Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Bhima Koregaon: the battle continues even after 200 years

Rahul Vaidya

Bhima Koregaon Victory Pillar.jpg

Even a few days before The Elgar Parishad (conference) was to be held in Pune by many Dalit and progressive organizations to commemorate 200th anniversary of battle of Bhima Koregaon[1]; it was certain that it would not sail through smoothly, especially with BJP government in power. With Shaniwar Wada (the palace of Peshwas, and seat of their rule) as the venue where this show of Dalit assertion scheduled to be held, and Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid as speakers at the event; it was no wonder that BJP- Sangh pariwar tried hard to thwart the program. Attempts were made to cancel the event citing it as threat to law and order situation. Descendants of Peshwas were brought into the picture- who termed it as ‘mockery of Bajirao Peshwa and others who sacrificed their lives for the nation’[2]. Keeping aside the fact that Bajirao Peshwa II sustained his flamboyant lifestyle on pension provided by East India Company for long time; the curious invocation of nationalism, and attempts to link it to Peshwai were by no means new, nor marginal.

Notwithstanding all this, Elgar Parishad on 30th December was immensely successful. Mewani and Umar called for people to take to streets to defeat the New Peshwai of Brahminical Hindutva and Capitalist exploitation. It was anticipated that Sangh-BJP would try to create ruckus in the program, and would try to raise the ‘anti-national’ bogey at some point or the other. What was not anticipated was the larger plan which would be unleashed; independent of whether the Elgar Parishad took place or not, any frivolous ‘anti-national’ quote the Parivar would get to harp upon or not. The violence unleashed on Dalits on 1st January 2018 was not ‘riot’, were not ‘caste clashes’, were not ‘lumpens taking to the streets’. It was a plot to widen the gulf between castes and further the Hindutva agenda. The little media coverage it received only helped the Hindutva forces to escape relatively unscathed from national attention, while the Maharashtra Bandh called in protest of this was brandished as another instance of how Left-Dalit progressive protests are nuisance, divisive and dangerous to national unity. This anti-Left, upper caste-class bias of media was nothing new. And under the present dispensation, the last figment of being politically correct also has been done away with. So, no wonders over there.

Vadhu-budruk and Bhima Koregaon
Be that as it may. As I mentioned, it is important to shift focus from Pune (Elgar Parishad) and Mumbai (Maharashtra Bandh) to the events at Vadhu-Budruk and Bhima-Koregaon: past and present.  Vadhu Budruk is the place near Pune where Shivaji’s son Sambhaji who was killed by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. This place was discovered by historian V.C. Bendre in 1939. It is quite interesting that Sambhaji’s last rites were performed by one Govind Mahar and a Samadhi (memorial) was built by Mahar dalits to honor the fallen Maratha king. Why was this so? Especially considering the caste and religious orders; why a Maratha king was laid to rest by Mahars? Historian Bendre, Kamal Gokhale and Com. Sharad Patil have emphasized that the answer lies in the fact that Shivaji and his son Sambhaji had revolted against the Brahminical order. Shivaji’s fort commanders came from not just Marathas or other upper castes but they included all Naths and his army comprised all alute-balutedar castes (all lower sa-varna, a-varna, shoodra jatis). Not just this, Shivaji’s crowning was opposed by Brahmins. Both he and Sambhaji were crowned as per Shakt sect rituals as well. What is more, Sambhaji was a scholar in Sanskrit and a poet who had studied Vedas. Further, he became Shakt under influence of his minister Kalash. This was in direct confrontation with Vedic religion and Manusmriti. What is more, following the footsteps of Shivaji, Sambhaji clashed with elite Maratha Vatandars over the issue of vatans (feudal titles of land) but also exploitation of peasantry in other regards. It was a direct threat to Brahminical order protected by feudal interests[3]. It was no wonder that frequent coups against Sambhaji were led by his Brahmin ministers. So when he was captured by Aurangzeb’s army, it was the Brahmin clergy who advised to punish him as prescribed in Manusmriti. Hence, taking out eyes for crime of reading Vedic Mantras, beheading for memorizing and chanting Vedas and then cut the dead body into pieces and throw the parts all around- this was how Sambhaji was executed in  Manusmriti prescribed fashion.
And hence it is no wonder that no Hindu sa-varna was willing to touch the fallen king and perform his last rites. It was done by Mahars. It was testimony to the revolt of the oppressed that Shivaji-Sambhaji’s rule came to signify. It is no wonder that Brahminical Peshwai did its best to do away with this legacy. Peshwai was unique in Brahmins monopolizing all branches of ruling state apparatus- religious doctrines, social order, military, and taxation, landed property. No wonder it was one of the darkest episodes in Maharashtra’s social life which made bonded labor a norm, oppressed the women, killed peasants who couldn’t pay taxes and made Dalits wear pots in the neck and carry broom around to ensure they don’t pollute the surroundings.    

What about the immediate present in Vadhu-budruk? The Dalits of the village had built a Samadhi memorial celebrating Govind Mahar’s courage and his act of performing last rites for fallen king of Maharashtra. However, in the wake of growing Maratha- Dalit disconnect, there have been claims that a certain Maratha family actually sewed together the parts of Sambhaji’s body and performed his last rites. Hence their surname became ‘Shivale’ (those who stitch). It is by stoking these notions of Maratha superiority (and hatred for Muslims); the Hindutva organizations have been spreading their influence in the districts of western Maharashtra. Breeding new myths, cementing old ones and monopolizing the power which would decide the correct ones to follow has been the leitmotif of Hindutva operation. So it is no wonder that Samast Hindu Aghadi of Milind Ekbote and Shiv Pratishthan of Manohar alias Sambhaji Bhide found a receptive ground here. On 28th December, a signboard showing way to Govind Mahar’s Samadhi put up by Rajendra Gaekwad, a descendant of Govind Mahar was destroyed. This led to tensions in the village. 49 people were arrested. A whispering campaign about a possible backlash from Dalits (Sambhaji’s Samadhi was going to be ruined) followed. And what is more, sustained propaganda was unleashed that those who are gathering at Bhima-Koregaon memorial are the real traitors.

