Bhima Koregaon: The battle ensues, this time with different soilders
As the sun set on the last day of 2018, Rama Athawale had not a moment to spare. The activist had spent a frenetic week searching for a caterer to help her fix 200 kilograms of pulao and a large banner of BR Ambedkar, all in preparation for the most important day of the year for her: Shaurya Divas (Day of valour) when she and her husband, Ashok, travel to Bhima Koregaon to feed the hundreds of thousands of people who congregate to celebrate the anniversary of a British-era war.
This has been Athawale’s New Year’s Day routine for a decade, but this time is different: It is the first time she is going back to the spot where she and her family were almost killed by a rampaging mob that burnt down their home and shop – and unleashed violence that killed one person, injured 40 and sent ripples of Dalit anger surging through India. “I was scared at first but then thought I couldn’t be defeated. I am alive because of my community and we are on the side of justice,” she said.
Anjali Gaikwad and her daughter, Sushma Ohol, share her sentiment. The residents of Vadhu Budruk village, around five kilometres from Bhima Koregaon, have become somewhat of a community icon after Ohol filed the first FIR naming right-wing leaders, Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, for the violence. Columns of people wait outside their doors to take a selfie, young men fall at their feet, and families brave the harsh sun to thank them for their courage.
“It feels good to see so many people getting to know about our history, and coming to see it,” said Gaikwad, half-smiling as yet another group of admirers pull her aside for a photograph.
Athawale, Gaikwad and Ohol are some of the hundreds of ordinary people who have mounted a wall of resistance after last year’s attack on the celebrations stung the community. Their efforts have forced realignments in Maharashtra’s politics, shaken up social coalitions, and transformed the face and tenor of the Ambedkarite movement in India. “Even a common villager has signaled that we will not be repressed. You can attack us but we will not compromise on Babasaheb’s message,” said Keshav Waghmare, a Pune-based activist and one of the organizers of the celebrations that saw more than a million people in attendance this year, the highest ever. “The number showed the power of our movement.”
The battle of Bhima Koregaon was fought on January 1, 1818, between Peshwa Bajirao II, with an army of 20,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, that vastly outnumbered the 800-odd men commanded by Captain FF Staunton of the East India Company. Narratives of the battle vary wildly, but most historians agree that the British army comprised 500 Mahars, the most populous of the Dalit sub-castes in the state.
While Staunton’s journals and letters mentions considerable losses and not an outright victory, subsequent British records – especially dispatches by then Pune resident Mountstuart Elphinstone -- paint the battle as a gallant stand against the Peshwas and a triumph for the European forces. Of course, it may be linked to the fact that within six months of this battle, the Peshwa had been categorically vanquished.
Today, the battle is a symbol of Dalit pride against casteism, embodied by the Peshwa rule where Dalits were forced to carry a spittoon on their neck and a broom on the back, so that even their dust couldn’t pollute Brahmins, as described in Ambedkar’s writings.
“For the Dalits, it has become a potent historical and cultural symbol. People have become more aware of the past, and learnt the need to assert for their history, and hence, the larger numbers this year,” explained Shraddha Kumbhojkar, a historian at Savitribai Phule Pune University. “The growing economic might of the community has also helped. People can afford to own cars and take out time to travel to Bhima Koregaon, and invest in assertion,” added Kumbhojkar.
There is a story popular in Maharashtra’s old Ambedkarite circles. At the height of the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha (against caste-based barriers in accessing public tanks), Ambedkar’s exhortation inspired a pregnant women to join the protests along with her young child. She appeared ill, and Ambedkar was concerned about her health, only to be rebuffed – “Even if I lose my child, you cannot step back Babasaheb,” she is supposed to have told India’s first law minister.
Narratives like this are what inspired a young Akash Sable to join Ambedkarite politics. He saw the first blue flag at six, and now works in slums and villages, disseminating anti-caste literature and teaching young Dalit people about Ambedkar. “This year, the number of youth active is something I haven’t seen in 20 years. 16-year-old boys want to do something. They are not emotional. They want to discuss, debate and act,” said the founder of Republican Bharat, a local anti-caste organisation.
Across town is the office of Rahul Dambale, an eyewitness to last year’s violence who helmed this year’s celebrations and runs the Republican Yuva Morcha. Dambale started working on the ground after the 1997 Ramabai killings, when 10 Dalits were gunned down by the police in Mumbai during a protest against desecration of Ambedkar’s statue. “There have been at least 36 protests this year as we have demanded justice for victims. We pressurized the government to make the event this year a mega event; we wanted to send the message that we are not scared,” he said.
In Pune and adjoining districts, a number of Ambedkarite organisations have mushroomed, and the road from Pune city to Bhima Koregaon is chock-a-block with banners and hoardings of ‘senas’, ‘morchas’ and ‘dals’ – some as colourful as the Bharatiya Dalit Cobra Party that uses a cobra and Ambedkar’s face as its twin symbols.
