The Mis-Telling Of The Dalit Vs Upper Caste Clashes In Maharashtra

Published: January 03, 2018 19:31 IST
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There is something deeply disturbing about the manner in which sections of television media have projected the events that incited clashes between Dalits and Marathas in Maharashtra. They have held activist-journalist and recently elected Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani guilty for stirring what they call the "caste cauldron" as if it never existed till the day before. What Mevani said which seems to offend them the most is calling the BJP the "New Peshwas" and saying that he would take the battle to the streets in 2019.

Mevani has every right to fight the BJP and evoke a sense of historical triumph or injustice in an age where the pre-eminent party of India is digging out Muslim rulers from their graves - from Aurangzeb to Babur to Tipu Sultan. The last is now useful for election-bound Karnataka.

Besides, we should ask why the BJP (and some TV anchors) should object to the party being called the "New Peshwas". A brief history recap for those who do not know: at first, the Peshwas served as Prime Ministers under the Maratha Chattrapatis, but later, these Chitpavan Brahmins became the de facto rulers of the empire when it achieved its greatest geographical spread through a confederacy. (Sanjay Leela Bansali's Bajirao Mastani is about Bajirao I, a military hero of the Peshwa empire who expanded what was called the idea of a Hindu Padshahi even as he reportedly took a half-Muslim woman, Mastani, as his second wife). The BJP should logically be delighted to be called the New Peshwas as it evokes Hindu masculinity besides a small episode of "love jihad" in reverse!
 
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Mumbai was tense amid a massive bandh (strike) called by Dalit groups and parties across Maharashtra

The reason they are not is because the Peshwas are also associated with great cruelty and oppression towards Dalits. Although Shivaji recruited many Mahars (Dalits) in his army, by the time Peshwa power was at its zenith, these orthodox Brahmins had put rules and laws to treat Mahars worse than animals (for instance, they had to tie brooms on their backs to sweep their footprints so as to erase any sign of themselves). That is why lakhs of Mahars in Maharashtra have always celebrated their role in the British victory over the Peshwas in 1818 at a memorial built at the site of the battle in Bhima-Koregaon,some 30 kms away from Pune.

The term "Peshwas" also rankles as it has been used by critics to describe the Brahmin-run RSS' control of the BJP. It's not an original Jignesh Mevani phraseology, although he has now used it to the most devastating effect, both literally and metaphorically. It is a symbolic evoking of history in a part of India that gave us (besides Shivaji and the Peshwas), radical reformers such as Jyotibhai Phule, Savitribai Phule (whose birthday falls today on January 3), and Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Mahar whose father served as a subedar in a military cantonment.
 
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Mumbai had to be guarded by nearly 21,000 security personnel of the state government

The same state is also home to the founders of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, notably VD Savarkar. 

Anyone who imagines that the ideological battles are over should pause. First, I would argue that although our attention has been taken by the political violence against Muslims, over the last three years, these are mostly random events and the victims have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. In contrast, certain Hindus have been carefully executed (Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi) because they forcefully marshalled great intellect to challenge the ideas sought to be imposed on society today.

Indeed, let me go a step ahead and say the larger Hindutva project is really not about Muslims at all, but about consolidating Hindu society across the caste differences. Muslims are just used to instil fear and bring out prejudice that is designed to unite all in hating them. To recall a famous line from the film Sholay, mothers tell their children to sleep or else Gabbar Singh will come for them! That's the role of Muslims in the adrenalin-pumped TV debate narrative of today where most of the "Gabbar Singhs" are called with beards and caps.

What must also be noted is the manner in which some TV debates were conducted after the Maharashtra clashes began. Anchors used the presence of JNU student Umar Khalid at the event where Mevani spoke to suggest that it's all part of the conspiracy to break up India. In the process they were trivialising a social-caste rupture and refusing the right to recognise the history of the subalterns. Prakash Ambedkar, one of the organisers of the event where Mevani spoke, was not allowed to spell out the historical context to what happened and was shouted at about Umar Khalid in one of the channels that I briefly switched on.
 
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Supporters, allegedly of Dalit parties, tried to block trains, metro and buses in and around Mumbai

While Muslims are wheeled out (mostly to be yelled at) for all the endless issues involving the community these days, a few debates that I glanced through had scant Dalit representation with the exception of Prakash Ambedkar. Words such as "chaos", "street fighters", "anti-India conspiracy" were bandied about without any examination of the violence being first triggered by attacks on Dalits by right-wingers who were opposed to the event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle.

What we had therefore was a group of upper caste males pumping up their testosterone by yelling loudly about lower caste leaders wanting to tell their own historical narratives. A raw nerve had been touched.    

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(Saba Naqvi is a journalist and an author.)

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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