A state-wide bandh was called in Maharashtra by Dalit groups on Wednesday, 3 January, in protest of the disruption of the bicentenary celebrations of the Mahar army’s victory over the Peshwas and to condemn the killing of a Maratha man belonging to the Sambhaji Brigade in the violence which followed.
This disruption was a deliberate one. A video showing men holding saffron flags screaming at people, beating them up with metal and wooden batons and vandalising vehicles, has been doing the rounds. The video also shows people being stopped at entry points to Pune and being beaten up.
Dalit groups traditionally use a blue flag while the Sambhaji Brigade uses a saffron one. In an attempt to mislead people into believing that the Marathas were responsible for the conflict on 1 January, the Hindu groups involved used saffron flags.
The state authorities were well aware of the situation – they had imposed Section 144 (unlawful assembly) on 1 January, anticipating trouble. The home department falls under the aegis of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, and only the government can answer why potential troublemakers were not detained. Notably, newly elected Dalit legislator from Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani, had been invited along with a student leader of the Jawaharlal Nehru University to speak at the bicentenary celebrations.
Against the backdrop of Pune being an upper-caste Brahmin bastion, and the current government being led by the BJP, the victory celebrations of the Mahars over untouchability was not likely to be taken well.
Moreover, it was the ideal opportunity to provoke friction between the Marathas and Dalits. In the last one year, the state has witnessed over 50 silent morchas arising out of clashes between the two communities. These were triggered by the gangrape and killing of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar. Initially the police were slow in their investigation of the case but were pressured to take action, after the morchas, in which thousands participated, spread to interior Maharashtra.
NDA’s Divide and Rule Strategy
The tone at the time was clearly anti-Dalit, one that suited the government, almost reminiscent of the British strategy of ‘divide and rule’ which continues to prevail in the current Indian political scenario.
At the time, as observers have pointed out, the Fadnavis government was initially scared. The police stepped up action but the morchas did not stop. The Marathi film Sairat (2016) too, highlighted this divide, with the portrayal of a Maratha girl’s family condemning her involvement with a Dalit boy and finally putting a tragic end to their love story.
At the time, the Opposition and political observers claimed that the key issues plaguing the state – for instance, farmers’ suicides, loan waivers and the agro-crisis –fell by the wayside.
The BJP government came up with conspiracy theories against the Marathas, blaming NCP President Sharad Pawar and other leaders.
Distortion of Dalit History
Thus, the fodder to spark trouble was ready by the time of the Dalits’ planned annual celebrations of the their victory against the Peshwas. The aftermath of Gujarat elections, in which Jignesh Mevani won, and the preparations for the general elections in 2019 also made the situation ripe for miscreants to try to instigate a Maratha-Dalit conflict.
The disruption of the Dalit victory celebration was done in a deliberate manner. The word on the ground (which is now believed) is, over eight days preceding 1 January 2018, people belonging to two factions of Hindu groups had allegedly begun spreading rumours questioning the historical belief that a Mahar, Govind Gaikwad, had performed Sambhaji Maharaja’s last rites.
Comrade Govind Pansare, who was later murdered, was one of the few who had questioned the distortion of history by the Brahmin lobby in Pune. Be it Shivaji Maharaj, his mother Jijau or son Sambhaji, the educated, upper caste Brahmins have tried to distort history by putting forth points that are provocative and likely to cause friction.
Campaign to Spread Rumours
In this case too, people belonging to the Milind Ekbote-led Samastha Hindu Ekta Aghadi and the Sambhaji Bhide-led Shiv Pratishthan were accused of starting a conspiracy, stating that the historical tale of Sambhaji and the role of a Mahar, Govind Gaikwad, was false.
Rumours were spread highlighting Sambhaji’s ‘vices’ and his estrangement from his father Shivaji Maharaj.
The mood was being built against Govind Gaikwad, who had, according to history, been hanged to death for stitching together Sambhaji’s body which was cut to pieces by emperor Aurangzeb in 1689. It was the alleged vandalism of Gaikwad's tomb, acknowledging his grand deed towards his king Sambhaji, that led to the conflict on 1 January.
Following initial reports of the conflict, it was presumed that the two communities were at loggerheads. However, these rumours were put to rest when Sharad Pawar claimed that the Marathas were not involved in this matter and that the stir was the creation of Hindu factions only.
No Understanding of the Protest
BR Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar named Bhide and Ekbote as the troublemakers following the violence. Ramdas Athawale, an Ambedkarite whose Republican Party of India has joined the NDA government, was isolated when he initially blamed the Marathas for the conflict. This miscalculated step also shows the desperation of the government to keep communities in conflict with one another.
While the state bandh is underway, most of the upper caste elites seem distressed with the protests, with no understanding of the political overtones and conspiracies at work. The chief complaint being, how can caste issues and protests by minority groups grind a city to a halt in 2018?
The answer lies in the ruling party’s tendency to use such incidents to unleash violence and ensure their domination continues, while perpetuating wrong perceptions of certain communities.
(Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 25 years of experience.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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