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Post Bhima Koregaon, the road for Indian politics

January 11, 2018 10:43 IST

'The continuing crisis in agriculture, the inability of successive governments to provide secure jobs to millions of youths having varying degrees of skills, and fragmentation of politics have created a sense of despondency.'

In an e-mail interview with's Prasanna D Zore, Shailendra Kharat -- assistant professor, politics department, Savitribai Phule Pune University -- offers insights into the radical churn taking place among the Dalits in the context of the Bhima Koregaon agitation; the possibility of a political alliance between the Dalits and Marathas, traditional foes in Maharashtra; the hurdles before Dalits to unite and emerge as a significant political bloc, and why there could be more clashes between the mainstream nationalism narrative and a counter narrative that might take shape because of the new-found Dalit assertion.


What were the reasons for the Dalit upsurge that we saw across Maharashtra after they were attacked January 1 in Bhima Koregaon?

The largely successful bandh witnessed throughout Maharahstra after the attacks signify that the attacks and the protests were not merely law and order problems, but they have deeper roots in the history and politics of the state.

One has to understand the reasons behind these protests at two levels.

One is the inter-relationship between the memory, Dalit assertion and nationalism. And second is the long-standing tension between the Dalit and Maratha caste groups in the state.

The tale of the battle of Bhima Koregaon has been told through different historical accounts. However for Dalits, the issue is not whether their own account of participating in the British army to cause the downfall of Peshwa rule is historically correct or not.

For them, it is a 'memory' of their 'valour' against oppressive Peshwa rule that is significant.

This 'memory' has given them confidence that was partly responsible in their fight against caste exploitation during the British period and after.

However, this narrative goes against the so-called mainstream nationalism that has considered the nationalist movement as a simple fight between British rule and the Indian people.

Even though the Congress came out of this simplistic definition of Indian nationalism, the present day agents of nationalism seem to have retained the naivety of this assumption.

Thus, the contemporary articulation of Indian nationalism is a heady mix of objectification of nation as mata (mother deity), leader (read Narendra D Modi) worship and majoritarian religious nationalism.

A section among these nationalists considers the Dalits' memory of siding with imperialist British rule and becoming a cause of the downfall of Peshwa rule as anti-national.

Therefore, they oppose this Dalit celebration of British triumph over oppressive Peshwa rule.

The larger point is about the nature of democratic politics in India.

One of the reasons behind the improbable success and sustenance of political democracy in India is that the country has a number of conflicting socio cultural identities. Also, no single social identity operates across the country.

Therefore it is not possible to base this country on any single social identity -- be it caste, religion or language.

This inherent secularism has prevented us from falling prey to an undemocratic regime of a singular social identity.

Political parties here need to build social alliances between various groups in order to win elections.

The BJP's promise of 'inclusive development' was supposed to be such an attempt. However, after coming to power, the party seems to have fallen prey to pressures from its core Hindutva ideology and organisations, and hence the increasing insecurity among religious minorities in India.

That Hindutva ideology is not only against religious minorities but also against the lower caste Dalits became clear in the Una and Rohith Vemula episodes.

The Bhima Koregaon attacks and agitations would further deepen this perception.

The multiple identities and conflicts are betrayed by one more angle involved in the Bhima Koregaon issue. This is the Wadhu Budruk episode (A memorial to Govind Gopal Gaikwad, or Ganpat Mahar, was attacked on December 29, 2017, three days ahead of the January 1, 2018 celebration of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.
Ganpat Mahar, Dalit lore emphasises, collected the severed body parts of Sambhaji (Shivaji's son), tortured to death by Aurangzeb, and cremated the body parts despite warnings from the Mughal emperor.
Some Marathas contest this Dalit claim and their narrative claims Sambhaji's body was cremated by fellow Marathas in 1689 and not by Ganpat Mahar

The conflict at this village shows another social tension in the state: Between the Marathas and Dalits.

Like in many states of India, this is a story of simmering tension between the dominant/middle castes and Dalits. And the causes are also far too familiar.

The continuing crisis in agriculture in globalised Maharashtra, inability of successive governments to provide secure jobs to millions of youths having varying degrees of skills, and fragmentation of state politics have created a sense of despondency and restlessness among Marathas in the state.

Add to this, the upward mobility among sections of Dalits due to reservation policy enabling them to assert themselves at various levels.

This has resulted in an additional episode in the long-standing conflict between Dalits and Marathas in the countryside.

Now that the Dalits too have become aggressive, as the Bhima Koregaon incident shows, how do you think will the conflict between these two nationalism narratives shape up in the days to come?

In all fairness to the BJP, it must be admitted that the party has been consistently trying to woo Dalit voters since 1990s.

It was also possible for the party to attract a large proportion of Dalit votes towards itself and away from the BSP (the Dalit-dominated Bahujan Samaj Party) in the UP (Uttar Pradesh) assembly elections last year.

One strategy that the BJP has adopted, apart from appropriating various symbols related to Dr Ambedkar, has been to enter into alliances with Dalit leaders and parties.

