A combined resentment was waiting to explode, and the flashpoint was the anniversary celebration, which brought out all caste contradictions.
Let’s try to explain the riddle of caste upheaval over the Bhima-Koregaon battle fought 200 years ago, since there are some confusing elements.
Of the 11 sub-castes of Brahmins, not all are compatible and comfortable with each other. The chief minister of Maharashtra is a Brahmin – a Deshastha Brahmin. The Peshwas were Chitpavan Brahmins, who ruled in the name of Chhatrapati and became the power elite of the Maratha empire. The Peshwas did not represent, politically or culturally, the whole Brahmin or upper caste community.
The Chitpavans hated and looked down upon the Deshasthas (and Karade Brahmins) so much so that their cultural hostility survived until very recently. And by the way, the RSS has mostly had Karades as Sarsanghchalaks – from M.S. Golwalkar to Mohan Bhagwat. Not a single Chitpavan has been elevated to that post, although a huge number of Chitpavans are dedicated swayamsevaks, followers or fellow travellers.
Peshwa Brahmin rulers, in their arrogance, are alleged to have sidelined the other Brahmins as “inferiors” and humiliated the “untouchable” communities. The Mahars were (and are) the largest of these communities, but were among the “privileged” Dalits, having been awarded some land and honours during Shivaji’s rule.
The term ‘Dalit’ is also a bit of a misnomer; it encompasses a dozen or more castes — Matang, Mang, Dhor and so on. The hierarchy among these Dalit subcastes is also extremely strong. A Mahar marrying a Matang or Mang could lead to a huge, even bloody, honour conflict.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar belonged to the Mahar community. But in his enlightened and global humanist vision, he appealed to all Dalits to unite against the systemic oppression. He did a historic and scholarly analysis of the very caste system and called it a curse which must be annihilated.
Hindutva ideologues hated Ambedkar viscerally, and even condemned a ‘shudra’ being appointed chairperson of the Constitution drafting committee. The Brahminical RSS, more prominent until the 1960s and ‘70s, was hostile to Dr Ambedkar and all Dalits. The deeply researched book on the journey of Hindutva, Gita Press by Akshaya Mukul (Harper Collins), traces the Hindutva hatred of Ambedkar.
Only after Balasaheb Deoras became Sarsanghchalak did the Brahminical face of the RSS begin to wear off slowly. But on the other side, all the Dalits could not really rally round one Ambedkarite banner. The other Dalit sub-castes did not convert to Buddhism, as most Mahars did. So there are non-Ambedkarite Dalits, divided in former untouchable sub-castes, including some Mahar groups.
The Mahars from Maharashtra and Karnataka were in the East India Company’s army – among the Dalits they are believed to be a Martial community, so it was natural that they took to army assignments.
At Bhima-Koregaon in 1818, the Mahar soldiers fought the Peshwa-led Maratha army, which had Marathas and Arabs, even some Mahars, and a few Brahmin soldiers. In that sense, it was not a confrontation between Brahmins and Mahars. The Peshwas had a larger force, but lost the battle, in which Ambedkar’s grandfather had also fought on the winning side. This is what made Ambedkar bring up the conflict as a sort of identity issue. But after him, even the united Dalit leadership of the late 1960s (mostly Mahars, including his grandson Prakash Ambedkar) could not consolidate all Dalits, or even all Mahars.
At the ground level, the hostility between the Marathas and Dalits has become sharper, particularly after the strident demand for reservation by the Marathas. The Marathas have been in power in the state for all years during the Congress rule. This community controls the levers of political power, a large number of local co-operative banks, widespread educational and other institutions. The Marathas comprise a little over 35 per cent of the state’s population, while the Dalits account for about 10 per cent.
Maratha mobilisation began on a hyper-identity scale after the Maratha-led Congress and NCP were dislodged from power and the BJP formed the government under a Brahmin chief minister. The Centre and the state were now under total command of the BJP and the RSS was the remote control. The massive Maratha marches and district-wise demonstrations by the community were not declared “anti-Brahmin”, “anti-Dalit” or “anti-OBC”.
But Dalits and OBCs were alarmed, because their reservation quota would be adversely affected. Granting reservation to the Marathas would affect their quota. So, counter morchas by the Dalits and OBCs were organised. As a result, hostility and tension was building up across rural Maharashtra.
Agricultural stagnation and farmers’ suicides, mostly from the Maratha or OBC communities, had deepened anger against the BJP government. But that combined resentment was waiting to explode one day, and it did. The Bhima-Koregaon battle’s 200th anniversary was interpreted as the defeat of the Brahmin-Peshwa-led Maratha power. So, the victory celebrations brought out all caste contradictions – Dalit vs Maratha, Dalit vs Brahmin, Maratha vs Brahmin (read RSS).
A conclusion appeared to have been drawn that the Dalits welcomed the British victory followed by their rule. This conclusion infuriated the neo-nationalist and patriotic groups which have spread in the last three years.
The internal rivalries and ambitions within the Dalit movement added yet another contradiction. Ramdas Athavle, seen by most Dalit activists as an opportunist who surrendered his Mahar identity to the Brahmins of the RSS-BJP by aligning with them, was frontally challenged by Prakash Ambedkar. The invitation to Jignesh Mevani, elected last month as an MLA in Gujarat, was like adding fuel to the fire. Mevani had challenged the entire Sangh Parivar in Gujarat, and particularly Narendra Modi. His speeches in Bhima-Koregaon were bound to exacerbate the situation.
Sambhaji Bhide, an 85-year-old “guru”, is a militant leader of the Hindutva brigades. He has dedicated followers, mostly Maratha youth, although he is a Brahmin. He dons the name Sambhaji, taken from the son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, to spread Hindutva ideology among the masses. His campaign converted the confrontation into a Maratha-Dalit conflict. Finally, mayhem was let loose.
The intelligence department of the state failed in anticipating the trouble. One of the reasons was that the Fadnavis government was complacent. The RSS’s Chanakyas thought they had co-opted Dalits into their power circuit, while Marathas were being groomed as the “reserve force” to fight the Congress, Dalits and other detractors.
But the social engineering has boomeranged. The Dalit-Maratha-Brahmin triangle could change the power equation in the state as the 2019 election comes closer.
Kumar Ketkar is a senior journalist and economist.
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