By Ashima Makhija
1st January 2018 marked the bicentenary anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon near Pune. The battle, in which a small force of Dalit soldiers defeated the Peshwa Marathas, has become a symbol of Dalit assertion and the vision of an egalitarian society. However, this year’s commemoration was marred by violence and riots. On Monday, some people, reportedly with saffron flags, pelted stones at cars and torched vehicles proceeding towards the village.
Clad in saffron, the Hindu supremacists appear to have instigated another violent caste-based conflict in the country. In the three days since then, the riots have spread to Pune, Aurangabad and Mumbai, and have crippled the state of Maharashtra.
Why Indians celebrate a British victory
On January 1, 1818, the last Anglo-Maratha war was fought at Koregaon along the banks of the Bhima River. Peshwa Baji Rao II, defeated in the Battle of Khadki near Pune on 5 November 1817, was being hotly pursued by the East India Company’s troops. On his way to Pune, he ran into an 800-strong Company force, wherein the Peshwa sent around 2,000 soldiers to attack the Company army. The EIC force was led by Francis Staunton. The Company troops fought for the whole day and forced the Peshwa’s troops to withdraw.
The battle came to symbolise Dalit pride because a large number of soldiers in the Company’s force were the Mahar Dalits (untouchables). On the other hand, the Peshwas represented the Brahmanical end of the Indian social spectrum. The Peshwa rulers imposed the worst and most pathetic conditions on untouchables. They were ordered to hang a pot around their necks to prevent their spit from falling on the ground, and to wear a broom around their waists to sweep the ground as they moved so they would not “pollute” it. The defeat of the Peshwa symbolised the defeat of a brutal and repressive regime. Every year, several Dalits celebrate the British victory as the first step in their continuing struggle against caste-based oppression.
The ferocious and fatal protests
This year’s celebration once again revealed the fault lines between the Dalits and Marathas. On the outskirts of the village, ‘right-wing’ groups opposed the Dalit celebrations saying they cannot observe a ‘British’ victory. The clash between ‘right-wing’ groups and Dalits turned violent, ultimately resulting in the death of Rahul Fatangale. Several others were injured. Protesters also blocked traffic on the Pune expressway and rail tracks.
On Tuesday, Protests against the attack broke out in Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and other cities in Maharashtra. The protestors took to the streets of Mumbai where they shouted slogans, blocked traffic and even vandalised buses in several areas of the city. Railway and road traffic were hampered in Mumbai. On Wednesday, a bandh was called by the Dalit leaders. Many feel that the violent protests are a grim reminder of underlying Dalit oppression in the state.
As the state still simmers with violence, an FIR has been filed against two men — Milind Ekbote from Samast Hindu Aghadi and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan, for sparking these protests. Not surprisingly, both leaders have a strong conservative background and have been involved in similar episodes of forcing caste pride, in the past.
Known as ‘Bhide Guruji’ by his followers, 85-year-old Sambhaji Bhide joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a ‘pracharak’ and later founded an organisation called “Shiv Pratishthan Hindustan.” The organisation focuses on spreading the teachings of and information on the life of Shivaji Maharaj and his son Sambhaji Maharaj.
56-year-old Milind Ekbote came into prominence by leading protests against Valentine’s Day celebrations in 2007. He has 12 cases of rioting, trespassing and other charges against him, out of which he has been convicted in five, reports Mumbai Mirror.
The government’s response
The issue was raised in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. In the Lower House, Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge squarely blamed the RSS-affiliated groups for the violence. Mr Kharge also targeted the Prime Minister for “keeping mum whenever atrocities against Dalits occur.” He also demanded a statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a judicial inquiry headed by a Supreme Court judge. Along similar lines, Trinamool Congress member Saugata Roy blamed the Maharashtra government for not doing enough to prevent the clashes.
Perhaps in retaliation, Jalna MP Raosaheb Dhanve (BJP) came in support of the Devendra Fadnavis government. “These clashes are orchestrated with an ulterior motive to undermine the development brought by the State government,” he said.
These protests and the weak response from the government show how caste continues to dominate Indian politics. It seems, although the world has stepped into a new year of optimism and promises, India has taken a step backwards, deeper into its regressive mentality.
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