The Sunday Leader

Still fighting over a British period battle!

By Vidyadharan MP

Incidents like what happened recently in Maharashtra, one of India’s politically and economically important states, may not happen anywhere else in the world except India.

The state, which had convincingly elected a BJP alliance government in the 2014 October assembly elections, witnessed unexpected violence and disruption early this week over an insignificant, centuries-old battle between the British army and Peshwas, upper-caste Marathas.

The battle itself took place in a village called Koregaon Bhima, near Pune, 200 years back — on January 1, 1818. The Maratha forces, led Peshwa Baji Rao II tried to attack Pune which was held by the British. The British authorities dispatched a strong contingent of forces to defeat the Marathas. The Peshwas army consisted of 2000 soldiers while the British East India Company army had 834 men, many of whom were Dalits, from the Mahar community. The battle was fought for 12 hours after which the Marathas were forced to retreat.

In fact, as per historical documents, neither of the two sides won a decisive victory. However, since this was one of the last battles of the Anglo-Maratha wars, that resulted in Company victory, the battle of Koregaon soon came to be remembered as a triumphant event for the British who constructed the victory pillar. The inscription of the pillar states that the Company forces “accomplished one of the proudest triumphs of the British Army in the East.”

And for decades, every year on the New Year day, thousands of people from Mahar community in Maharashtra gather near the victory pillar to commemorate the event. And the Koregaon pillar is almost like a pilgrimage site for the Mahars, who take tremendous pride in the battle, though there is not much to celebrate but for the fact that they could defeat the upper caste Peshwas, who used to exploit them. So, basically, the battle, for Mahars, symbolised ending of the exploits of them by the Peshwas, though finally it was the British who won the battle.

Many say the violent protests since January 1 are a grim reminder of underlying Dalit oppression in the state.

Dalit thinkers and activists consider this victory as a significant episode in history. Many Dalit activists think it was a victory of the oppressed over the upper-caste establishment of the Marathas.

This year too, like every year, members of the Dalit community from all over Maharashtra ,gathered in Koregaon Bhima to celebrate their so-called victory.  This year was the 200th anniversary and that attracted a much larger crowd on January 1, on the outskirts of Pune.

But this year had more political overtones. The ‘right wing’ groups opposed the Dalit celebrations saying they cannot observe a ‘British’ victory. The clash between ‘right-wing’ groups and Dalits who had congregated there turned violent with stone pelting and arson between two groups. One innocent person, who was coming back home after work, died in the violence and several were injured. Protesters also blocked traffic on the Pune expressway and rail tracks.

The protests also spread to other parts of the state, including its capital Mumbai. The financial city was crippled by the protests. The Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP, ordered a probe and warned that there is no place for casteist violence in Maharashtra which is a progressive state. But there were not much takers for his position as the violence was triggered by the right wing groups, which is bent on creating disturbances throughout the country, whipping up the flames of nationalism. These groups had been opposing the celebrations over Tipu Sultan, a Muslim king who used to attack the British in South India. They had created disturbances in Karnataka over the issue. But it could not succeed much there as the state had a Congress government and chief minister.

But, wherever there is a BJP-led government, these groups are trying to oppose any celebrations which cast a shadow over the upper castes. These groups have become very vocal and aggressive after Narendra Modi became the prime minister. Earlier too, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the prime minister in the NDA-1 government, these groups tried to assert, leading campaigns against international food chains like the KFC, or Valentines Day celebrations. But Vajpayee, being quite generous as also under pressure from other coalition parties, sent down a strong message that he would not tolerate any actions, by nipping their activities in the bud and speaking publicly against such activities.

But unfortunately, Modi has failed to emulate his famed mentor prime minister. Modi has rarely spoken against the violent and illegal activities of these right ring groups, associated with the RSS, or taken strict against them. His government’s silence has emboldened these groups to spread wide and become more aggressive. They are creating fear psychosis among the minorities and weaker sections, by warning against celebrating even international festivals Christmas, New Year, Valentines Day, etc. in many states where they think they can get away with.

What happened in Maharashtra too was part of this strategy by the right wing groups. They objected to the annual celebration of victory by the Dalits and warned against doing it. When they failed and lakhs of people gathered for the event, these groups triggered violence by scorching the vehicles of the Dalits who have come for the celebration.

But the incident turned out of control and the state government was criticised severely for the poor control of the whole episode which even spread to Mumbai. Finally, the chief minister had to arrest few of the right wing activists to impress on the Dalit leaders to call of protests which once threatened to take it by storm.

Modi and the BJP should review its policy on the activities of these groups. Otherwise, it can become quite costly when Modi will try to win again the next general elections next year. Modi was elected to power by a group of factors – the BJP voters, the youth who was impressed with his promise of ‘Good Day’ in future, the common people who were angry with the scams of the UPA governments and the ineffectiveness and powerlessness of the prime minister Manmohan Singh as Sonia Gandhi as the UPA chief and NAC chairman controlled everything. That time, people were craving for a good prime minister and good governance which took care of daily life, job creation and security – internally and externally. In fact, Modi became the prime minister because of the confidence of this section of voters who only believed in the goodness of India.

But Modi has failed to rise to the occasion so far. Though his government has been clean so far, his actions like demonetisation and GST has created huge disruptions in the economy and thereby in the life of the people. Besides this, the right wing groups has created a fear psychosis. So, the situation is changing quite fast. The example is the Gujarat elections where Modi had to toil hard as never before and make emotional appeals.

Modi and BJP should remember that creating frictions within the Hindu vote bank is a suicidal idea. Because these are the same sections which voted for him in the last elections and for the party in the last assembly elections in the state. With the BJP seen as anti-minority because of the right wing groups’ actions, the division in the Hindu votes is only going to help the opposition , which is getting fired up with younger blood. Many young leaders like Jignesh Mewani, a Dalit leader who was elected to the Gujarat assembly despite the BJP’s best efforts to defeat him any way, are spearheading the Dalits aspirations and fighting against the uppercaste bias of the BJP.

In Maharashtra, where the BJP usually had been a second player after the Shiv Sena, in the last assembly elections in 2014, BJP for the first time became the largest party with 122 seats – that too after breaking electoral understanding with the Shiv Sena after an acrimonious poll negotiation. Shiv Sena got 63 seats while the ruling parties of Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party got just 40 plus seats each. So, people voted BJP to power in the state with lots of aspirations. And if the party wishes to continue its good performance, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, himself a Brahmin upper caste, will have to act like Vajpayee did when these right wing groups raised their head. He has to rise above caste bias and act sternly, taking right actions and giving fair justice to all.

The BJP leadership also need to send a strong message to all its affiliated and connected groups – don’t divide the Hindu votes through actions of caste. In fact, it need to consolidate all kinds of Hindu votes for Modi’s victory in the next general elections. Any delay can be suicidal for Modi and Amit Shah, his right hand man who has been given the charge of managing the party.

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