Why Did Bhima Koregaon Riots Occur? Ambedkar’s Life Tells Us Why

Decades of Dalit oppression led to the Bhima Koregaon caste riots, not activists accused of being “urban Maoists”

7 min read

(This article was published after the Bhima Koregaon protests that took place in and around Pune in January 2018. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in the light of the recent crackdown on five activists.)

When ‘heroes’ who have remained silent for decades finally speak out, they can’t be expected to remain quiet – they speak out against a historically oppressive social system. All that has happened in Maharashtra over the past week over Dalit oppression, was bound to happen.

On one hand are the bearers of Dalit consciousness, and on the other, are those still walking around with archaic sensibilities. This conflict was inevitable and it seems that it will only get more intense in the coming days, especially seeing that those historically in power are unwilling to give up their positions.

Here, the question is not what happened in Bhima Koregaon; or who won and who lost, or whether this struggle is between patriots and traitors. This conflict stems from a retaliation, from a group demanding its fundamental rights in democracy, demanding its right to be recognised as human beings with dignity, even 70 years after independence.

Jignesh Mevani and Rohith Vemula are merely symbols of this Dalit consciousness, which, as we have seen, has grown stronger in recent times. Dalit youths have agitated. Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the merciless beating of Dalits in the name of ‘gau raksha’ in Una fueled that fire.

But it was Dr BR Ambedkar who truly sparked this consciousness.

One incident in particular changed Ambedkar’s entire perspective. When he returned from America after completing his studies (on a scholarship given by the Princely State of Baroda) he had trouble finding a place to stay in the city despite having held the important position of Military Secretary.

All this, because he belonged to the Mahar caste. Thus, Ambedkar was forced to hide his identity and adopt a Parsi name, and only then did he find accommodation at a Parsi inn.

Ambedkar’s Fight Against Injustice

But his secret was soon out, and Ambedkar was attacked at his lodging by approximately 25 men who threatened to kill him. When asked to reveal his identity, Ambedkar identified himself as a Hindu. But his perpetrators wanted him to spell out that he was a Mahar.

Consequently, Ambedkar was thrown out on the streets. His call for help to his Hindu friends fell on deaf ears. Ambedkar eventually had to quit his job, and moved to Mumbai, vowing to fight against the injustice – promising that no Dalit would have to face the indignity he had suffered.

This incident happened in 1917, the same year in which the Congress party, at its Calcutta convention, passed a resolution against untouchability for the first time. This incident was historic mainly because after 1895, the Congress had decided that it would not take up any programs of social reform. So, the party’s resolution came as a surprise.

This was also the time when the British, under the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, were talking of giving preliminary representation to the Dalits. Two Dalit organisations had also raised the same demand, that Dalits be given separate representation from the Hindus in the Legislative Council.


Clashes Between Ambedkar & Gandhi

The Dalits claimed that Hindus hadn’t treated them unfairly and had shunned them from Hindu society. In fact, they were treated worse than animals. If the Hindus were to represent the Dalits, they would never get justice. This made the Congress Party worried about the fact that if the Dalits grew dissatisfied with the party and left, the fight for independence would weaken, and the British would be successful in their ‘divide and rule’ policy.

Another significant reason for this shift in the Congress was a change in leadership. Gandhiji had returned from South Africa and wanted to convert the fight for independence into a mass movement, reclaiming it from the elites.

Later on, there were multiple clashes between Ambedkar and Gandhi. In 1932, Gandhi even went on a fast until death over the issue of preliminary representation for Dalits. Due to immense pressure, Ambedkar was forced to abandon his demand for preliminary representation and accept reservation instead.

Ambedkar was of the opinion that Gandhi only offered tokenism in the name of Dalit emancipation, and that he was under pressure from the upper castes.


Dalit Consciousness

He also knew that Gandhi had been a supporter of the caste system. But in spite of it all, Ambedkar did not hesitate to say that when everyone had abandoned their movement, Gandhi’s compassion remained unbridled.

Ambedkar believed that the sole reason for the inhumane treatment of Dalits was the caste system. He used to say that the caste system was at the core of Hinduism, and as long as this system prevailed, Dalits would never get justice in Hindu society.

