Though Narendra Modi has a record of maintaining strategic silence on mob violence, he has employed it more in the context of brutalities against Muslims than against Dalits. In fact, in keeping with his efforts to appropriate BR Ambedkar and woo Dalit voters, the prime minister condemned the cow vigilantes who had flogged four Dalit youth in Una, Gujarat, in 2016, famously calling them “anti-social elements”. Jignesh Mevani, the leader thrown up by the agitation sparked by the Una attack, is now taunting Modi for his silence on the violent disruption of the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle in the Pune district.

One reason for Modi’s reticence is that the assault on Dalits in Pune, leading to further violence across Maharashtra, has reopened an old wound for the Sangh Parivar. The challenge goes beyond the alleged complicity in the attack of Hindutva leader Sambhaji Bhide whom Modi had hailed as Guruji in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. What is at stake for the prime minister is his reverence for the original Guruji, MS Golwalkar – the second supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who had decades ago lashed out at Ambedkar in the same context of the Dalit commemoration of the 1818 battle.

In his 1966 book Bunch of Thoughts, this is how Golwalkar reacted to Ambedkar’s 1927 visit to the Bhima Koregaon war memorial.

“There is a ‘Victory Pillar’ near Pune, raised by the English in 1818 to commemorate their victory over the Peshwas. An eminent leader of the Harijans once addressed his caste-brethren under that Pillar. He declared that the pillar was a symbol of their victory over the Brahmins as it was they who had fought under the British and defeated the Peshwas, the Brahmins. How heart-rending it is to hear an eminent leader thus describing the hated sign of slavery as an emblem of victory, and the despicable action of fighting as slaves of a foreigner against our own kith and kin as an achievement of glory! How utterly his eyes must have been blinded by hatred, not able even to discern the simple fact of who were the victors and who the defeated! What a perversity?”  

Such strong words from Golwalkar make it difficult for Modi to deal with the current crisis with any pretense of impartiality. The attack on Dalits in Pune has unwittingly laid bare the contradiction between Modi’s ideological moorings and his garb of a social justice champion reaching out to Dalits. In his book Jyoti Punj, written in Gujarati and published in 2008, Modi writes about 16 people who have apparently inspired his politics: the longest essay is on Golwalkar. Today, Modi can hardly admit that he agrees with Golwalkar’s suggestion that Ambedkar was “blinded by hatred” when he paid tribute to the Mahar Dalit soldiers who had helped overthrow the caste-ridden Peshwa regime. For, barely a month ago, Modi inaugurated an impressive memorial called Dr Ambedkar International Centre and built on a three-acre plot in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. In addition, his government has developed what he called “Panchteerth”, five pilgrimage sites associated with Babasaheb’s life.

Troubled legacy

Modi can, however, draw solace from the fact that Golwalkar, who described it as a “hated sign of slavery”, was not the only one to have betrayed discomfort over the symbolism of the Bhima Koregaon pillar. Shortly after independence, the pillar was removed from the insignia of the Mahar regiment, raised in 1941 thanks to Ambedkar’s lobbying with the British. Though he was then the law minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, there was little Ambedkar could do to stop the pillar from being replaced by a dagger on the regiment’s crest. The saving grace is, this was around the time the Constituent Assembly came up with the long overdue measure abolishing untouchability.

The Congress has its own share of contradictions with regard to Dalits. Indeed, just a week before the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle, there was a centenary the party did not observe, presumably to save itself embarrassment: it was only at its 32nd annual session held in December 1917 that the Congress for the first time acknowledged the problem of untouchability and passed a resolution against it. This followed the 1916 Congress-Muslim League pact and the August 1917 Montagu declaration committing the colonial rulers to a “progressive realisation of responsible government” in India.

In November 1917, a meeting of Dalits had called upon the Congress to pass a resolution at its forthcoming session declaring to the people of India the necessity, justice and righteousness of removing all the disabilities “imposed by religion and custom” upon the depressed classes. Though it adopted the resolution on exactly the same terms, the Congress made one significant change: it deleted the reference to religion as a source of untouchability and blamed it on custom alone.

This did not, however, stop the Congress, in 1923, from entrusting the implementation of the untouchability resolution to a religion-based organisation then allied to it, the Hindu Mahasabha. It was only after the historic confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar at the second Round Table Conference in 1931 that the Congress began to address Dalit grievances with greater seriousness.

But while the Congress has a history of being driven by expediency on this critical issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party tends to run into ideological dilemmas, as now over the violence unleashed on Dalits in Bhima Koregaon.

Manoj Mitta is working on a book on violence targeting Dalits.