The BJP was able to do this without making any changes in its Hindu majoritarian ideology, without denouncing the caste system.

The party was successful in co-opting Dalit politics also because in the 1990s the latter started to base itself only on the agenda of representation.

This politics of social justice (by the Dalits) shied away from providing a deeper ideological alternative to the Hindu majoritarian worldview.

Actually Maharashtra has a long history of radical Dalit politics starting from (social reformer Jotiba) Phule and Dr Ambedkar.

In the post-Independence period, the Dalit Panthers provided a radical ideological edge to the movement.

The recent agitation around Bhima Koregaon was also supported by many radical Ambedkarite groups, some of which are social media-based.

However, as far as political intervention is concerned, Dalit politics is badly divided in various groups.

Also, the RPI (Republican Party of India), an important political party under (Union Minister) Ramdas Athavale's leadership has already gone under the wings of the BJP. Hence the current agitation may not get much traction in the sphere of parliamentary politics of the Dalits.

Keeping politics out of this equation, do you think these conflicting nationalisms or ideologies that the Dalits and the Hindutva right wing espouse now will keep clashing with each other as Dalits too have begun to assert their identity?

Providing an ideological alternative to Hindu nationalism has been one aspect of those agitations.

There were other elements too such as conflict with the Marathas.

Also, there is a large section among Dalits who wants to concentrate on upward mobility and is not interested much in ideological finesse.

On the other hand, there are many social media and other Ambedkarite groups that espouse radical ideology.

The interplay between these forces will decide the nature of ideological position that Dalit assertion takes in the days to come.

On the other hand, if militant Hindu nationalism continues unabated, it is more likely that we would have more such flashpoints between Dalits and Hindutva.

Also, if the Modi government continues to fail in keeping its promise of economic development for all, the likelihood of more such clashes would increase.

Taking inspiration from the Bhima Koregaon incident do you see the Dalits asserting themselves more powerfully, politically and socially, in the coming days?

Dalits have been at the receiving end of a number of social and economic hardships. And they are an assertive community.

In a way, Bhima Koregaon was a trigger which unleashed their resentments against all such oppressions.

So, if issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination faced by Dalits are not done away with, we might see many such agitations by the Dalits in the future.

Is the ground ripe for the emergence of a Mayawati-like Dalit political leaders in various Indian states?

In a sense, the BSP's failure in recent years has created a void of sorts in Dalit politics.

Also, there has been a lot of resentment among Dalits against the way in which Mayawati's politics was shaping up lately.

One does not see any abatement in the oppression against Dalits. There is a space for the emergence of a new Dalit leadership and Dalit politics in the country.

One can see that recently in the emergence of Jignesh Mewani (the activist Dalit leader who shot to fame after leading a mass agitation after the Una floggings in Gujarat and was later elected an MLA).

However, in order to become politically successful in the long run, this leadership has to put some hard work in building an organisation; and also carefully carve alliances with various like-minded social sections and political parties as Dalits are not numerically strong enough to do politics on their own.  

Assistant Professor, Politics Department, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Shailendra Kharat

What does the coming together of Dalits and Marathas, as you suggest was visible during the Bhima Koregaon agitation, signify for Maharashtra politics?

One needs to understand the larger political context of this episode of Dalit-Maratha alliance.

The Marathas, who form around 25 per cent of state population, have been politically powerful in the state.

However, as pointed out earlier, the crisis in agriculture, the breakdown of the cooperative movement in the state, fragmentation of state politics -- all have contributed in challenging the political hegemony of th3e Marathas.

The latest of these challenges was a Brahmin becoming CM (chief minister) of the state under BJP rule.

So, some Dalit groups' slogan 'Peshwai hatao' and the fact that Bhima Koregaon's symbolism involves vanquishing Brahmin Peshwa rule must have made those disgruntled Marathas interested in the Dalit agitation.

Secondly, Maharashtra has a history of vibrant non-Brahmin politics in the pre-Independence period.

Yashwantrao Chavan's (The powerful Maratha leader who became Maharashtra's first chief minister in 1960 and later Union defence and finance ministers) Bahujan politics also entailed compromise between the ruling Marathas and Dalits, among other communities.

Especially for those who consider that Brahmins versus non-Brahmins is still the major contradiction in Maharashtrian society, this coming together is celebratory.

However, considering that the Maratha-Dalit contradiction is based on, among other things, concrete land relations in the countryside, this alliance seems tenuous.

Also, the fact that Maratha organisations have not yet rescinded their demand for removal of (cases filed against the community by Dalits under the) Atrocities Act, should be kept in mind.

So this alliance needs to negotiate a number of thorny issues before it leads to a modicum of success in the long run.

How do you think will the upper caste and right wing Hindutva organisations, that are not too comfortable with this new-found Dalit assertion, react now?

One could see contradictory forces operating on this front.

On the one hand, the Hindu nationalists have been trying to assimilate Dalits through various means as mentioned earlier. However, this assimilation has been at the level of giving representation to Dalits on various sources of power.

