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Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 12:37 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 1:44 AM (IST)

Dalit fury: Politics sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind

Chandrakant Naidu
Dalit fury: Politics sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind
Anger on streets: Protesters burn a motorcycle in Mumbai.

Chandrakant Naidu in Bhopal

A provocative title of a Marathi booklet issued by the organisers of the 200th anniversary of Bhima Koregaon battle says: ‘Bhima Koregaon has served up a lesson…. bury the neo-Peshwai in the graveyard.’ The protagonists venerate the victory of the British army’s Mahar unit over a much larger force of the Peshwas. The message is loud and clear: If the BJP can selectively visit history to pursue a divisive agenda, the others can pay back in the same coin. Most political parties have lately tended to harp on the past to gear up for future. Even the progressive Left parties have sought to stay relevant through the tactic. The booklet invoked emotive content to drive home arguments against caste elitism using Peshwas as representatives.

For 200 years Dalits have been celebrating the event without causing any upheaval. Since 1927 BR Ambedkar began using it to express Dalits solidarity against caste discrimination. This year a new level of hostility was introduced to galvanise Dalits as a rallying point for a scattered Opposition. Most speakers at the rally used the platform to charge the Union and state governments with anti-Dalit disposition.

Pro-government elements see the Mahars, who fought for the British, as traitors. The pro-Dalit group cites instances of ill-treatment meted out to the community: one was untouchability for which Dalits were kept out of the Peshwa army. They were required to hang clay pitchers by their necks as spittoons. They were also expected to hang a broom by their waist to ensure the road was cleaned after them. Today the venom against Peshwas might appear irrational. But the BJP’s apathy towards violence against Dalits has made it politically imperative for a large spectrum of groups to join hands in protest. 

The Maharashtra government did make preventive arrests to rein in troublemakers as the opposition made its intentions clear. But violence triggered by an unrelated event kept the state on the boil for three days. Elements from both the ruling party and opposition seem to be interested in keeping the temperature up for some more time. Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and JNU student leader Umar Khalid were denied permission to address a rally in Mumbai. An FIR was registered against them for inciting passions.

On the other hand, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the two key members of the Sangh Parivar, said to be behind the violence on the first day, remained out of lawenforcers’ reach and sight. The rustic looks of 85-year-old Sambhaji Bhide, a staunch Hindutva activist, can be deceptive. He is a man with no house and wears no footwear, but enjoys immense support among youth as Bhide Guruji. A gold medallist post-graduate in physics and a former professor, Bhide was booked in 2008 for inciting his followers to ransack cinema halls over the release of Jodhaa Akbar. Narendra Modi had met Bhide in Sangli 2014 during his Lok Sabha campaign. Bhide has also enjoyed the admiration of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Milind Ekbote is also a hard-core HIndutva protagonist and has several cases of rioting pending against him. 

This time the two are accused of inciting desecration of the grave of Dalit hero, Govind Gopal, at Vadhu a couple of days before the Bhima Koregaon rally. Nearly 50 villagers were booked and nine arrested. The Mahar community claims Govind Gopal defied Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to perform the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj. A tombstone was built to perpetuate his memory. The upper caste group rejects Mahars’ claims about Govind Gopal. 

With assembly polls lined up in eight states, including in three BJP-ruled states, Dalits would remain a key issue till the 2019 general election. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which go to the polls later this year, are among top five with highest rate of atrocities against Dalits. There has been a steep climb in the rate of atrocities against Dalits in Chhattisgarh too.

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