Cover Story: Essay

Anatomy of a Pastiche

Abhinav Prakash teaches at Delhi University
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What we see in the name of Dalit politics and Ambedkarite discourse is an echo of old-style leftist talk coupled with Naxal grandstanding of yore

THE VIOLENCE AND controversy surrounding the Bhima-Koregaon commemoration have jolted the urban centres of Maharashtra out of their mechanical life and diurnal certainties. Ever since that fateful battle between the British army led by Captain Francis Staunton and the forces of Peshwa Bajirao II, much water has flown down the river Bhima. But echoes of that battle, the clamour of weapons and smoke from cannons can still be heard and seen in the fractured socio-political landscape of 21st Century India. The valour of soldiers fighting under the British flag, their blood and sweat on the banks of a river said to have originated from the sweat of Shiva himself, has passed into legends and myth; first as part of a colonial mythmaking project and later as a symbol of Dalit pride—for a people longing for a sense of history where they too held their heads high in the hall of heroes. Contrary to the crescendo of acclamation, the actual event was rather underwhelming.

During the third Anglo-Maratha War, the armies of the British and the Peshwa (rather unexpectedly) intercepted each other at Koregaon while marching towards Pune. The Peshwa was leading an army of 28,000 to recapture the seat of his power from where he had so ignominiously fled nearly a month before. The British army of 834 soldiers, of which some 500 were Mahars, had been summoned from nearby Shirur to reinforce Pune’s defences against an expected assault. The battle was fought on January 1st, 1818, largely between Mahar soldiers of the British army and Arab soldiers of the Peshwa’s vanguard of 2,000, which included Gosains and Marathas as well and were supported by two big guns and cavalry. The battle ended in a stalemate and both armies retreated the next day. British troops went back to Shirur, carrying their dead. The Peshwa’s withdrew, fearing the arrival of a larger British force. The British had lost 275 soldiers, and of the dead Indian fighters, 22 were Mahar, 16 Maratha, eight Rajput, and rest either Muslim or Jewish.

But the very fact that they denied victory to a much larger army and the fortitude they showed was enough for the British to commemorate the battle with a victory pillar. The inscription on the obelisk declared the battle to be one of the proudest triumphs of the British Army in the East. Though dedicated to the British Empire and its military prowess, over the time it became a memorial for Mahars to honour their dead. For decades, they have been gathering in this nondescript village to remember their valour, celebrate their heroes and fortify their courage in the face of daily struggles which made survival arduous under the systematic oppression of an order of graded inequality that we know as the caste system.

Bhima-Koregaon captured the imagination of Dalit masses beyond the local populous when Dr BR Ambedkar visited the site in 1927 along with ex-servicemen and challenged the caste normalcy that expected Dalits to live as a servile community with no history of military bravery. Ambedkar portrayed it not only as a source of inspiration, a battle in which the feudal caste order of Old India, embodied by Peshwa rule, was dealt a decisive blow by Mahars, but also a focal point for protest against the British ban on Dalit recruitment for the army by classifying them as a ‘non-martial’ race. He challenged the upper-caste ‘hegemony of memory’ by directly posing as a counterpoint the Dalit memory of what apparently amounts to a celebration of British victory over an Indian power.

Since then, the legend of Bhima-Koregaon has spread beyond the confines of Mahar tradition and the borders of Maharashtra, riding on the wings of Dalit-run publications and pamphlets like a whisper in the air beyond the grasp of those whose idea of revolution or standing up to power begins and ends in the comfort of Lutyens’ Delhi and the capital’s Press Club.

Among Dalits, Bhima-Koregaon is a positive memory, and contrary to allegations, it has never been a celebration of the British Empire. They see it as a metaphor for the fall of the old social order and rise of a new one promised by colonial modernity, a promise which soon became a farce. The commemoration has always passed as a peaceful gathering, often with officers and soldiers of the Indian Army’s Mahar Regiment turning up to pay tributes to their long- lost comrades. In this, it is no different from other army regiments paying homage to those fallen in any battle fought since its inception, be it under the British Raj or Republic of India. An apt parallel would be the commemoration of the battle of Haifa, where Indian soldiers from the former states of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad fought under the British flag. It is not a celebration of a British victory, but of the bravery of Indian soldiers, though it has been given a new context in service of diplomatic relations with Israel.

But what then explains the high-pitch rhetoric and emotional outbursts over Bhima-Koregaon today? What is the root cause of this seemingly ‘militant’ Dalit politics among the youth across the country from Hyderabad to Saharanpur to Mumbai and Pune? Why this chaos? The answer is not difficult to grasp if we examine the churn in Dalit politics being driven by demographic changes.

Today’s young Dalits are are far more educated and aspirational than ever before. Institutions of higher learning are full of first-generation learners from Dalit communities. What’s more, they are not like their parents’ generation, which emerged from oblivion on the national scene thanks to caste-based reservations, remained largely silent and preferred anonymity. This generation is confident, ambitious and often blunt about it. But despite all this, there still exists a glass ceiling, one that is hit sooner or later. They soon realise that social capital and well-entrenched caste networks count for more than the percentage on their marksheets and that casteism has simply become subtler, more hidden, practised like an art form now rather than the rustic brazenness of the countryside.

