Dalit unrest -was it really Dalit vs Maratha or Dalit vs Hindutva/BJP??

Nagpur: Two historical facts, and heritage of two great personalities of the state, have to be understood to really get to the root of the recent Dalit ‘Elgar’ ( loosely translated means call for strife ) of Maharashtra.

The valiant but unfortunate Dalits
200 years ago, in a town near Pune the British army fought a war against Bajirao Peshwa- two and defeated him. The ‘British’ soldiers fighting against the Peshwas ( Brahmin Ministers of Bhonsles who later became rulers themselves) were ironically mostly ‘Mahars’ – a dominant caste among scheduled castes of today. So valiantly did they fight that the British formed a separate Mahar regiment.

The Mahars, natural ‘soldiers’ were recruited by the Maratha king Shivaji and his son Sambhaji Raje as scouts and fort guards in their army. They were also heavily recruited by the East India Company which first ruled over India. At one point they formed one-sixth of the Company’s Bombay Army. The Bombay Army favoured Mahar troops for their bravery and loyalty to their flag and also because they could be relied upon during the Anglo Maratha wars. They achieved many successes, including in the Battle of Koregaon, mentioned above. This battle was commemorated by an obelisk, known as the Koregaon pillar, which featured on the crest of the Mahar Regiment until Indian Independence.


(Tragically, once India was taken away from the East India Company and the ‘Queen’s’ rule came, a British Commander called Lord Roberts, who became Commander in chief of the Indian army in November 1885 brought in the Class concept in the army. The Mahars were not included in these class regiments, and it was notified that the Mahars, among with some other classes, were no longer to be recruited in the Indian army. The Mahar troops, who included 104 Commissioned officers and a host of NCOs and Sepoys were demobilised. This event was regarded by the Mahars as a betrayal of their loyalty by a government they had served for over a hundred years. )

Regardless of this later fall from favour, Ambedkar followers have been commemorating this day since 200 years as ‘Shourya Din’. For the first time this year, they were questioned by some Hindutva elements and Peshwa fans as to why they should celebrate victory of British over local rulers? This celebration of bravery was sought to be branded as an ‘anti national’ act. ( This is a blatant case of selective memory of history. Both farmers and dalits were badly exploited and tortured by the arrogant Pune Peshwas; no wonder then that when they got the chance just 200 ‘Mahars’ were able to defeat a larger Peshwa army. It was their day of revenge!)

The second misconstrued ‘fact’
Vudhu Budruk village, about 30 km northeast of Pune, is a village that has the ‘samadhi’ of a Mahar called Govind Gaikwad. It is widely believed that Gaikwad, a 17th century Dalit , defied Emperor Aurangzeb’s orders and carried out the last rites of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, Shivaji Maharaj’s son who was tortured to death in 1689. This village has a smaller samadhi of Gaikwad next to the samadhi of Sambhaji. On the night of December 29, a board that was placed at the samadhi of Gaikwad which described him as the one who had gone against Aurangzeb to carry out the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj was removed and the shrine was desecrated. The ‘fact’ of Gaikwad’s deed was refuted by another version which said Marathas, kith and kin of Sambhaji had only carried out his last rites not Gaikwad.

The timing of this desecration is suspect because it was known that in two days over a lakh Scheduled caste people would visit the area to visit Koregaon. So some mischievious miscreants sought to set the stage for a Dalit – Maratha confrontation.

Who would benefit by pitting the two against each other?
Marathas and Dalits form the two largest sections of Marathi people. Marathas, since independence have been with the Congress party and later NCP formed by Pawar – himself a Maratha. Getting them into the BJP would be difficult. The Dalits have been largely a splintered group because of lack of effective leadership right since he demise of Ambedkar. They follow various and many leaders. Right now Ramdas Athavale is with ruling NDA and BJP, Modi specifically , has been hopeful of wooing and winning this large mass of people to their party fold. Building a huge memorial to Ambedkar, bestowing the Bharat Ratna on him have been two moves to this very end. RSS, still very much Brahmin dominated has also been wooing Dalits recently.

