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The Bhima-Koregaon issue kept the anti-caste movement busy in 2018

It is likely to spend more of its energy on electoral politics in 2019 as Lok Sabha elections are due. But the silent work of educating, agitating and organising wherever possible will go on.

analysis Updated: Dec 31, 2018 17:54 IST
Tejas Harad
Tejas Harad
RPI workers protest in Thane after Bhima Koregoan violence in Pune , January 2, 2018( Praful Gangurde)

Thousands of people gather every year on January 1 at Bhima Koregaon, Pune, to commemorate the defeat of the peshwas at the hands of British army in 1818. This year they were attacked on their way to the site. This was widely believed to be a planned conspiracy by right-wing organisations. The Bhima-Koregaon issue has kept the anti-caste movement busy in 2018. The obelisk that was erected in the memory of this battle by the British symbolises a momentary break in Brahmanism’s uninterrupted sway over society for about two millennia. The Bahujans heaved a sigh of relief when the reign of the Chitpavan Brahmin Peshwa rulers gave way to the British monarchy. This was because the British introduced modern values such as equality before law and access to education and government employment without caste restrictions. That explains why Jyotiba Phule called the British benevolent rulers.

After the Bhima-Koregaon issue, Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar emerged as a leader to reckon with. His call for a strike in Maharashtra against the January 1 attacks was heeded by the masses. He also repeatedly asked for the arrest of Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the alleged key conspirators. Among the two emerging Bahujan leaders, Jignesh Mevani started his career as an elected politician this year after winning the Vadgam seat in the Gujarat elections held in December 2017 while the Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ had to spend most of the year in jail under the National Security Act.

This year, the Centre conceded two long-standing demands of the backward classes. Parliament passed the Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill in August, which gives the National Commission for Backward Classes statutory powers. In the same month, the government gave its assent to gather data on Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the decennial census. The 2021 Census will collect data on the OBCs and enumerate their percentage in the population along with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The census so far does not have data on the upper castes and their percentage in the population.

The anti-caste movement turned agitational and displayed its might when the Supreme Court diluted the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in March. The mobilisation against the Supreme Court’s ruling forced the central government to bring in amendments to restore the provisions of the Act.

The Bhima-Koregaon case was the flashpoint in the anti-caste movement in 2018. The fact that the movement was well organised and that it has made incremental gains over the years was evident from the massive crowd that gathered to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1818 battle. The swift response to attacks in the form of a strike, the legal support that was mobilised to fight the cases against those who were arrested in relation to it and the sympathy displayed by the media showed that this movement is no flash in the pan. But the movement has yet to gain the traction it needs to achieve its ultimate goal -- that of restructuring society on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. But indications are that it is getting there.

According to data collected by the Safai Karmachari Andolan, one sanitation worker dies every three day. The Safai Karmachari Andolan gained wider recognition after its national convenor, Bezwada Wilson, won the Magsaysay Award in 2016. The organisation led protests in Delhi in September against the deaths of sanitation workers and the continuing scourge of manual scavenging.

Critics feel that the government has spent more energy and money in advertising campaigns like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan than on building infrastructure and investing in technology to handle India’s waste generation. If this had been done, many feel, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan would have produced dramatic results.

While the anti-caste movement asserts itself through agitations and participation in electoral politics, it has also focused on consciousness-raising.

When many Brahmins were agitated after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was pictured holding a poster that read Smash Brahminical Patriarchy in November, activists responded by calmly explaining what Brahminical patriarchy was and why looking at gender and caste as intertwined forces was necessary. This controversy also showed that battles are being waged on new grounds and the movement is using digital platforms effectively to carry its agenda forward.

The movement, for all its successes, faces formidable challenges as it enters the new year. It is likely to spend more of its energy on electoral politics in 2019 with the Lok Sabha elections coming up. But the quiet work behind the scenes , that of educating, agitating and organising wherever possible will go ahead slowly but surely.

Tejas Harad is a social and political commentator

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 31, 2018 17:54 IST