Ambedkar also said, “For centuries, Dalits have believed that the cause of their suffering is their fate. Since they cannot change their fate, they are doomed to suffer in silence. But the new generation has realised that their pathetic condition is not because of ‘divine’ punishment, but due to the mischief of people.”

From 1920 onwards, when Ambedkar went around helping build Dalit organisations, there was a surge in Dalit consciousness. Ambedkar, the main hero of this narrative, used to tell the Dalits, “We have lost our inner strength and self-esteem… according to the Hindu religion we have no rights in society. We can’t go to school, we can’t get water from the well, we can’t walk on the road, we can’t drive a car… because of untouchability, we don’t get jobs and despite being talented, people do not work under us.”

Ambedkar’s words found a place in the hearts of Dalits, and reminded them that the upper castes were responsible for their plight.

Dalits were forced to walk with brooms strapped to their waist so that the part of the ground made ‘impure’ by their walking would be cleaned up as they went by. Can there be anything more inhumane?


Dalits were made to walk with a spittoon around their neck so that in case they needed to spit, they would do so inside it, not outside, as their spittle would make the ground ‘impure’.

Then in 1927, Ambedkar boosted the morale of the Dalits, proclaiming that they were not slaves, but a brave community, and that nothing could be worse than living a life without self-esteem.

To this extent, Baba Saheb said, “It is only the lack of collective will that has kept us behind.” A glimpse of this new energy that Baba Saheb sparked could be seen among Dalits in 1927.

The Mahar agitation was the logical conclusion to the Dalit uprising. In 1927, the Dalits marched for the right to drink water from Chavdar lake. Initially, the Mahars were not allowed to drink water from the lake, but the Mahad municipality passed a resolution giving them permission.


Dalits March Towards Dignity & Justice

Thousands of Mahars stepped out and drank the water. The upper caste villagers launched an attack on them, but they managed to escape. After this incident, the municipality rescinded its earlier order. To ‘purify’ the lake thereafter, Brahmins washed 108 utensils with yoghurt, milk, cow dung and cow urine amidst a collective chanting of mantras. Sometime after the municipality had rescinded its order, Dalits marched towards the lake once again, encouraged by Ambedkar.

The Mahad agitation’s position in the Dalit movement is akin to the Dandi march in India’s freedom struggle. The agitation led by Ambedkar in 1930, outside Nashik’s Kalaram temple, also had a significant impact on Dalit consciousness.

Historically, Dalits were barred from entering Hindu temples. Upper-caste Hindus believed that the presence of a Dalit would make the temple impure. This was also the case with Kalaram temple. To this rhetoric, Baba Saheb retorted that Dalits weren’t desperate to enter a temple and that not entering a temple would kill a Dalit as much as it would make him/her immortal by entering one.

But this being an issue of equality and human dignity, thousands of Dalits marched to enter a temple.

Our Caste ‘Blindspot’

A huge ruckus ensued, resulting in the assault and arrest of many. But the authorities were unable to stop the Dalit uprising. Since Independence, the democratic process has only heightened this consciousness. Today, no political party can afford to ignore the Dalits. The same Baba Saheb who said “I was born Hindu but will not die one,” is today being hailed by RSS, BJP and PM Modi himself.

The Sangh parivar has another constraint. The people who are today viewing the incident at Bhima Koregaon through the lens of nationalism and advocating imprisonment for Dalit leaders seem to have forgotten what Baba Saheb had said about the fight for independence.

In 1930, he had stated that the demand for independence would be detrimental to the country under the circumstances at the time.

Until people agreed to the principals of ‘one nation, one Constitution, one destiny’, it would be too dangerous to be independent. Now what will these people label the so-called patriotic Ambedkar – a nationalist or a traitor?

The so-called patriotism of these nationalists reminds one of another statement by Ambedkar. He once said that in India, the patriots and nationalists are those who see with open eyes how people around them treat their fellow countrymen as less than human, and yet their conscience does not protest.

(The writer is an author and spokesperson of AAP. He can be reached at @ashutosh83B.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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