The splashiest of the new entrants is the Bhim Army, a Dalit organisation based in western Uttar Pradesh. Bhim Army’s chief Chandrashekhar Azad’s drew a crush of young men shouting ‘Ravan’ ‘Ravan’ (he calls himself that) who flooded the Pune-Ahmadnagar highway on January 1 and brought traffic to a standstill. “He is never scared, he is everyone’s baap (father). This is why the youth are attracted to him,” said Abhijit Gaikwad, a member, as he shyly admitted to impersonating Azad’s signature moustache.
There is Union minister Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India (A), which is banking on its strong cadre working in inner-city slums, but the most popular appears to be Prakash Ambedkar, BR Ambedkar’s grandson and president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh. Ambedkar led massive protests against last year’s violence and has quickly emerged as the face of the movement. “His power is increasing every day and he seems to have the youth, social and cultural activists behind him,” said Mahipal Mahamatta, a researcher at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
To be sure, there are internal rivalries. Dambale feels Prakash Ambedkar has cashed in on the movement without any contribution, and will cosy up to the Congress for political power, Gaikwad feels betrayed by existing parties, Waghmare sees no new appeal of the Bhim Army and Sable thinks Ramdas Athawale is an opportunist who will pay the price of aligning with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But they are united on the resurgence of the Ambedkarite movement on the lines of the Dalit Panthers, who drew inspirations from Black activists to effect a cultural and political shake-up or the Namantar movement that struggled for 16 years to add the name of BR Ambedkar to a university. “The collective moment in a movement comes once in a lifetime. That moment is now,” said Waghmare.
Ashok Athawale arrived in Sanaswadi village at the turn of the millennium with just Rs 2,000. He spent four days on the road, eating two vada-paos a day for sustainance. Over the next 15 years, the devout Buddhist built up a successful welding business, sent his children to school and celebrated Ambedkar’s and Phule’s birth anniversaries with great pomp. That would prove to be his undoing.
On January 1, 2018, Ashok and Rama were feeding weary travellers on their way to Bhima Koregaon, in defiance of a village diktat that had shut all shops and establishments. Around 11am, with a thousand-strong mob throwing stones at their house, the family fled and spent the day hiding in a ditch. Eventually, the mob pulled Ashok out and thrashed him to an inch of his life. They took shelter in a Buddhist home in Pimpri near Pune. “We had never thought we would ever file an FIR in our life. My children never knew what caste was. They learnt it that day,” said Rama.
The couple now lives in a cramped two-room house and hasn’t been able to return to the village, despite repeated statements by local administration that the situation is peaceful. “All those who attacked us are still our neighbours. How can we return? They couldn’t tolerate a Dalit family doing well and celebrating our heritage.”
The Athawale’s sense of neglect is shared by most Dalit victims of the violence, and the community at large. Twenty-seven-year-old Amit Bhongade, who lost his voice and suffered a head injury after being hit with stones, didn’t even figure in the initial list of victims. “I was in the hospital for two months for multiple surgeries, and now, I can hardly speak,” he said.
Even those who filed the FIR complain of threats. Anita Savale, who hid with her children in a local clinic and later filed cases against Bhide and Ekbote, said her landlord threatened to throw her out and she received frequent threats from local goons. “They said if we find you alone, we will deal with you.”
Sandeep Patil, superintendent of police (rural) said that 22 FIRs had been lodged and 110 people arrested. “The investigation is moving in the right direction. The probe against Ekbote is on,” he said.
His urban police counterparts have already arrested 10 prominent activists across the country and blamed Maoists for the violence – a theory that didn’t fly with at least 15 Dalit activists and organisations that Hindustan Times spoke to. “In the fight between national and anti-national, the Dalit narrative has been lost,” said Mahamatta. Bhide has already been cleared by the investigation despite at least three independent investigations, including one by Pune’s deputy mayor Siddharth Dhende, implicating him.
Another strand of the investigation is the Bhima Koregaon Inquiry Commission, headed by former chief justice JN Patel, which is conducting public hearings in Mumbai and Pune. The hearings have failed to inspire confidence among the Dalits, said Prabhakar Sonwane, a lawyer involved in the proceedings, because despite more than 700 affidavits from victims, the hearings so far have apparently focused on history.
There is also resentment about the widespread arrests of young Dalit people on January 2 and 3, when protests and clashes rocked the state. Dalit activists say as many as 11,000 young men were rounded up from cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Yavatmal, Nashik and Nagpur – a charge the police denies. At any rate, 642 cases were filed. The government has now decided to withdraw cases not involving damage to public property or injuries to policemen. “There was combing operation and widespread harassment of Dalits. Even this withdrawal smacks of discrimination because not all cases are involved,” said Mohan Wadekar, a Pune-based lawyer dealing with the cases. He pointed out that the government had recently recommended that all cases be withdrawn in a 2011 police firing case that left three people dead.
