In Pune, Young Dalit's Take On Right-Wing Narrative

Published: December 31, 2017 16:20 IST
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1999. It was the first day of the New Year, I was in 7th grade, in my school uniform, eating my breakfast of tea and round toast I had purchased for 50 paisa, all the while wondering why it was not a holiday. I was annoyed that I had to go to school while other non school-going children of my age in the community were happily celebrating January 1; many were wearing new clothes, others were playing and young children were dancing on the basti (slum) streets. I asked my older brother why January 1 was not a holiday. Smiling, he told me that he did not have any answer to my question but he had a story to tell me about our community's past, a valorous story of Dalits which had no mention in any history textbooks. He eagerly rushed with his activist zeal towards the plywood partition of our house to bring a calendar which was dangling on a rusted iron nail, just below Ambedkar's portrait. He held out the calendar and asked me to read the description mentioned next to the date of January 1. It was not a usual calendar, but a unique one, mentioning the historical events each month in Dalit-Bahujan history. It was indeed a counter to the Hindu calendar. January 1, 1818, was mentioned as a "Vijay Diwas" or Victory Day.

The Vijay Diwas marks the defeat of 25,000 Peshwa soldiers at the hands of 500 Mahar soldiers belonging to the Mahar Battalion of the British Army on the banks of the Bhima River near Pune in Maharashtra. Admittedly, there is no consensus among local intellectuals on the number of soldiers on both sides - some say there were 900 Mahar Soldiers while others say there were 20,000 Peshwa soldiers. Nevertheless, the story of the Bhima Koregaon Battle has become a powerful means among grassroots-level Ambedkarite activists and organisations for imbuing the militant past of the community in the awareness of present and coming generations of Dalits.

There is no - or at most an obscure - mention of Koregaon battle in mainstream Indian academic literature. The celebration of the Koregaon Battle in different parts of Maharashtra by Dalits has become a significant part in the making of an alternative culture since Ambedkar. In fact, Ambedkar's customary visit to Koregaon to pay homage to the 500 untouchable soldiers is viewed by many Ambedkarite intellectuals as a conscious and deliberate effort to uncover the heroic militant past of Dalits. Ambedkar's strategy to break caste normalcy for Dalits has been successful as Dalits in Maharashtra have created a plethora of literature around the battle of Koregaon to counter the dominant narrative of caste hegemony in everyday anti-caste activism.

It is indeed an act which takes Dalit assertion beyond caste normativity and challenges prescribed notions of caste-militancy - where the art of weaponry is only the right of Kshtriyas. As for Ambedkar, survival and sanctity of caste normalcy is sourced from the Hindu Shastras, Vedas and Smirtis. For him, the ultimate solution for annihilation of caste is the complete destruction of Hindu scriptures, and thus celebrating his celebration of Dalit militancy by paying tribute to the erstwhile untouchable soldiers of the Mahar Battalion for their bravery can be read as a conscious act in this backdrop. Thus, Ambedkar posed the oppressed past of untouchables against the oppressor's past (the Savarna past). In addition, Ambedkar's invocation of the militant past of untouchables was not just limited to the victory of Koregaon battle. Often in his analysis of Indian history he traced the militant history of Dalits. The formation and philosophy of Samata Sainik Dal (SSD) by Ambedkar can be regarded as a recognition and extension of a militant Dalit past. Interestingly, the formation of SSD was reason for much Savarna anxiety. It follows then that the SSD was criticised and stigmatised as a violent force by media and Savarna groups. In response, Ambedkar dismissed the charge of violence against SSD and made a clear distinction between non-violence and meekness in his speech in Nagpur on July 20, 1942.

So Ambedkar's efforts to invoke an esteemed past was also a forethought for Dalits to construct their future not just on the basis of legal rights, but also on the basis of a historical legacy. Even so, such an important and significant feature of Ambedkar's activism has gained insignificant acknowledgement within mainstream intelligentsia. Nonetheless, the celebration of Dalit militancy and Ambedkar's has become an everyday process of conscientisation among Dalits in Maharashtra and in other states- the celebration of Koregaon is one such tangible example.

Tomorrow (January 1, 2018) will be the bicentennial anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon Battle and organisations like the Kabir Kala Manch, Sambhaji Brigade, Muslim Mulnivasi Sangh, Rashtra Seva Dal and others have organized the Elgaar Parishad at Shaniwar Wada, the Peshwa Palace in Pune. Those attending the Elgaar Parishad will then march on together to Bhima Koregaon from the Shaniwar Wada. The Dalit assertion from Shaniwar Wada, the very home of the Peshwas, has angered many right-wing groups like the "Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha, Rashtriya Ekatmata Rashtra Abhiyan, Hindu Aghadi and also the descendants of the Peshwas" who are opposed to the celebrations by ironically terming it "anti-national" and "casteist".

Right-wing groups opposing the celebrations claim that it was a war between British and Indian rulers, rather than between the Mahars and Peshwas, and thus the celebrations will fuel caste conflicts. As a matter of fact, even if for the Peshwa rulers it was a battle against British invasion, for the erstwhile untouchable soldiers of the Mahar Battalion of the British Army, it was very much a caste battle against the tyrannical Peshwa Brahmins. The Peshwa rule in Maharashtra was one of the most oppressive regimes for the ex-untouchables who suffered unspeakable agonies and atrocities at the hands of the ruling Brahmins. An essay written in 1855, titled Mang Maharachya Dukhvisayi (about the grief of the Mangs and the Mahars) by a 9-year-old Mang girl, Mukta Salve, a student of Savitribai and Jotiba Phule (Savari, 2015), gives a glimpse of Brahmin cruelty against ex-untouchables during the Peshwa Rule:

"The brahmans have degraded us so low; they consider people like us even lower than cows and buffaloes. Did they not consider us even lower than donkeys during the rule of Bajirao Peshwa? ... Under Bajirao's rule, if any mang or mahar happened to pass in front of a gymnasium, they would cut off his head and play 'bat and ball' with their swords as bats and his head as a ball, on the grounds... When any mang or mahar would learn somehow to read or write, and if Bajirao came to know about this, he would say: education of a mang or mahar amounts to taking away a brahman's job. He used to say, "How dare they get educated? Do these untouchables expect the brahman to hand over their official duties to them and move around with their shaving kits, shaving the heads of widows?" With such remarks he would punish them." (Mukta Salve, 1855)

Keeping in mind the above context, the assertion of Dalits and celebration of the Koregaon Battle as Vijay Diwas can be viewed as rupturing the dominant right-wing Hindu nationalist narrative and challenging the conventional narrative of anti-colonialism. Importantly, such celebration of Dalits in contemporary times not only breaks the right-wing narrative about "Dalit politeness" towards caste injustice but also defies the Savarna liberal morality which reduces Dalits to mere subjects of state welfare.

In conclusion, then the celebration of Koregaon Victory on its 200th anniversary on January 1, 2018 and the Savarna opposition to it, tells the story of the making of an autonomous culture of Dalits against the inferior culture of caste.

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Rahul Sonpimple is a student of JNU and member of BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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