Cover Story: Ground Zero

Bhima Koregaon

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A street report

VIKAS SONTATE WORE his socks over his hands like gloves and stuck his head out from the window of his vehicle on the first day of the new year. His vehicle was a mess. Everything that could be shattered had been shattered. The headlights, the windows, the wing mirrors, they had all been battered into shards of glass strewn all over his car. He had to be careful touching the steering wheel. The windshield had not entirely given in, but it was impossible to see through it, and now as he sped away from a violent crowd, bits of glass were flying into his face and—he feared—his eyes.

Sontate, who runs a Mumbai-based company that produces films and videos related to BR Ambedkar, was in Bhima Koregaon. He had come here, a few kilometres away from Pune, like he had been doing for over 15 years, to participate in the celebration of the 1818 Bhima Koregaon Battle, where Mahar soldiers under the British army defeated a far larger Peshwa force. This time, he came with his father and son, along with some friends, and set up a stall to exhibit some statues of Ambedkar his company had started making. But in the commotion, he got separated. Sontate saw several people bloodied and injured. There was smoke from burning vehicles on the horizon. Stones were being cast from the terraces of buildings. When he looked up, he saw that many of these were being hurled by boys and girls. In one instance, he nearly got caught by a group of people armed with stones and sticks.

Sontate drove through fields and on dirt roads without much of a clue where he was going. If he came by people whom he could ask for directions, they would often laugh at him. “It was so scary,” he says. “Nobody came to our help. Those who weren’t attacking us were laughing at us. They would stand by the sides of the road and laugh at our cars. Even the police didn’t help. It was humiliating.”

By this time, news of these attacks had begun to spread among Dalits throughout the state. In protest, for the next two days, they brought many cities in the state, including Mumbai, to a standstill. As described by Suresh Mane, president of the Bahujan Republican Socialist Party and a former national general secretary of Bahujan Samaj Party, such a massive agitation by Dalits has not been witnessed in the state since the stir following the 1997 Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar police firing in Mumbai. Then, the police had shot at Dalit demonstrators in the locality protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue, killing 10 and injuring several.

“I think this is an important moment in Dalit politics, especially in Maharashtra. All Dalit parties put aside their differences and came out into the streets this time. And there were so many youths, just common people, those not affiliated to any party or group, who were out protesting,” Mane says. Among those arrested in Mumbai for indulging in vandalism during the January 3rd bandh, many turned out to be students pursuing MBAs, engineering and infotech courses. “I think there is a new generation of empowered Dalit youths, technologically savvy, conscious and aware of their rights, who are going to challenge the status quo,” Mane says.

“Nobody came to our help in Koregaon. Those who weren’t attacking us were laughing at us. Even the police didn’t help. It was humiliating” - Vikas Sontate, Mumbai-based businessman

Vaibhav Chhaya is a 30-year-old professional from the Dalit community in Mumbai who is a popular and active figure online.

He designs social media campaigns for a living and also writes poetry. As news of the Bhima-Koregaon clashes started pouring in, Chhaya went onto the internet to share the news. He used the platform to offer the afflicted shelter and medical assistance, and later, raised money to get legal help for Dalit protestors.

“Somehow news concerning atrocities on Dalits is never considered important. Even on January 1st [the day of the attacks in Bhima Koregaon], there was hardly any coverage in newspapers and on TV channels. Bhima Koregaon is not so far from Mumbai and Pune. Yet, not a single OB van showed up. What does that tell you about priorities?” he asks. “It was only the next day, when Dalits began protesting in Mumbai, that it made the news, and even then it was portrayed as Dalits becoming a nuisance. It is always the same.”

Pointing to how most newspapers focused on the amount of trash left behind by Dalits gathered at Shivaji Park in Mumbai to commemorate Ambedkar Jayanti on December 6th, Chhaya claims it was actually garbage washed up from the sea by Cyclone Ockhi. “We are always projected as the nuisance. Look at what happened in the Kharda case,” he says, referring to Ahmednagar’s Kharda village, where a 16-year-old Dalit was killed and hanged in 2014 for reportedly being in a relationship with an upper-caste girl; the accused were acquitted last November after a series of witnesses turned hostile. In contrast, in the Kopardi rape and murder case that rocked the state, a court handed the death sentence in the same month to several Dalit youths accused of the rape and killing of a Maratha girl in Kopardi. “Justice for Dalits is less important,” says Chhaya, “I think we are tired of this indifference. Casteism still continues, whether as oppression or the way in which our stories are unheard. Youngsters from the community have had enough.”

“There is a new generation of empowered Dalit youths, technologically savvy, conscious and aware of their rights who are going to challenge the status quo” - Suresh Mane, president, Bahujan Republican Socialist Party

While the anti-Dalit violence in Bhima Koregaon was the immediate cause for the street demonstrations that followed, a Dalit activist called Tushar Jagtap says that something like this was waiting to happen. The growing domination of the political space by right-wing forces seems to have made several Dalit groups and people anxious about being pushed into a corner. “There has been a resurgence among Dalit groups,” says Jagtap, “Dalit history and symbols like Bhima Koregaon are being reclaimed. Online campaigns are being carried out and new Dalit leaders are emerging.”

