MUMBAI: The violence at Bhima-Koregaon has proved instrumental in bringing forth the gruesome face of Maharashtra yet again.

Bhima-Koregaon has pointed out the extent to which the poison of casteism has spread in this state that chants the names of Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar. In this state of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s, the Ambedkarite public is still treated like second-class citizens.

The signs of this have been visible time and again through 57 years of the history of the state. Whether it is the one village – one well campaign, or the roar of Dalit Panther; whether it is the fight for the Namantar movement or the implementation of the Mandal Aayog, Riddles, the Ramabai Nagar massacre, the atrocities at Khairlanji or Kharda have repeatedly indicated the obstacles on the path to equality. Bhima-Koregaon is yet another alarming stage in this conflict.

To begin with, the attack on the Ambedkarites at Bhima-Koregaon on the 1st of January 2018, was neither spontaneous nor out of the blue. There is sufficient proof to conclusively show that it was the result of an entirely pre-meditated plan.

The 1818 battle at Bhima-Koregaon gained social significance when Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar visited the Vijay Stambha (war memorial) in 1927. Babasaheb’s conjecture that the monument would prove to be an effective symbol in arousing self-confidence in the minds of the Mahar community , proved absolutely accurate. Since then, activists of the Dalit and Bahujan movement have been paying regular visits to this monument. For the last 25 years, a crowd of about a lakh gathers here on the 1st of January and the place is transformed into a modern pilgrimage site of sorts.

The media in the state or the country has never taken much notice of this phenomenon. But that has not deterred the Ambedkarites in their faith. Instead, their will has grown stronger.

This year, the battle completes 200 years. To commemorate the bicentenary, the progressive groups in the state organized the ‘Elgaar yatra’ (a state-wide march) that would conclude on the 31st of December 2017 at the Shaniwar Wada,Pune.

The roots of the current violence at Bhima-Koregaon lie here. The radical Brahmins of Pune could not digest the fact that Dalits were about to host a function at the Shaniwar Wada and that the Peshwas were bound to be criticized as part of it. The heirs of the Peshwas were manipulated into openly declaring their disagreement. At first, the Dalit leaders in BJP were of the opinion that the function had to do with Dalit pride and therefore warranted their participation. But the Brahminical forces in the party silenced these leaders and began to oppose the function.

The BJP is in power in the Pune municipality. All the MLAs belong to the BJP. The Brahman Mahasangh demanded to know how in such a city, dare anyone organize an anti-Peshwai function, and began to holler their disapproval. Soon the BJP mayor of Pune, Mukta Tilak got up to her tricks and began to send signals that the permission granted by the municipality could be cancelled. Their supporters pronounced that political speeches could not be made in the meeting at the Shaniwar Wada.

There was yet another thorn in the BJP’s side. They had found out that Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula and the newly elected MLA from Gujarat Jignesh Mewani were going to be present there. Jignesh Mewani’s victory in Gujarat has come after beating all the conspiracies of the BJP and has proved to be a snub to both Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. Since the Dalit flogging incident in Una, he has emerged as the hero of Ambedkarites in the country.

Members of the BJP were miffed because the function at the Shaniwar Wada had the Gujrat elections in its background. They were feeling particularly prickly that Jignesh Mewani was about to speak critically of Modi in the land of the Peshwas, in their very abode. The controversial student leader Umar Khalid’s presence simply added fuel to the fire. In fact, those in power wanted to cancel the function altogether. But when that didn’t seem possible, they resorted to underhanded practices.

It was from the last week of December that these instigative activities were being spread on social media. Today, Prakash Ambedkar has blamed the fanatic Hindu leader Manohar a.k.a Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote for the violence at Bhima-Koregaon. Both of them are known for their provocative speeches and for instigating riots. They have been accused of the same in the past as well.

Reliable sources say that information proving Bhide was responsible for the riots in Meeraj, exists in the police records. There are many crimes registered against both of them. They are known to provoke young men of the Bahujan society, especially the Maratha community for selfish gains. For this, Bhide relies on conservation of forts while Ekbote’s weapon is Hindutva. They are both connected to the Sangh Parivar.

In fact, Ekbote is former corporator of the BJP. Right from Narendra Modi to Uddhav Thackeray or Deevendra Fadnavis, all kinds of senior leaders have turned up at functions organized by Sambhaji Bhide. Truth be told, the two of them could have been behind bars a long time ago. But some leaders of the NCP have saved them time and again for their political gains and as a result, emboldened them.

Followers of these two fanatics had organized several meetings around the area of Bhima-Koregaon before the 1st of January, sources say.The Samadhi of Sambhaji Maharaj as well as of the person who performed his last rites, Govind Gopal Gaikwad has been built in Vadhu Budruk, a nearby village. This Samadhi has been a source of dispute at the local level for the last two years. The local villagers say that these Hindutva leaders took advantage of this dispute to fuel the Maratha versus Dalit sentiment. There are also witnesses who corroborate the fact that the attack on Ambedkarites at Bheema-Koregaon was a pre-planned one.

