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Maharashtra saw violent protests after clashes between Dalits and some Maratha groups in Bhima Koregaon. Dalits had gathered in Pune to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon. These clashes and the subsequent protests brought the focus back on Dalit assertion and its conflict with Hindutva politics. The writer analyses this conflict in this Business Standard Special.
The determination and force of the response of the Dalits to the violence at the Bhima Koregaon has unsettled the BJP governments of the state of Maharashtra and the centre. It has also baffled the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This time it has not been easy for the BJP and the governments to denounce the protests the way could do in the past. Previously the Student leaders of the JNU were successfully branded as anti-national. The students and teachers of the Ramjas college of the university of Delhi were also declared anti-national. Before them, the student unrest - mainly led by Dalits - at the central University of Hyderabad was condemned as casteist and anti national. This time the response from the centre’s of power has been slightly complex. It is true that the RSS tried to blame the violence at the Bhima Koregaon on Umar Khalid and Jignesh Mevani. It did say that the Bharat tere tukde honge gang was responsible for the violence. But interestingly, this time this allegation could not create the kind of frenzied attack on these leaders as we have seen on the previous occasions directed at Kanhaiya, Umar and others. Student leader Umar Khalid and the newly elected MLA from Gujarat Jignesh Mevani were targeted specifically. Criminal cases were registered against them claiming that it was their provocative speeches which led to violence. But again, these two leaders have not been pushed to back foot. Instead of going defensive, the Dalit leaders have blamed the RSS for the violence and have been demanding the arrest of Guruji Bhide and Ekbote. Prakash Ambedkar has even allaeged that the PMO is saving these accused. The RSS is struggling. How did it happen? Let us try to understand the new situation. Jignesh Mevani has made it clear after the atrocity at Una that he wouldn’t let the BJP and RSS have respite even for a moment. He is also articulating an alternative vision of development and politics for the Dalits which is much more than getting representation in the electoral politics for them. Even after entering the assembly in Gujarat through elections he has made it clear that his fight would continue on the streets. It explains the extraordinary attention that the annual event at the Vijaystambh at Bheema Koregaon attracted this time. The scale of the commemoration of the battle between the forces of the East India company and the army of the Peshwas was unprecedented this year. But more important than that is that the the organisers decided to give this commemorative event a contemporary meaning. It was an audacious move to invite Umar, Jignesh, Radhika Vemula, mother of Rohit Vemula on this occasion. The organisers were giving a clear message that they want to take the political project of the RSS head on, refuse to be cornered by the threat of exclusion from the nationalist project , which the RSS claims only it has a right to interpret. They assert their right to protest the hegemonic intent of the RSS and in this process gain agency for themselves. One knows that Dalits enjoy a unique position in the current political scenario. They have brought with them a unique force and energy.
The RSS knows that to stabilise its project of Hindu Rashtra it would need the militancy of the Dalit politics. It cannot therefore antagonise Dalits.The RSS and the BJP would be happy if the Dalit politics remains confined to the anxiety of Dalit inclusion in the mainstream politics. But it has before it a new kind of Dalit voice emerging. From the campuses of IIT Madras ,Central University of Hyderabad, JNU and Saharanpur a new educated Dalit class is asserting itself. It is speaking of and about alliances. The RSS has been disturbed by the rise of this voice which instead of competing with the minorities, seeks to speak on their behalf. This was the reason for the Sangh fury against Rohit Vemula and their friends. It we care to remember, we can recall the charge by the BJP leaders that these young student leaders have never demanded reservation in the AMU or Jamia Millia Islamia Universities. This emerging politics is also trying to weave a national narrative of unrest. So, the cry of Chandrashekhar Ravan finds resonance in Gujarat and Maharashtra. You can see the bonhomie, solidarity among these young greenhorns which infects the new masses of young Dalits. It has the potential to replace the old, tired Dalit leaders safely ensconced in the Parliamentary space. The RSS has taken note of this threat and decided to aggressively reach out to the Dalits assuring them of a respectable place in its political and cultural project of Hindutva . It is asking the caste Hindus to help it in creating a harmonious Hindu Samaj. Can its wish be converted into reality? The message from the ground is not very encouraging. The caste Hindus have shown no desire to forego their identity markers. It is after all associated with its material interests. We are told that there is a resurgence of the Caste pride in the so called forward castes. It is being demonstrated more aggressively than ever before. It is seen in areas where even their forefathers had not done it. It would certainly disturb and even thwart the agenda of the RSS to enlist the Dalit in their project where they could feel to be on equal footing with caste Hindus. Even after that this time the educated Dalit seems to be more hungry. It is not only demanding a ride of on the bus of democracy, it wants to be on the steering wheels. 2018 is going to be an interestingly bitter year. The future of not only Indian democracy but the very idea of India as we know it depends on the outcome of the tussle between these two competing projects. One is flush with funds and a well oiled organisational machinery. The other has courage of freshness and a promise of novelty. At some point we’ll also be asked to choose our side.
Apoorvanand teaches in Delhi University