Koregaon was tense even before the clash. Several left-wing and Dalit groups had come there to form what they called the Bhima Koregaon Shauryadin Prerna Abhiyaan, a project to use the 200th celebration of the Battle as a rallying point to combat anti-Hindutva ideology, or what they called the ‘new Peshwai’. Later, Jignesh Mevani, Umar Khalid and Radhika Vemula (the late Rohith Vemula’s mother) were among those invited to address a crowd a day prior to the event. A crowd estimated at over 300,000 showed up on New Year’s Day, a lot more than usual, when the number is typically in thousands. Some right-wing groups openly opposed the event, asking the police to deny it permission, terming the commemoration ‘anti-national’ and even contesting the historicity of the event. Two men with right-wing links, Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide ‘Guruji’ who leads the Shiv Prathisthan, and Milind Ekbote, who heads the radical Hindu outfit Samasta Hindu Aghadi, have since been accused of inciting the Koregaon violence.

Like a lot of those who came under attack, Sontate believes it was planned. Having arrived in Bhima Koregaon on December 31st, several things appeared odd, he claims. A fuel station, on seeing the blue flag associated with Ambedkar atop his vehicle, refused to sell him diesel claiming it was over; a tea vendor spoke threateningly when asked to serve him a cup; and the owners of the house close to where he parked his car told him to park it elsewhere and that they couldn’t be held responsible for what happened to it. He claims cellphone jammers were being used the next day during the attacks. His cellphone could not find any connectivity almost the entire day, even in areas where his calls had easily gone through before. “There was a strike-like situation there,” Mane says. “You couldn’t even get food or drinking water.”

“It was only when Dalits began protesting in Mumbai that it made the news, and even then it was portrayed as Dalits becoming a nuisance. It is always the same” - Vaibhav Chhaya, Mumbai-based professional

At the heart of the Bhima Koregaon clash and the Dalit re- assertion is a power struggle going on between Marathas and Brahmins in Maharashtra. The Maratha community, which comprises about 35 per cent of the population, has long dominated the state’s social and political landscape. They own plenty of farm land, control institutions, and have always held the key to political power in Mumbai. In the last few years, however, with the BJP victory and appointment as Chief Minister of Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin with an RSS background, many Marathas have come to feel marginalised. The agrarian crisis and lack of jobs have exacerbated the disgruntlement. There is a historical grievance too, with many Marathas believing their ancestors were poorly treated by the Brahminical rule of Peshwas, whose empire spanned the region in the 18 th and early part of the 19th centuries.

In the past few years, there has been a hyper-mobilisation of Marathas. A series of large silent protests by Maratha youths has been carried out across the state. Among their demands have been justice for the victim of the Kopardi rape and murder case, reservation for Marathas in educational institutions and government jobs, and an amendment in the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act to ensure it is not ‘misused’, all of which have made several Dalit groups anxious. The aim of these silent marches, it appears, has been to mobilise Marathas.

Although the Bhima Koregaon clash was largely a Maratha- versus-Dalit conflict on the ground, Prakash Ambedkar, who was at the forefront of the Dalit protest, has made it a point to stress that it was not a conflict between the two communities. According to him, Maratha groups like the Sambhaji Brigade also participated in the 200th anniversary celebration of the Bhima- Koregaon Battle. One political commentator points out that groups like Sambhaji Brigade, although seemingly of right wing orientation, are Maratha groups that are incensed with political power being taken over by upper castes.

February 10th is the deadline issued by Maratha marchers for the state government to meet their demands. Koregaon brought to the fore all sorts of caste conflicts, Dalits against Marathas, Marathas against Brahmins, and Dalits against Brahmins.

There are various entangled threads here and it is not known how they will unravel as the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections near. Dalits make up about one-tenth of Maharashtra’s electorate. Dalit political parties have been riven by factional differences, and the Dalit vote, like in several other states, has become so divided that it has often lost its weight. If Dalit electoral favour can be consolidated, it could tilt the ballot balance.

Jagtap argues that Dalit leaders have never represented the interests of the community. “The Dalit leadership exists solely to fulfil the interests of the ruling political castes,” he says, “They are not interested in the upliftment of the masses. They exist simply to support one group or another to power.”

But recent events provide an opportunity, say Dalit leaders, to unite the community and make a difference electorally. “It has taken some 20 years [since the protests against the 1997 Ramabai killings] for the Dalit population to get galvanised and for Dalit parties of all hues to come together. I think this is an opportunity that should not to be missed,” Mane says. “Our current focus is to get those responsible for the Bhima Koregaon attacks punished. The next step will be to consolidate the Dalit vote.”

It was close to midnight when Sontate finally caught up with his father and son at a nearby village. He had driven around the whole day without water or food, with socks on his hands, craning his neck out of the window. His family, he was relieved, had escaped unhurt. “I was in tears when I saw them,” he says. “It’s not that I am scared... In fact, I am going to go again to Bhima Koregaon. I won’t take my family along, but I will go.”