Peshwa’s side and their offer was declined). What they do celebrate is their own entry into history, which was denied to them for centuries and what they assert, thereby, is the possibility of not being reduced to the underground ascribed to them by the caste system. The obelisk at Koregaon has 22 Mahar names, but from every single Raynak Mahar who defended Raigad for Shivaji to each Sunita the scavenger, who became the first Bhikku under Buddha these entries are retrieved, recognised and celebrated. So let us not reject as mere myths, what is a genuine fact: the potential of these real actors in history to provide at least an anchor for such possibilities, if not pride or dignity.

Contesting the Present

The violence at Koregaon Bhima however is very much a contestation about the present or rather a manifestation of the current contestation between homogenising Hindutva and its dissenting narratives. The homogenising Hindutva project of the current regime at once seeks to reject, however superficially and unsuccessfully, any fault lines within the Hindu order and at the same time stigmatises anyone contesting it as “anti-national.” This project rests on two broad premises. Premise one is what we have seen since 2015 in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Samajik Samrasta Abhiyan where it exhorted its workers to a sahbhoj (inter-dining) with all castes, including the Scheduled Castes (SCs), and the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Hindu Mitra Parivar programme to forge an undivided Hindu order. The second premise is that of the Muslim other who must be disciplined into Hindutva nationalism. As a result, there is no similar social outreach towards the Muslims who are an explicit other in this narrative. The outreach to Muslims (which begins only in 2016) is at best political, based on crude vote arithmetic. This form of outreach focuses only on governance and takes the shape of progress panchayats and minority scholarships, etc. The Muslim thus is a subject of the state and not the nation.

This enforced inclusion (the first premise) and exclusion (the second premise) are constitutive necessities for the narrative to hold together.

Over the past few years when vigilantism and mob violence have become respectable in service of this enforced inclusion and exclusion, the only force that has been able to give a credible and concerted rebuttal to it on the streets is that of the Dalits. The Rohith Vemula movement, the Una movement and now the Bhima Koregaon movement have shown us nationwide mobilisations built on a narrative that contests the homogenising Hindutva agenda that tries to make invisible the Dalit question. What is the relation of the Dalit to the current Hindu order? BJP leaders, blindfolded by their own narrative, continuously reject the role of caste-based hierarchies in any of these discontents. This becomes clear once we look at the contestations at the heart of all of these movements.

The Rohith Vemula movement had at its heart the unease of Hindutva for the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and its activities. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) started gnashing its teeth because the ASA screened a movie that explained the communal riots of Shamli and Muzzafarnagar as part of the electoral campaign of the BJP in the 2013 Uttar Pradesh polls. The movie, they argued, was anti-Hindu. How institutional fury was brought down upon the ASA members following this is well-documented, but the major defence (if it can be called one) from the BJP side was to seek erasure at two levels—first, to deny that it was a Dalit issue and then later on, when things went out of their hands to deny that Rohith was Dalit at all. The immediate problem was not the burning of the Manusmriti, etc, but the questioning of, what I have called, premise two—the otherness of the Muslim. In the ABVP–BJP’s understanding, the ASA is harmful not only because it divides the Hindu population but also because it questions this second premise.

Challenge of Una

In the case of Una, what we saw was a physically coercive Hindutva—the cow protection vigilantes were making the rounds of the streets to punish the beef eaters who are by definition for them, the non-Hindus. The message was clear: non-compliers would be punished, even physically punished. The assumption of impunity, which the cow vigilantes have largely enjoyed in the case of Muslims, however, was challenged in the case of the Dalits of Una. The carcasses of dead cattle in front of the government offices of Una were again a challenge not to the second but the first premise of the Hindutva narrative. The shape that the Una movement took thereon, demanding land as dignity (asmita), not inter-dining and photo ops, hit hard on the Hindutva conception of samajik samrasta. The BJP, which insisted on offering cosmetic brotherhood to the Ambedkarites seeking nothing less than dignity, learnt its lesson some months later in the form of Jignesh Mevani’s victory.

For Koregaon Bhima the argument invoked was that of the “anti-nationalism” —of celebrating on the side of the British. The dominant Maratha versus Mahar projection of the violence is insufficient because it misses the larger frame of this basic conflict at the heart of Hindutva unease. No matter how confused the scholars are, both the stone pelters and the Dalit youth who came down on the streets against it understand quite clearly what the conflict is about. It is about trying to subsume all the narratives that do not conform to the Hindutva project.

Political Hindutva has used different methods. For example, the method of denial in the case of Rohith and of coercion in the case of Una and now the appeal to sedition in the case of Bhima Koregaon. The Dalit movement has defeated the Hindutva brigade in all three battles. And it is in the light of these confrontations that the Dalit groups and farmers’ unions under Prakash Ambedkar have rightly identified their conflict as a conflict with the “New Peshwai,” the neo-Brahminism which can ally with the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to come to power and orchestrate its homogenising Hindutva through actors not directly traceable to itself.

Defeat of Political Hindutva

The answer to how the Dalits manage to defeat political Hindutva lies in movements. The Dalits have constantly been in movements—from the Namantar (renaming of Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar) andolan (movement) to that against the Khairlanji massacre, with the participation surging since the coming to power of the BJP. This has led to an impressively strong network of organisations and individuals but also, crucially, public education about caste. The youth that came on the street for the protests after the Bhima Koregaon violence has learnt about caste not from books, newspaper articles, or television debates only, but primarily in movements. This, however, is not limited to the Dalits. Those who are not actively part of the movement are also forced to witness what participatory caste-based movements look like, what they achieve and how they achieve it by what they see on the streets. This makes it impossible to deny that the contestation exists. The Dalits are winning their battles because they are once again making their politics the politics of mass movements. A lot has been written on the reactionary responses to these movements in the media. One dominant question seems to be “is there Dalit oppression at all?” One can of course answer this question with the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data or that from the complaints filed under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of AtrocitiesAct but for every such question there is an image of the Una carcasses brought to the public eye during the Una resistance.

This image is both the power and effect of the movement. Even those who despise Dalit assertion cannot argue that there is one overarching Hindu subject available to be mobilised by the Hindutva brigade. Moreover, the power of movements is dynamic and cumulative, improving possibilities as they build on past efforts. Some proof of this lies in the fact that the state’s response to the Maharashtra bandh was a complete departure from the response to the Rohith Vemula protests where the state unleashed its might on the protesters. This can thus be seen as the state, in effect, if not in intention, legitimising the Dalit response.

Another important reason for the success of these movements has been the democratising effect that they have had on the otherwise highly centralised and hegemonic discourse and debate on what constitutes nationalism and the nation. The Dalit movements have successfully not allowed the anti-national charge to stick, in a way that the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student movement could not. Moreover, by the very fact of making Dalit counter-narratives so public and visible, they have exposed the hypocrisy of the homogeneous Hindu narrative in their New Peshwai articulation. These movements are thus becoming spaces where political articulations that the country objectively needs and is subjectively craving for can be openly imagined and reflected upon. This space invites more people to its politics and that in turn further democratises the movement.

These movements are thus a means for education, agitation and organisation of Dalits and progressives, and have made a serious dent in the first premise of the Hindutva project. It has important lessons for forces that seek to challenge the second premise of political Hindutva. This, first and foremost, means an organised opposition by Muslims to the Muslim exclusion, not in television debates and speeches by Muslim leaders, but out in the streets, the only space left in the times of Hindutva where the people still represent themselves.

For, it is not the Dalit political leaders who represent Dalit politics in India today, but the Dalit movement.

Updated On : 16th Jan, 2018


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