In July 1997, at least 10 Dalits were killed when the Mumbai police fired into a crowd protesting the desecration of BR Ambedkar’s statue in Ramabai Ambedkar Colony in the eastern Ghatkopar neighbourhood. Ritesh Bansode was 11 years old then but he remembers the police attacking his neighbours and relatives.
On New Year’s Day this year, he saw members of his community being attacked in Pune’s Bhima Koregaon village. They had gone there, along with lakhs of other Dalits, to commemorate a battle that was fought there 200 years ago. But at the site, the visitors were attacked by a group of people waving saffron flags. As the violence spread, one person died and several buses, cars and shops were vandalised.
On Wednesday, as Bansode joined thousands of others across Maharashtra to protest against the violence, he explained the cause of his frustration. “So many years have passed but nothing has changed for us,” he said. “If we don’t protest today, these upper-caste people will wipe us out.”
As the protestors marched on to the highway outside Ramabai Ambedkar Colony, one of them urged passersby to “join the movement”. “We have always been victims of atrocities inflicted by the upper castes,” said Poornima Bhosale. She was in Bhima Koregaon when the attack occured, she said, and had to hide under a truck to save herself.
“It was a planned attack,” Bhosale claimed. “Shouldn’t we protest against the violence targeted at us?”
Continuing where they left off on Tuesday, Dalits flooded the streets of Mumbai, and many other places across Maharashtra, blocking roads and railway tracks. “We had to stop the city to bring attention to the violence we face everyday,” said Nikhil Jadhav, a science graduate protesting outside Ramabai Ambedkar Colony.
Jadhav said the unrest was a consequence of “years of discrimination”. “We have been silent for so long but no more,” he said. “The attack in Bhima Koregaon was planned in connivance with the police. Our mothers, sisters and children were attacked and the police just watched.”
Bhosale added they were protesting for a better future for their children. “We want the people who attacked us in Bhima Koregaon to be arrested immediately,” she said.
She is hoping justice will be done even though she does not have much trust in the government. “It’s a government of Brahmins,” Bhosale alleged. “They believe in discrimination. They don’t want us to prosper, so they don’t miss any opportunity to harass us.”
Fellow protestors seemed to share her sentiment as they shouted slogans against Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some mouthed abuses at ministers for allegedly supporting upper caste people attacking Dalits.
Kamal Suralkar, a housewife who was among those shouting the slogans, said it was a government of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, referring to the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules in both Maharashtra and at the Centre. “People who talk about Hindutva will not see us,” she said.
Suralkar, who lives in Bhim Nagar, Sakinaka, in the western suburb of Andheri, feared the protests could invite state repression against Dalits. “Police are always waiting to arrest us,” she claimed. “Today, they are allowing us to protest but tomorrow they will come and take away our children.”
At some places in the city, meanwhile, the protesters squared up to the reporters covering them. They were miffed that TV news channels and newspapers “owned by Brahmins” did not cover the attack on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon. “We can’t trust you,” the protestors outside Ramabai Ambedkar Colony told this reporter. “Even if we talk to the news channels, they only show the problems of commuters and conveniently forget the violence we faced.”