For all these years, no one has bothered the Ambedkarites who visit. In fact, the local shopkeepers were happy to see a spike in their businesses when lakhs of people turned up. But for the first time this year, a bandh was carried out on the 1st of January. Stone-pelting and arson were well-organized. According to the journalist Datta Kanavte, these stones had been gathered in a particular place well before time. The attackers carried saffron flags.

How could the police possibly not have known about this before hand? Had the Intelligence Bureau of the state police been asleep? The police should have recognized the tensions at Bhima-Koregaon and implemented some preventive measures. But unfortunately, that was not done and divisive and violent forces in the society won.

The violence at Bhima-Koregaon was not a clash of two groups. It was a pre-planned attack by the Hindutvavadi goons on the Dalits. Certain Brahminical forces had instigated few young men of the Maratha society for selfish political gain. The point is, why did the government remain oblivious to it all? Did a particular group among those in power want this caste conflict? Did they hope to profit from the fact that communal or casteist polarization in society can prove beneficial during the upcoming elections?

Both the BJP as well as other parties have always resorted to such polarization. But here, we cannot afford to forget that both Bhide and Ekbote have been booked under the Attrocities Act and both of them belong to the Hindutva family. The BJP is blaming Sharad Pawar, Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid. Firstly, there is no proof that Sharad Pawar has anything to do with any of this. Secondly, supporters of Pawar have made efforts to establish peace at the local level. This time, even the Sambhaji Brigade and Maratha Morcha has assumed a peaceful position and carried out their responsibility. This is crucial on the background of Maratha unrest in state.

Thus the accusations made by the BJP hold no ground. On the other hand, if Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid did make provocative statements why was action not taken against them in Pune itself? The truth is clear enough. The BJP is simply targeting these individuals to shift blame. Ramdas Athavle, a minister with the BJP, has himself dismissed these accusations against Mevani.

The attack on Ambedkarites at Bhima-Koregaon was bound to trigger a reaction across the state. One can gauge how horrific the attack was if one speaks to the victims. The Ambedkarites were seething with anger. And the government as well as the police made one big mistake. After the attack, they pressurized the media so that news of it didn’t spread. T.V channels that otherwise spare no opportunity to report breaking news reported nothing till the evening.

When there is an attempt to cover up a piece of news this way, rumors are born. Exactly that happened. Haphazard, arbitrary and false news spread and the Ambedkarites across the state became furious. It was important that the media was careful not to incite riots. But that does not imply camouflaging the truth. Most channels have reported the Bhima-Koregaon attacks as ‘a clash between two groups’ or as ‘pandemonium’.

This was simply untrue. This infuriated the young men in the village and they took to the streets. Lakhs of Ambedkarites that paid a visit to Bhima-Koregaon were also present all across the state. But the media did not take the trouble to actually pay them a call and try and understand their experience.

Consequently, these young men made the government and the media their target. This discrimination on the part of the media is not new. The upper class, upper caste media has always had the same attitude towards the movements of the Dalits, OBCs and minorities. I can cite examples of this all the way from the Namantar movement to the atrocities of the cow vigilantes. The first victim of the violence is blamed. If the media had played a more mature role, the outburst could have been avoided.

All these events culminated in the Maharashtra bandh the next day.

Since it was Prakash Ambedkar who had called for a bandh, it was also him that was given its credit. But we must keep one thing in mind, even if the leaders had hesitated, the Ambedkarite young men were so angry that it was bound to have resulted in a spontaneous bandh. An important thing to note is that even Ramdas Athavle’s party workers were on the streets that day. Even they seemed aware that no one is going to be able to thwart this fire now.

During this bandh, there was some violence in Mumbai as well as outside. One cannot justify violence of any sort. Ambedkarites must always resort to Buddha’s peaceful path. But one needs to also make an effort to analyze the reasons behind this violence. There were a lot of educated young men among those who took to the streets. They are plagued by the realization that even if they are educated, even if they have a job, the society refuses to treat them with dignity and respect. The economic circumstances of a particular section among the Dalits have improved as a result of reservation. But their social as well as cultural position seems unchanged.

These young men are using Bhima-Koregaon as an opportunity to assert their rights from the society. They want an equal share in all the resources in society. These include economic, social, cultural as well as historical resources. If they do not receive an appropriate response, similar outbursts are likely even in the future.

Social harmony is never accidental. It must be systematically strived for. But these efforts seem absent in a society bedeviled by politics. The politics of elections will not address the issue of equality either. It is the upper-caste that must accept its mistakes and restore the rights that the Dalits and Bahujans have been denied. Else, conflict is inevitable.

(Nikhil Wagle is former editor of Mahanagar and IBN Lokmat)