In such an atmosphere of mistrust, the April death of 19-year-old Pooja Sakat, an eyewitness to the violence that gutted her house, has come as the proverbial final nail in the coffin. Sakat’s death was initially ruled as suicide but after howls of Dalit protest, a case was registered and two people arrested. “She saw the riots and that’s why they killed her. They already threaten and follow my son and wife, and no one offers us a job. Maybe someday they will get me too,” said Pooja’s brother, Jaideep.
FIGHT OVER LEGACY
Central to the dispute is a tussle for culture and history that lies at the heart of Maharashtra’s politics. One school of thought claims the battle of Bhima Koregaon was won by the Peshwa forces and that the celebrations are a recent, Maoist, phenomena. Ekbote’s affidavit to the commission even said that Haji Mastan fanned the celebrations, and that Ambedkar was not happy that Mahars had joined hands with foreign forces. “This trend first appeared in 2014…by making it a flash point to ensure the disturbance of peace and tranquility in society,” read the affidavit. Neither Bhide nor Ekbote agreed to comment for this story.
Anand Dave of the Akhil Bharatiya Brahman Mahasangh called this an increase in “anti-Brahmin sentiment”. “The British practiced divide-and-rule, and were not pro-Dalit. The Peshwas were not Brahminwadi, they were Hindu kings. The narrative at Bhima Koregaon is new,” he said.
Overshadowing Bhima Koregaon, a bigger battle has broken out over a nondescript grave in Vadhu Budruk, five km away. The grave belongs to a 17th century Mahar peasant called Govind Ganapat Gaikwad, who, according to Dalit thinkers, gave an honourable burial to Shivaji’s son Sambhaji in 1689 after Aurangzeb’s forces had mutilated his body and ordered no honourable burial. This is an important moment, said Islampur college professor Sachin Garud, because Shivaji is seen by anti-caste thinkers as a supporter of the lower castes – there is a statue of Shivaji, for example, in the Bhima Koregaon complex. “History is the biggest weapon in Maharashtra, which the right-wing has been trying to weaponise,” Garud said.
Indeed, the 2018 violence was triggered after tensions rose in Vadhu Budruk when Gaikwad’s grave was desecrated. “It was done to sever the Mahar link to Shivaji’s legacy,” added Garud.
Shivaji and his legacy has been a hot-button topic in Maharashtra for decades – and even triggered violence in 2004 after American historian James Laine’s book on the Maratha icon that was temporarily banned. Dave and others from the school of thought say Shivaji was a Brahmin protector and that seven of his eight top ministers were Brahmins. “Neither Shivaji or Sambhaji were anti-Brahmin. He was a conservative Hindu, and Sambhaji’s last rites were done by a Brahmin.” But Garud said Dalit histories contest this, saying Sambhaji and Shivaji’s reign was opposed by many Brahmins, and that their image as Brahmin lovers is fiction that was exposed by Ambedkar and Phule.
In an election year, this tussle over history is throwing a giant shadow on politics. Scheduled castes form roughly 12% of Maharashtra, and in a close election, are often the swing vote. Prakash Ambedkar, whose political influence is usually limited to the Akola region, has tied up with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen this time. “Though Prakash Ambedkar’s party has never received more than 1% vote, he has now emerged as the tallest independent Dalit voice. On that basis, if the alliance can ensure a transfer of vote, they can make an impact in 20-25 assembly seats,” said Harish Wankhede, an assistant professor of political science at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The biggest loser might be RPI (A), which despite cadre strength, has been shrinking. Dhende, a senior RPI (A) leader, admitted that the association with the BJP might hurt the party but put his hopes in a Rs 100 crore project – announced by Ramdas Athawale on January 1 – that seeks to upgrade Bhima Koregaon to national memorial status, build approach roads, install lights, create gardens and landscaping.
Wankhede also points out that the scheduled castes are not a homogenous community. “The Mahars or neo-Buddhists have a traditionally strong secular base and are with the RPI or Congress. The Matangs have both Ambedkarites and right-wing elements and the Charmkars (leather workers) are with the Shiv Sena or the BJP,” he said.
In the 2014 election because of an upsurge of anger with the Congress, the BJP was the beneficiary of a significant chunk of Dalit votes, according to post-poll analysis by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies. “But the trust in BJP has eroded because there has no social or economic progress. So, the opposition may benefit.”
TOWARDS THE FUTURE
Whatever may happen in the 2019 polls, the surge in Ambedkarite politics is here to stay, not just in books and on the streets, but also in loud DJ music blaring out songs in praise of Ambedkar and teenagers dancing to them, or viral TikTok videos of ‘Jab tak suraj chand rahega, baba tera naam rahega’ (Till the sun and moon exist, so will your name Babasaheb).
The flare-up around Bhima Koregaon underlines the importance of cultural heritage for a community, especially one that doesn’t find its idols in mythology. “We don’t have god or temples. These are our pilgrimage centres. We derive inspiration and motivation from facts, from history,” said Mahamatta. “They failed to silence us; cultural politics and transforming the human mind is happening very quickly. Jai Bhim is taking over the country.”