BJP forgets that Maharashtra is the land of Phule – Ambedkar
Getting dalits into the Hindutva, and RSS-BJP fold would be a travesty of history. It was the centuries of torture by the upper castes, specifically Brahmins under the devious caste system that had given rise to Mahatma Jyotiba Phule’s crusade against casteism. For the first time he sought education for dalits and OBCs – also women of all castes including Brahmins – whom he called the ‘fifth and most down trodden caste.’ He first challenged the Hindu religious scriptures, which were all in Sanskrit, and asked his followers to liberate themselves from slavery to them.

Phule never challenged Hinduism itself though – this act was left to Dr. Ambedkar who followed Phule and was his greatest admirer.

He had given an exhortation to lakhs of dalits – “you may have been born as slaves, but you will die liberated!” He was determined to give up Hinduism in his lifetime and make all his caste people follow him in the act. He did this finally at the Dhamma Parivartan ground in Nagpur along with 10 lakh of his people.

To incite them back to the Hindutva fold seems not just impossible but in a way foolish.

But this is exactly what the ruling party seems to be attempting to do in Maharashtra, and soon other states. They have been supremely confident that they have upper castes and OBCs in their fold, but for their dream of a ‘Hindu homeland’ the Dalits also must be embraced. It also makes electoral sense and a good winning strategy.

Gujarat election outcome has the saffron brigade running scared
Within the short span of a few years, the man BJP sought to derisively write off as a ‘Pappu’ has shown his genius in social engineering.

First he tried and succeeded with the ‘Maha gatbhandan’ in Bihar – where all ‘secular’ anti BJP parties could together defeat Modi. (That Nitish is back in NDA’s fold is another story – and an act he may soon repent!)

That experience made Rahul Gandhi much more confident of trying out a Patel – OBC – Dalit front in Gujarat, which succeeded quite spectacularly. It helped that Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani are all young men. (Rahul himself may be on the wrong side of 40 but constant name calling as ‘Yuvraj’ has helped him establish and retain a youthful image!) The spectre of Marathas/ Patels, OBCs, Dalits and Muslims uniting under the Congress umbrella must be a scary one indeed!

Mewani, the SC leader may not have hit headlines as much as Hardik, but his impact is increasing and spreading. Specially among the rudderless Dalits.

Thus, the Maharashtra Dalit unrest in sought to be pinned on him, because he made a robust – not rabid though – speech from Shaniwar Wada in Pune, the bastion of the Peshwas!

Hindutva forces, allegedly Bhide Guruji and Ekbote, got active simultaneously, almost ensuring that the Dalits got agitated and violent, so that blame could be pinned on Mewani. Complaints were lodged and FIRs were sought to be registered against Mewani and JNU leader Khalid who were supposed to have told dalits to ‘come on the street and retaliate’ .

Media roped in to spread the canard
For two days after the unrest began that put even Mumbai on the boil – and two youth lost their lives TVchannels – like Republic and Times Now – tried hard to generate heat against Mewani and Congress party, but did not quite succeed. Not where it mattered at least.

Dalit organisations continue to claim that the Hindutva outfits like Hindu Ekta Aghadi and Shivraj Pratishthan headed by Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide were involved in the violence while BJP and government officials have gone blue in their faces claiming that the violence was due to Mewani and Khalid’s speeches. But their accusation is not sticking. Nor are the Marathas convinced. Sharad Pawar has blamed the CM fair and square for not being able to manage the situation.

“Despite knowing that it was their 200th anniversary and over 2 lakh people were supposed to congregate at Koregaon why was more precaution not taken?” He demanded to know.

Triple talaq bill too stalled in Rajya Sabha
The two events that were supposed to catapult BJP in the eyes of Dalits and Muslims both stand exposed and ruined now.

The triple talaq Bill was supposed to have been BJP’s big ‘liberating’ move on behalf of Muslim Women. (Though the credit for overturning triple talaq lies solely with the SC.) It breezed through the Lok Sabha where BJP has ‘brute majority’ but it was stalled in the R.S. where parties like Left and Trinamool said ” not without debate and amendments” and Congress had a ready excuse of Maharashtra trouble for not allowing any business to be conducted.

Time really to stop and introspect for BJP and ‘fringe elements’ which are really their second and third armies.

You cannot go on with lynchings, torture, boot licking on one hand and hope to plaster it over with building mammoth statues and giving sentimental speeches.

The India of today is young, watchful and more educated than before. Also impatient… and beginning to get aggressive too. Unfortunately.

—Sunita Mudaliar (Executive Editor)