‘Brahmins want to create divisions between us and other castes.” That was the opinion of Nitin Payal, 28, one of the thousands of people who attended a day-long strike in Pune on Wednesday, as Dalit groups across Maharashtra protested an attack on members of their community on New Year’s Day.
The attack occured in the village of Bhima Koregaon near Pune, where lakhs of Dalits had gathered to commemorate the 200th anniversary of a battle there. They said that they had been assaulted by people with saffron flags and saffron shirts. One person died and several buses, cars and shops were vandalised in the violence that spread to at least five villages near the site of the battle. Residents of the village, meanwhile, also claimed that people with blue flags – the colour associated with Dalit groups – had attacked them and their property too.
But Dalits and others who called a bandh across Maharashtra on January 3 to protest this violence say that the root of the problem lay in an attack on December 29 on the tomb of Govind Gaikwad. Gaikwad was a Mahar who is celebrated for having conducted the last rites of Maratha ruler Sambhaji after he was murdered by the Mughals in 1689. The tomb is at Wadhu Budruk, a village a few kilometres west of Koregaon Bhima.
This attack, according to Prakash Ambedkar, head of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, one of the parties that called the bandh, was led by Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, both known to have deep connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Both men have several criminal cases against them, the Mumbai Mirror reported. A case has been filed against Ekbote and Bhide.
On December 30, after the attack at Wadhu, the Gram Panchayat of Koregaon Bhima issued a letter to the police calling for the village to be closed on January 1 to prevent any trouble if crowds gathered there.
This was an unprecedented move. Members of the Maratha community in Koregaon Bhima told Scroll.in that they and others in the village have participated in the festivities for years, largely by keeping stalls open to sell water and tea to the lakhs who stream in from across the country, and also by offering their homes to outsiders for toilet facilities. By calling for the village to be shut on January 1, the village effectively closed its doors to all outsiders. On Tuesday, Marathas in the Bhima Koregaon burnt a dhaba owned by a Dalit to protest the attacks against them.
Despite this, Dalits participating in the day-long Maharahtra bandh on Wednesday were at pains to emphasise that their fight was not with Marathas or people of other castes, but with the Brahminical ideology itself, from which the very concept of caste divisions and oppression stems. The bandh was also supported by some Maratha, Muslim and Other Backward Classes groups, indicating a wider solidarity.
It is their fight against this ideology that is commemorated in Bhima Koregaon each year and which seems to have ruffled Hindutva feathers.
Here is what those who participated in the bandh had to say.
In a speech to a crowd gathered at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Udyan near Pune Railway Station, Bajrang Rajguru, an office bearer of the Bahujan Mukti Party, called on participants to target their anger at Brahmins, not the Marathas who had protested in Koregaon Bhima the previous day.
“Don’t fight with the excuse of caste,” Rajguru said. “Even Marathas are our brothers, keep that in mind. The Brahmins have incited some Maratha brothers against us. That is why despite your emotions, don’t fall for the poison that the Brahmins are spreading against them.”
According to Rajguru, the crowds that had gathered to attend the bicentennial of Bhima Koregaon had been peaceful.
“Those who spread inequality and differences, who promote their own religion and war-like sentiments, those Brahmins have made a plan to divide our country,” he claimed. “Even though our country is 70 years, our people who are the original inhabitants of this country still suffer indignities. Now it is time for our voice to be heard, on this, the birth date of Savitribai Phule, who educated women.”
Pradnyadeep Vanjare, 28, a Beed native who lives in Pune, witnessed violence at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 himself. People threw stones from the terraces of buildings at the Dalit visitors.
“Manuvadis attacked the Samata Sainik Dal from a hotel and threw stones at us,” Vanjare said.
The police did not stop the attacks from the roads or terraces when the visitors began to run away, he claimed. Vanjare and his friends, including Nitin Payal, believe that this attack was planned.
“It is important that we do not fall into the trap of action-reaction and take faith in constitutional justice,” Vanjare said.
