The violent clash, allegedly between saffron waving groups and Dalits that erupted during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Bhima-Koregaon battle of 1 January 1818 and resulted in the death of a 28-year-old, is an untoward incident that calls for both condemnation and introspection. Dalit anger stemming from what the community perceives as a deliberate attempt to mute Dalit pride is understandable and the Maharashtra bandh to highlight Dalit angst is, to a degree, justifiable. But that is where the truth begins and ends; everything else is suspect: the symbolism of the Bhima Koregaon battle, the intention of the motley crowd of leaders gathered there to ostensibly support the Dalit cause and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s endorsement of the protest. Furthermore, the violence accompanying the bandh (hundreds of taxpayer funded BEST buses damaged) represents an unacceptable facet of public protest in India.
To begin with, the details of the Bhima-Koregaon battle that pitted a British contingent (supposedly with a predominance of Mahars) against the Peshwa Maratha army are too sketchy to merit a definitive interpretation. Inconsistencies in the subtext militate against this being a pristine direct confrontation between Dalits and Brahmins. Both sides comprised native soldiers of all castes and creeds (the Peshwa army too had Dalits) and the outcome was indecisive by most accounts. More importantly, however, it was a clash that represented a tussle between an indigenous polity (the Marathas) and a colonial British power. Therefore, to champion a cause that furthers a subaltern agenda at the expense of a broader national identity denotes poor judgement; it may prove counterproductive. Dalits are better off highlighting less controversial but more powerful and effective symbols of their identity like the valour of Govind Gopal Mahar (Gaikwad), who defied the Mughal diktat and performed the last rites of the slain Maratha ruler Sambhaji in 1689. Govind Mahar was killed by the Mughals for his audacity, but honoured with a resting place opposite Sambhaji’s tomb by the Marathas. This legend too has its naysayers, but overall, it is a narrative that showcases a Dalit courage and magnanimity that supersedes caste suppression; a positive attribute that empowers the Dalit movement with rectitude and dignity.
In attendance at an “Elgar Parishad”, commemorating the Bhima-Koregaon battle at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on 31 December (prior to the riots) were student leaders Jignesh Mevani and Umer Khalid (both now charged with disrupting the peace by provocative speeches). For people who don’t know, Umer Khalid is the JNU student notorious for raising the infamous slogan “Bharat tere tukde honge, Inshallah, Inshallah” (India, you will be broken into pieces) at a JNU protest last year. It is better that the Dalit movement disassociates itself from such anti-nationalist elements.
After tasting some success by its casteist electoral campaign in Gujarat, the Congress party is attempting to replicate its success by extending this divisive strategy across India. Responding to this controversy, a Congress leader remarked, “Atrocities are being inflicted on Dalits since the last three and a half years, since BJP came to power in the Centre.” And Rahul Gandhi charged: “A central pillar of the RSS/BJP’s fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohith Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance.” The truth is that the BJP/RSS, over the last three-four decades, has been making sustained efforts to co-opt Dalits into the mainstream via several initiatives (Dalit priests in temples) and confidence building gestures that have resulted in competent Dalits like Ramnath Kovind occupying the highest post in the land. The current shenanigans have one explicit motive: to derail the RSS/BJP’s thrust for social equanimity by instilling unwarranted distrust and driving a wedge between Dalits and other Hindus: a blueprint for “Breaking India”, as suggested in the book by the same name (Rajiv Malhotra, Aravindan Neelakandan; Amaryllis; 2011).
For people like Umer Khalid, fuelling such dissension takes them one step closer to their vision of “Bharat Tere Tukde honge,” and for the Congress party, its goal of reclaiming political power becomes more feasible; forget about the fact that it comes at the cost of “Breaking India”.
All right-thinking Indians including Dalits must be wary.
Vivek Gumaste is a US based academic and political commentator.