Jignesh Mevani, the Dalit leader and newly elected MLA from Gujarat, was one of the star speakers at the Elgar Parishad – an event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon in which Mahar or Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the Maratha Peshwas – in Pune on Sunday. In the Dalit narrative, this victory is seen as the community’s triumph over the Peshwas, who were Brahmins.

On Monday, violent clashes broke out as people allegedly waving saffron flags attacked Dalits in the village of Bhima Koregaon, 30 km northeast of Pune. One person was reported to have been killed and three injured. The violence soon spread to other parts of Maharashtra, including Mumbai.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Mevani explains who was behind the attacks and why he considers the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, modern-day representatives of the Brahminical Peshwas. Mevani – who came to prominence when he led the Dalit agitation in Gujarat in 2016 in the wake of the attack by upper-caste men on Dalit tanners in Una for skinning a dead cow – also speaks of what Dalit assertion means to him.

Excerpts from the interview:

Who were the people who tried to disrupt the Elgar Parishad and attacked the Dalits?
The people who attacked us are those who are not comfortable with Dalit assertion and their mobilisation. As I understand, these attacks were carried out by supporters of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. These organisations are the modern-day Peshwas, representing Brahminism in its worst form. Two hundred years ago, our forefathers fought against the Peshwas. Today, Dalits of my generation are fighting against the new Peshwas. Why can’t Dalits peacefully commemorate the anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle? They [the attackers] have resorted to such methods because they are scared of Dalit assertion.

Why do you call the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh the “new Peshwas”? What makes you declare that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime represents the resurgence of Brahminism?
The Peshwa regime was meant to protect the Brahminical system based on caste. The same is perpetrated by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Hindu Rashtra means protecting and promoting the hegemony of upper castes. Modiji has perpetrated neo-liberal policies by favouring the greed of corporate houses and patronised Brahminical oppression. His Gujarat model is essentially a Brahminical model. Dalits, minorities, farmers, labourers have no place in this system. Their rights have no meaning for these Brahminical oppressors, just as they meant nothing to the Peshwas.

Ordinary people are being attacked in the name of the cow, ghar wapsi and love jihad. Every time there is violence against Dalits, Modiji does nothing but shed crocodile tears while openly patronising the oppressors. What else would you call them if not the new Peshwas?

What changes do you think the Dalit movement should undergo in order to gain new momentum?
The Dalit movement must be taken in the right direction. It should focus on real and material issues and not just rhetorical slogans. The assertion among Dalit youth after the Rohith Vemula episode has been phenomenal. It has to be linked with the struggle for the economic upliftment of Dalits. A struggle against the caste system essentially means fighting both caste and class-based oppression. It means fighting against the devastation caused by neo-liberal policies. Why can’t the Dalit movement talk about the rights of the poor, about the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation, about foreign policy and communal harmony? The Dalit movement has to be all-encompassing. Only then can it free itself from rhetoric and be connected to real material issues.

How do you plan to take your fight against the oppression of Dalits forward?
We have formed the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch. In the next six months, we plan to hold Dalit conventions in every district of Gujarat. Our objective is to fight against both Brahminism and capitalism. We are attacking Brahminism and also talking about issues of governance, corruption, corporate loot, farmers’ suicides and inflation. We are talking about social justice, and we will also not remain silent about the rights of the poor, including Dalits. These issues have so far been confined to the sidelines of the Dalit movement. We will bring them to the forefront, first in Gujarat and then in the rest of the country.