Maharashtra violence: In erstwhile cradle of social justice, caste struggles and Hindutva vie for political space

In October 2014 the BJP became the second party after the Congress to win more than 100 seats in the Maharashtra assembly. Out of the 122 seats that the party won, 15 were those that were reserved for Scheduled Castes. Of the other 14 seats set aside for Dalit legislators, the Shiv Sena won 9, NCP 3 and the Congress 2.

In the absence of other empirical data, it is common practise to conclude that this is evidence that the Sangh Parivar's more than eight decade long effort to engage with the Dalits and forge Hindu unity across castes was bearing fruit.

It must never be forgotten Dr BR Ambedkar whose janmabhoomi and karmabhoomi was Maharashtra articulated the need for political representation of what were called during colonial period as Depressed Classes. The principle of legislative representation was introduced in the pre-independence era.

Even when he was interned and prohibited from participating in political action, VD Savarkar spearheaded movements for entry of Dalits into temples. KB Hedgewar who was inspired by Savarkar's manual, Hindutva, did not draw such inspiration to engage with the community. It was not until Balasaheb Deoras became RSS sarsanghchalak that the RSS began systematically wooing the Dalits and started embarking on programmes to draw them into its fold.

Violent protests in Mumbai. PTI

Protests over the Koregaon incident in Mumbai. PTI

Till recently, the Sangh Parivar made no attempt to co-opt the legacy of Dr Ambedkar because his neo-Buddhist legacy was considered anathema. Consequent to this, the BJP and Shiv Sena tried to organise Hindu Dalits and painted the Mahars, the dominant SC community, negatively because they followed Ambedkar. Since then, neo-Buddhist remained supporters of the RPI and its various successive parties.

The RSS was opposed to the socially separatist step of Ambedkar and his followers and this has been the basis for its limited mobilisation among Dalits in Maharashtra. The BJP attempted to make inroads among Mahars who had not converted to Buddhism and when this failed, they concentrated efforts on non-Mahars. There are as many as 59 sub-communities among Dalits and like in Uttar Pradesh where the party has focussed on non-Chamar groups, the emphasis in Maharashtra has been on non-Mahars.

According to the 2011 census, Dalits accounted for 11.81% of the total population of Maharashtra. In the nationwide Scheduled Caste population, Maharashtra has a share of 6.6 percent. Prior to delimitation, there were 18 seats reserved for SCs. In 2009 this was raised to 28 and in 2014 to 29. Dalits who converted to Buddhism were not recognised as SCs but in the 1990s, an amendment was made to the law extending reservation benefits to the community. But central schemes were left out and the Centre is mulling changes in caste certificates to allow them reservation benefits in central schemes too. It is another step to woo neo-Buddhists and comes on the heels of attempts to co-opt the legacy of Ambedkar and depict him as a Sangh icon.

Fadnavis has run a quasi-stable government for three years, lived through two major agitations and coped with the trouble ally, Shiv Sena. The two protest movements which tested the state government severely were the demand of politically dominant Marathas for reservations and secondly, by farmers seeking loan waivers.

But before these could be overcome, governance brought completely back on track and the process of consolidating BJP social base could be given impetus, the state government has been hit by waves of social unrest and violence between Dalit groups and other castes.

It would be easy to conclude that the riotous situation in several parts of Maharashtra poses a serious challenge to the Fadnavis government and limits the BJP's growth within the community. However, if one looks at it differently, the events in the last few days provide the BJP with an opportunity to consolidate its ranks.

Firstly, as detailed previously, the Dalit community in Maharashtra is not homogenous and displays diversity similar to every community in India. Additionally, the Bhima-Koregaon episode is built on a memory and perception that is not shared by every sub-group in the community. Besides, the eruption of violence will eventually enable the BJP to consolidate Marathas and OBCs who have past social conflicts with Mahars whose representative constructed the memory of brave Mahar soldiers fighting caste oppression.

It is easy to fall victim to the belief that the commemoration in the village near Pune was a celebration of a historical manifestation of Dalit uprising against Peshwa rule. Neo-radicals who either organised or addressed the contentious seminar at Shaniwar Wada on 31 December could possibly have looked at past events from a contemporary perspective.

Likewise, the BJP and Sangh Parivar supporters who are raging and launched counter-attacks against Dalits see the Koregaon war as an event when colonialism triumphed over a native kingdom courtesy indigenous turncoats. The Mahars, it is pointed out, fought for the British against the Peshwas. It is being be ignored that as the fighting for Bajirao was mainly done by Arab mercenaries, the idea of 'paid army' could not justifiable only for one side. Clearly the Mahars were recruited by British because it made economic sense and the people took up the jobs in the army because they needed those badly.

Yet, the handling of his episode has been woeful. The BJP needed to veil its belief that not all Dalits valorise the two century old Mahars of Koregaon and thus do not see the events as attacks on Scheduled Castes. The BJP had to be conscious of not being in power solely in Maharashtra. It also needed to be more sensitive to the Dalit issue. The BJP's remorseless calculative ways on an issue that has been tackled sensitively in the past by other parties has not been its best publicist.

The Centre must make the same demand of Fadnavis what it would have made if an opposition party had been in power. The RSS has begun a publicity drive arguing that trouble has been foisted on the state by the 'break India brigade'. But the binary of national versus anti-national must be put on the backburner for once.

Time was when people of Maharashtra prided their land for being the cradle of social justice movement. The tangle of old caste struggles, that historically prevented Hindu consolidation, is being unabashedly countered by overt or covert Hindutva.

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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2018 09:58:17 IST

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