This also goes well with the post Mandal Dalit politics which has been largely about power sharing anyway.

However, the core ideology of Hindutva would always be antithetical to Dalit assertion as the Hindu religion has many elements that oppress Dalits at various levels.

Hindu nationalists have not rejected that core of Hindu religion.

Also, other subject like cow protection goes against Dalits as was witnessed in the Una incident.

This new Dalit agitation (Bhima Koregaon) has articulated the issue of nationalism only at the symbolic level.

They need to come out with the details of alternative nationalism that they seek to replace in the place of Hindu nationalism.

This nationalism, instead of merely appealing to emotions must also raise concrete, everyday, material issues such as employment.

Only that would enable Dalits to successfully present this alternative nationalism.  

Prakash Ambedkar has credited the success of the January 3 bandh to not only various Dalit factions coming together but also underlined the support of not-so-dominant other backward classes (OBCs) showing solidarity with the Dalits.
In this light do you see the ground shifting towards such unusual alliances in Maharashtra?

It is indeed a welcome signal if such an alliance has happened on the ground.

Prakash Ambedkar is a seasoned leader in trying to bring out such creative alliances as he had attempted that during the 1990s also.

Then it was done in the wake of the Mandal moment in state politics. The Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh had emerged out of that experiment only.

However, then it could not become successful beyond some districts and remained largely localised.

Also, the not-so-dominant OBCs that he is talking about are numerically small and scattered all over the state. Hence, it is a very complicated task to mobilise them.

It remains to be seen if Ambedkar is able to do so and wean them away from the BJP and Shiv Sena.

Dalits, at times, have been socially as well as politically aggressive, but it is very rarely that one sees Dalits fighting for economic equality. What explains this?

This can be viewed at many levels. One, as I mentioned earlier, the post Mandal Dalit politics was mainly about getting representation in the educational, administrative and political power centres of the country.

This politics was happening in the wake of the emergence of the middle class among Dalits.

Apart from the Ambedkar Village Scheme that Mayawati launched when she was UP CM, there was no substantial economic agenda in the BSP's politics.

Kanshi Ram's reading of Dr Ambedkar entailed an overemphasis on political power. He used to say that Dr Ambedkar has identified political power as a master key of all other forms of power and that Dalits need to get hold of this master key.

For becoming successful in democratic politics in India, you need to simplify your message. But this oversimplification of Dr Ambedkar's thought means that 'Dalit ki beti' could become CM, but nothing changed for the poor and oppressed Dalits.

Also, at a broader level, post 1990s politics in India was all about identity politics; be it Hindutva or caste identity.

Hence, democratic politics remained centred around identities, sidelining economic issues from the same.

Second, actually in post Independence Maharashtra, some Dalit agitations did happen around economic issues.

Landless labourers' agitation under Dadasaheb Gaekwad's leadership brings a strong Marxist strand within the Dalit Panthers to mind. But these attempts either proved short lived or were plagued by internal conflict.

A section among the Dalit Panthers was for having cultural politics based on neo-Buddhism of Dr Ambedkar.

This faction used to view Marxism with suspicion, again a major misreading of Dr Ambedkar.

Last but not the least, the Left parties in India have traditionally shied away from taking up caste issues seriously. Hence (they are) not being able to organise Dalits. Lately, of course, the Left parties have lost their relevance in Indian politics.

These lacunae had serious consequence for Dalit politics.

This has led to Dalit politics not only becoming middle class centric but also single caste dominated.

So a perception is gaining ground among many Dalit castes that only a single dominant caste among Dalits has been cornering all the benefits of reservation and political power. Hence, demands for sub quotas within reservations for SCs (scheduled castes) by some Dalit castes.

Will Dalits play an important role in state as well as national politics in the run-up to the 2019 general election?
Will they be in a position to decide which party will form the national government as well as the Maharashtra government?

Dalits comprise about 17 percent of the population in the state and nationally. As I mentioned earlier, Maharashtra has a very rich history of Dalit movements.

Nationally, the BSP's political ascendancy in UP brought Dalit politics into prominence. However, due to many issues mentioned earlier, at present Dalit politics is in disarray. Only one agitation would not be able to resurrect it.

The groups involved in this agitation need to immerse themselves in the arduous task of building an organisation and ideology.

They also need to carefully identify the social and political forces with whom they would need to make alliances.

Also, a note of caution, especially in the wake of the Bhima Koregaon style alternative nationalist agitation, is in order.

This kind of radical anti Brahminical ideology and symbols are shared only by neo-Buddhists, who were erstwhile Mahars in the state. The other Dalit castes do have Sanskritising aspirations in different proportions.

The real challenge for radical Dalit politics would be to make alliances with such Dalit castes.

This process will not be easy as it would involve a lot of negotiations and compromises which are cornerstones of democratic politics in India.

Are Dalit organisations ready for this?

Photograph: Shailesh Andrade/Reuters

Prasanna D Zore