Bhima Koregaon and the ‘Dalit view’ is seen via the prism of the Mahar caste, which is but one of several Dalit groups in Maharashtra

This results in disappointment, frustration and anger at the injustice of the system. And this is more visible among those who come from poorer families or are first-generation students of higher education. This simmering anger born of the dismay then potentially becomes prey for radical demagoguery, either in the mould of ultra-leftist delusions or some forms of bigotry, sometimes fanned by non-Dalits. It is here we see the slow poisoning of a promising generation, their future put at threat by the allure of a revolutionary struggle with which they try to fill their lives with meaning. Alas, revolts there have been many, but what have Dalits ever gained out of them? In a revolution, power never goes to the people in whose name it is unleashed, but to those who stand behind the seat of the power, waiting patiently in the wings. In the ensuing chaos, Dalits lose whatever they have built while a ‘new society’ is supposedly being born, and are back to square one in the next cycle.

That is not the only trend. A new Dalit middle-class has emerged, given a flip by India’s economic reforms. The children of this class are increasingly diversifying their job profiles, taking to private sector businesses. Their lifestyle and worldview are no different from other similarly placed groups. This rapidly growing class is a strong votary of economic reforms and development; so much so that a new discourse has been spawned in the name of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ that advocates entrepreneurship and speaks of market access and rapid industrialisation as modes of emancipation from the old caste-based order, rather than making reservation demands.

But there is a far more powerful trend being ignored by the monolithic ‘Dalit narrative’ pushed by the media and academia. This is a process most accurately described as ‘de-Brahminised Hinduisation’. Flawed portrayals of the caste system as a Hindu religious paradigm and calls for the destruction of Hinduism itself as a solution to the problem have always been a dead end in history. What this deconstruction of the faith, attacks on its priestly class and myths led to was not its destruction but a decline of the ritual power of upper-castes. Unlike day-dreams that appear in print, an overwhelming majority of Dalits remain Hindu, powerfully attached to their customs and traditions, their deities, their kul devtas and sampradayas (clan deities and sects). But what has changed is they no longer define their identity by Brahminical narratives. Instead, they are creating their own self-image within the Hindu framework, elements of which include assertions of their own clans and the rejection of any need to derive social legitimacy from Brahmin gotras (lineages). This represents both protest and assimilation into the larger Hindu community, done increasingly on their terms. The decline in the ritual supremacy of upper-castes has reduced Dalit resentment and curiously even strengthened Hinduism among the masses, unlike what both the Hindu orthodoxy and anti-Hindu radicals would have assumed. This is an important development and has been the main cause of a right-wards political shift among Dalits seen in many parts of the country.

Few realise that the narrative of Bhima-Koregaon and the ‘Dalit view’ is seen via the prism of the Mahar caste, which is but one of several Dalit communities in Maharashtra and among hundreds across India. If Mahar soldiers fighting on the British side makes it a Dalit struggle against Peshwa rule for ‘social justice’, then a large number of soldiers of other Dalit castes like Matang and Mang fought alongside Peshwa forces. Does this make it a Dalit ‘nationalist’ fight against the British? Among various Dalit castes, whose is the Dalit narrative?

Therein lies a tale. Today, there is also an assertion of the heterogeneity of Dalit aspirations and narratives. Why should it continue to be seen though the lens of ‘vanguard castes’, those which have been better placed in the socio-economic hierarchy than other Dalit castes and had the numerical heft for political mobilisation? Why should Mahars define what it means to be Dalit? After all, anti-Hinduism and adoption of Buddhism have not found any significant takers outside a section of Mahars even in Maharashtra. Similarly, why should Jatavs set the agenda in UP and set the template of Dalit politics there?

DIFFERENT DALIT CASTES have begun to assert their ambitions and are willing to work with any political party and caste formation that gives them a better deal for socio-economic mobility. So why should Jatav opposition to the BJP in UP mean Dalits are against the party when most other Dalit castes are aligned with it? Most of these castes had anyway abandoned the BSP long before the state’s 2017 Assembly elections for either the BJP or the SP. This has caused the unravelling of the old homogenous Dalit politics and has increased both competition and confusion.

Note the absence of any Kanshi Ram in the post-BSP era. Kanshi Ram welded the Dalit restlessness of his generation into a coherent force for democratic political action, rather than promising ‘fights in the streets’, and succeeded in doing the unthinkable: bringing a Dalit party to political power. But his death followed by the decline of the BSP movement and the increasing irrelevance of Mayawati means a scramble for the mantle of Dalit leadership has started. In this, there is no one to hold the centre, no one to stop the insidious infiltration of Dalit discourse by Maoist ideology and even Islamist influence. Kanshi Ram had once remarked that “communists are green snakes in the green grass”, but today what we see in the name of Dalit politics and Ambedkarite discourse is an echo of old-style leftist talk coupled with Naxal grandstanding of yore. This has changed the tone of Dalit politics, as this section also happens to hold the promise of higher TRPs for news telecasts.

These different pushes and pulls within the Dalit community account more for the unrest we see today than any external factor. It is a search for a new equilibrium, a new paradigm along with a hunt for events of the past to anchor their narratives. There is almost a complete absence of Dalit and Tribal history from our curriculums. Any history which doesn’t include the history of a quarter of India’s population will always lack legitimacy. There will always be a risk that Dalit history is seized upon by those whose actual interests are less than benign. And it is here that Bhima-Koregaon becomes important for Mahars, even if their memory and claims clash with those of dominant castes like Marathas.