Bhima-Koregaon reminds us of our shameful pettiness as a nation

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 1/7/2018 6:25:38 PM

Two centuries ago, Bhima-Koregaon became the site of a memorial raised by the British to commemorate victory in the Anglo-Maratha war. The names of the heroes of the war included the Dalit Mahar soldiers, who were recruited by the British Indian army. A century ago, Bhimrao Ambedkar chose to use the narrative of the battle and described it as the struggle of Mahars against centuries' old Peshwa oppression. Depending on how caste oppression is viewed, Ambedkar's invocation of the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon to mobilise the socially oppressed communities against their own oppression and for joining the Indian freedom struggle is seen both as a myth and a historic reality, the lines between the two are blurred. The Mahars made no open declaration of their class struggle but joined the British Indian army for better job prospects but the tyrannical oppression of the Dalits under the Peshwa rule may have added to their motivation to fight. Whatever be the delicate and complex truth behind their inspiration, the undeniable fact was the deep-rooted caste based oppression and the increasing frustration against it.
Another century down the road, the site of Koregaon continues to highlight the caste based oppression. Earlier this week, a rally to commemorate its history, aimed at mobilizing Dalits around a memory of centuries of oppression, was attacked by the Hindutva goons resulting in violent protests. Public property was damaged and one person was killed, while many others were injured. Outraged at the violence, Dalit groups hit the streets across Maharashtra. A red faced BJP government did anything but damage control. It decided to pour fuel over the fire.
Instead of nailing the culprits, the government targeted Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani and student leader Khalid Umar. The two were batting for caste annihilation at the Bhima Koregaon commemoration, an annually held affair. There was not a whiff of incitement to violence or of challenging the Indian constitution. Yet, the police booked Mevani and Khalid for "inciting passions" between communities following a complaint by Hindutva activist, Akshay G Bikkad, who in fact, happened to be one of the leaders of the groups of people carrying saffron flags to assault Dalits in Bhima Koregaon. Hindu right wing goons accused of the violence were not arrested, though following several complaints a belated FIR was lodged against one of the main accused Sambhaji Bhide for conspiring and inciting violence.
Whether indeed the Bhima-Koregaon battle was an assertion of Dalit pride, two centuries later the battle site reveals that nothing much has changed in the lives of the Dalits. They continue to be suppressed and legal mechanisms subverted to persecute them and allow the guilty to get away. Mewani rightly questioned, if as an advocate and a legislator, he could be targeted, the oppression of the lesser mortal among Dalits could well be imagined. The inhuman appearance, that Dalit were forced to adopt, may have changed since the days that they were made to move around with brooms tied to their backs and spittoons hung around their neck, so that the dust from their feet did not disturb the elite castes and their spit did not touch the ground. If the Brahminical upper castes were moving around, they were expected to slip into the shadows and shoes, if they had any, were supposed to be worn over the heads. However, even a robust constitution guaranteeing equal rights to all Indian citizens has done little to change the patterns of oppression that the community continues to suffer by and large.
The lynching of Dalits in villages, their social boycott and multiple ways of victimizing them is an everyday reality, the root of which lies in the traditional belief in and perpetuation of Manusmriti and the regressive caste system that treats humans as unequal. An irresponsive government inspired by Hindutva ideology including Manusmriti creates structures in which the societal prejudices are further deepened, not annihilated, even as such a pattern of regressive practices patronised by them amounts to subversion of democratic practices and democratic spirit.
The methodical exclusion of human beings through a regressive caste system requires a deeper engagement with the issue without the denial we collectively live in. Even as constitutional laws and policy of reservation have paved way for the economic and comparative social mobility of a section of the Dalit community, the patterns are not uniform and only a minute and meager percentage of the community benefits while the rest continue to live the doomed life of living in the most inhuman conditions with no access to proper housing, food or even water from the wells. Even the beneficiaries among the socially oppressed classes of the constitutional system suffer due to the deep rooted and structured bias that Dalits and other backward communities face in educational institutions and work places.
Two years ago, the shocking death of a Dalit student, Rohith Vemula was just one case in point. At the bedrock of Rohith Vemula's death lay the stench and rot of societal prejudices that have been an intrinsic part of Indian fabric for centuries, a rot that remains accepted in the 21st century and something to which most of us are in denial. He suffered the ignominy of the 'accident' of his birth in a Dalit home and he grew up to suffer the pangs of daily bias; finally got an opportunity to change his destiny as a researcher in an educational institution of repute but continued to be spurned and humiliated by his teachers; bit by bit his soul was being brutalized and tormented forcing him to end his life. His death should have shocked us and shamed the government. Instead those of us guilty of this cult of caste based oppression used up our energies to twist the argument, wipe out evidence and even deny Rohith Vemula his Dalit identity.
The same mindset is at work now - whether it is the ugly spiral of violence and sequence of events at Bhima-Koregaon or the increasing beef related killings. From the saga of historic tyranny against Dalits to the modern everyday reality of societal prejudice, there is a complete denial. What is accepted as a norm and justified is the continuum of oppression - inhuman, tyrannical and undemocratic. That is why, despite the different ways that the battle of Bhima-Koregaon is interpreted, it will continue to be the memorialisation of a practice of caste based oppression that shames Indian society and is a blot on the Indian democracy.



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