Another complaint was about the way the media had portrayed Dalit protests in cities, compared to the violence against the community just the day before.
“The media is not on the side of the people, but on the side of the Manuvadis,” Payal said. “They should be neutral to all sides and religions and actually lead the way for social justice. But they are not doing this.”
The battle for freedom continues in smaller pockets, he said, and these efforts would ensure that the idea of India remains alive.
Sporting a green sweatshirt and cap, with a blue Ambedkarite flag in his hands, 27-year-old Kiran Gamre and a group of around 40 young Dalits in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb clapped their hands as they shouted slogans criticising the Modi government.
A sales executive at a private company, Gamre was among the lakhs of Dalits who visited Bhima Koregaon on January 1 to commemorate the Mahar army’s defeat of the Peshwas 200 years ago. “I was there when the violence broke out – the upper-caste people were throwing stones at us from their terraces, and the police did nothing to help or support us,” said Gamre, a member of a Dalit non-profit organisation called Baudhjan Panchayat Samiti, one of the many groups that mobilised Mumbai’s Dalit residents for Wednesday’s massive protest. “Those who attacked us even tore Babasaheb [Ambedkar’s] photo in front of us and the police,” he claimed. “How can we not be angry?”
Gamre and his friends are clear that these attacks on Dalits have been on the rise in India since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre in 2014. “These people want to destroy India’s unity,” he said. “One BJP minister actually said they want to change the Constitution” He was referring to Anantkumar Hegde, Union minister for employment and skill development, who on December 24 claimed, “we are here to change the Constitution”. He was later forced to retract his remarks.
“These people are not able to digest Babasaheb’s Constitution,” said Gamre. “They want to bring in Manusmriti instead.”
Every year, Sandeep More takes leave from the hospital where he works as an administrative staff and travels to Bhima Koregaon to pay his respects to the Dalit soliders who fought the Peshwas in 1818. This year, he isn’t sure why violence broke out at the annual event in Pune district.
“Our people became shaheed, so we go there to pay our respects,” said More, who was one of the hundreds of protesters at a Dalit rally in Mumbai’s Bandra area on Wednesday afternoon. “But this year, the Manuvadi [upper caste] people attacked us with stones and fire. Three people were injured and one person actually died. We have to raise our voices against this.”
According to More, who was in Pune when the violence occured, the police did nothing to stop the attackers, and instead lathi-charged the Dalits. “If the police had taken strict action, we wouldn’t have to do a Maharashtra bandh today,” he said. “It was a pre-planned attack on us.”
More claims he is unaffiliated to any political party and described the Bhima Koregaon violence this week as an unnecessary political stunt by the ruling party. “We don’t want to get into politics, but we are being forced to protest today,” he said.
The last time Seema Tambe felt conscious and defensive of her Dalit identity was 20 years ago, when miscreants put a garland of shoes around an Ambedkar statue in Mumbai’s Ramabai Nagar Dalit colony in July 1997. Ten Dalits were killed in police firing when they stepped out to protest.
“After the Ramabai Nagar incident, this is the first time I am participating in a protest march, because our people were assaulted on their way to Bhima Koregaon this year,” said Tambe, a 50-year-old housewife from Bandra’s Ambedkar Road. “In a city like Mumbai, I have never faced discrimination for being a Dalit, but at times like these, we have to come out and protest.”
Tambe had heard accounts of the violence in Bhima Koregaon from neighbours and relatives who were had travelled to Pune on January 1, and during the protest rally in Mumbai on Wednesday, she vented most of her anger at the media. “Why are you coming now to ask us about this peaceful morcha?” she said. “Where was the media when the upper-caste people started attacking our people in Pune?”
Tambe claimed that the protesters had come out on Mumbai’s streets spontaneously, and that they had not been organised by any political party.
“We just showed up on our own, because we are Dalits,” one of Tambe’s friends called out from the back.
Immediately correcting her, Tambe said, “We shouldn’t call ourselves Dalits. We are Buddhists.”