Bhima-Koregaon: Glimmerings of a Maratha-Dalit-Bahujan Alliance Against Fascism
Examining the right wing (including the media) criticism of the Bhima Koregaon movement
NEW DELHI: The Dalits are angry again.
Another incident of caste violence and atrocity was registered in Maharashtra. This time Dalits were protesting against the planned attack by the Hindutvadi rightwing groups on an event, organized to commemorate the ‘victory of Mahar’s’ over the mighty Peshwas at the battle of Bhima-Koregaon in 1818.
Further, the protest was not restricted to the local area but garnered huge attention statewide and soon became an issue for national debate.
Within the Left-liberal circles there is a sense of appreciation and support to the Dalit cause however, on certain mainstream news channels there is a deliberate attempt to malign or belittle the struggle with flimsy criticisms. The allegations against the Dalit protests only reflect the upper caste brahmanical bias within the media and its insensitive attitude towards the Dalit problem.
First, there was an attempt to create an anti-Dalit stir by showcasing that the Bhima-Koregaon event has strong anti-Maratha moorings. The perpetrators of violence at the event site utilize the exiting social antagonism between the Mahars and the Maratha communities to flame the fire. The Dalits often face brutal caste oppression and discrimination from the dominant Marathas.
For a long now, the Dalits have started rejecting the social domination of the landed Marathas and utilized political and legal apparatuses against the cases of caste atrocities.Such challenges often create tensions between the two communities. It was framed that the Bhima-Koregaon episode is a caste centric mobilization of the Mahars, mainly to flag the Dalit aggression against the Marathas.
The rightwing conspired over this difference by attacking the people participating in the memorial event and tried to polarize the two communities more. It was assumed that the aggrieved Marathas in retaliation would become the militant flag bearers of Hindutva.
The rightwing conspirators forgot that outside the conflicting social milieu, the Dalits and the Marathas share a common political philosophy. Both the communities evoke Shivaji-Phule-Shahu and Ambedkar as the principle architects of Maharashtra’s political identity. Such allegiance with these icons often helps them to distance themselves for the rightwing political ideology to form a broader non-Brahmin alliance for social justice.
Also, both the communities are comrades in arms in their criticism against the Peshwas rule.
However, in the review of Koregaon violence, this context was systematically underplayed. The rightwing critics utilized the rhetoric that the Mahar soldiers allied with the British and therefore this memorial is celebration of imperialist victory over the indigenous Maratha rulers and therefore the opposition to the event can be justified. This strategy fizzled out in a very short period.
One of the dominant Maratha social organizations, the Sambhaji Brigade, has openly associated with the Bhima-Koregaon memorial celebration and described it as a heritage site for the people of Maharashtra. The Dalits and others celebrated this particular battle not for the victory of the British but for the defeat and complete dissemination of the Brahmanical Peshwa rule in Maharashtra.
Within the Dalit-Bahujan folklore the ‘Peshwayi’ often used as a slur or abuse to criticize an empire, which was extremely brutal and exploitative towards the non-Brahmin Castes (including Marathas), Women and the Dalits.
The battle of Bhima-Koregaon was seen as a historical event for the Dalits, as it ended a regime that forced them to live in one of the most brutal social systems.Against such sentimental attachment of the Dalits, the critics utilized the contemporary political categories of nationalism to make a hyper sense of the Bhima-Koregaon battle.
In 1818, the concepts of nation and imperialism were unknown as most of the battles were in between small kingdoms and the British were an influential party in those struggles. Importantly, in the last many years, the battle has gained a mythical stature within the Dalits’ reading of history as they celebrate it as a mark of their capacity and courage to change the course of modern Indian History.
The critics ignore the socio-psychological importance of the historical event in Dalits’ life and only flag a conservative hyper nationalist allegation against the event.
Secondly, the critics argued that this uproar is designed and sponsored by the Congress party in association with certain Naxal groups to disturb the law and order situation in Maharashtra. It was suggested that the speeches delivered by the ‘urban Naxals’ (Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid) are responsible for the Dalit unrest.
The critics tried to dubbed the Dalit protests as ‘anti-national’ by linking it with a public event organized in Pune on 31,, in which both the activists were present (along with prominent Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar). Such criticisms are untenable as it ignores the actual background in which the Dalit unrest has emerged.
The Ambedkarite civil society in Maharashtra has carved an independent space in the socio-cultural domain without directly attaching itself to the political fronts. The independent acts of Dalit resistance by several small and local Dalit groups makes the social sphere conflictual between the proponent of Brahmanical Hindu social order on the one hand and the defenders of social equality on the other.
In this Dalit civil society activism, there are numerous NGOs, cultural fronts, social cooperatives, Buddhists Faith Based Organizations and other self-motivated groups, which function along with many intellectual forums, social activists and students’ organizations to propagate the ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar.
These scattered bodies are creating their own alternative socio-cultural symbolism against Brahmanical hegemony and caste oppression at various social fronts. Most of these fronts are non-political and are sincerely engaged in social, cultural and educational activities.
The Dalits in Maharashtra are mobilized on various issues ranging from fighting everyday casteist slurs, to discrimination in academic spaces and government institutions, harassment and rape of Dalit women, social boycott by the upper caste elites in villages, non-payment of wages, social prejudices and exploitative customs and not to allow the victim to lodge an FIR against caste based violence.
Dalits are engulfed and burdened with various forms of caste atrocities and discrimination and only through various small and sporadic local struggles; they are contesting the persistent social injustices.
In parallel to its struggle for social justice, Dalits in Maharashtra have equally contributed in building alternative cultural and intellectual spaces. The massive public celebration of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in every important city of Maharashtra showcases that the Dalits are keen to become an integral part of mainstream social life.
The annual event at the Bhima-Koregoan is a similar act to assert their social and cultural freedom. It allows them to reimagine their location in the history as powerful community. The violent attack over such gathering by the Hindutva militants suggests that the rightwing political force is unable to accept the Dalits and their alternative vision of history.
Further, calling the massive Dalit response against the attack as a ‘Left-Naxal’ sponsored ‘anti-national’ uproar only showcases that the Brahmanical elites have deep suspicions and hatred against the Dalits. The militant Left or the Maoist has a very little presence in Maharashtra and it has no real capacity to influence the ideologically powerful Dalit social activism.
By attaching tags like ‘anti-national’or ‘Naxal’ to the Dalit protests, the critics tried to delegitimize the organic and independent Dalit movement and malign the robust Dalit civil society in Maharashtra.
It appears that both the populist right wing criticisms against the Dalit protest are just hyperbolic and hardly based on historical accounts or social facts. Importantly, some of the major news channels borrowed the same Hindutva rhetoric and played it constantly to build a negative image of the Dalit protest. However, such politically motivated propaganda failed to attract much support within the broader public and in contrast, the Dalit movement in Maharashtra has reemerged as a big challenger to the right wing’s political ambition.
It gathered wider support from other social forces too. The Bhima-Koregaon episode suggests that a formidable social alliance between Maratha-Dalit-Bahujan can be envisaged in order to defeat the Brahmanical-Fascist regime.
(Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor in the Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)