On 1st January, around a lakh of Dalits who had gathered at Bhima-Koregaon were attacked by a mob of thousands carrying saffron flags. Vehicles were torched, broken; Dalit/ muslim houses were targeted. Thus, it was a two-pronged attack. First, link the gathering at Bhima-Koregaon to anti-national ‘#BharatKeTukade’ brigade. Police complaints were filed after Maharashtra Bandh that Jignesh-Umar incited Dalits to start rioting. If that really was the case, why did incited Dalits end up bearing the brunt of riots at Bhima-Koregaon rather than other way round? Second, use Maratha/Mali (OBC) youth for attacking Dalits in the name of caste honor as well as nationalism.

Although it was expected that there would be some trouble in the wake of Elgar Parishad, the extent to which the Far Right organizations would go was not anticipated. The sway that Sambhaji Bhide held over the government was so obvious that the government was not even willing to speak about the involvement of Hindutva groups in attack on Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon and was desperately trying to evade the issue as local tensions and caste fights. Following the cue, National/state media didn’t pay much attention to what happened in Vadhu-budruk, Bhima-Koregaon and focused only on the inconveniences of strikes and regressive, divisive mentality of striking people. However, when Ad. Prakash Ambedkar directly named Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote and their organizations as directly involved in the attack, the government’s attempt to play down this ‘incident’ as clash between Marathas and Dalits received a severe jolt. Not only dalit organizations but also Left, progressive parties, as well as Maratha Seva Sangh, Sambhaji Brigade etc. Maratha organizations supported the Maharashtra Bandh held on 3rd January in protest of attacks in Bhima-Koregaon. Thus the BJP government and the RSS were isolated and were seen desperately trying to save their face with the help of media which not just tried to vilify the strike but also sought to glorify a certain ‘Bhide Guruji’ whose task it is to spread out venomous communal propaganda which is unspeakable even for RSS.

The unity of contradictions
Bhima-Koregaon represents a concrete unity of contradictions of our history.  Anti-imperialism, anti-feudalism, internal conflicts between non-Brahmin castes- everything comes to fore like nothing else.

Anand Teltumbde in his article in ‘The Wire’ argued against the celebration of Bhima-Koregaon as it ‘reinforces the identities it seeks to transcend’[4]. His thrust is to denote the fact that Bhima-Koregaon was a battle where ‘Dalits, Marathas, Muslims were fighting on both sides- Peshwas, as well as British army. Theirs was not a conscious battle against Peshwa rule but it was a professional duty. Caste formed the world-view and caste related oppression was considered the fate. There was no question of any resistance to caste. Thus, while it is certainly laudable to fight New Peshwai of Brahhminical Hindutva and Capitalism; it is best not done in the name of Bhima-Koregaon. Prakash Ambedkar in his Marathi article goes further, and asks a pertinent question- ‘why did Mahars, Dalits wait till British army came along to fight Peshwas? It is necessary to introspect rationally as to why the Dalit politics even today is not conscious to identify its enemy and battle it out. The consciousness of one’s strength and how to utilize it in the negotiation, in political struggle is required for Dalit struggle to succeed’[5].   

What is also crucial to underline here is that subject of history is not necessarily always conscious of it. The high participation of Mahars in British army might not be a conscious political choice; nonetheless it did bring about a certain enlightenment with it[6]. What is more, it would be ‘no one’s contention that the treatment received by the untouchable soldiers in the armies of Peshwa and British were similar’[7]. For this was clearly a conflict between two modes of production.

Introspection by Dalits, progressives and deconstruction of myths is necessary in the context of Bhima-Koregaon. But what is also necessary is to understand what is it about Bhima-Koregaon that hurts the new age apologists of Peshwai? What is it that makes them uncomfortable? However, as proud owners of material and socio- cultural capital, they seem to hold on to their myths of false glory. Who are they? Are they not the Brahminical intelligentsia, and caste-religion glorifying traditionalists which have spread within every oppressed caste thanks to emergence of a modern middle class for whom egalitarian progressive democratization seems like a mortal threat?

Modern India is certainly a product of British colonial rule, as well as anti-colonial struggle Indian people fought against it. At the same time, it is instructive to remember the contradictions involved within anti-colonial struggle. The historical contradiction of Brahmin-non-Brahmin castes was underlined in Maharashtra by Mahatma Phule who sought to build a counter-hegemonic historical narrative of unity of oppressed against the Brahminical misrule. Phule and later Dr. Ambedkar was vilified by Brahminical Marathi press and portrayed as apologist of the British. For them, Tilak and his revivalist agenda signified a ‘nationalism’ where nation was identified with their class-caste interests[8].

On the contrary, Phule’s emphasis on unity of peasant castes and untouchables was historic. What is more, the so-called ‘apologists’ were not blind sighted- by 1930s; they were joining the anti-colonial struggle in large numbers. But for that to happen, the anti-colonial struggle also had to press for the material agendas of the peasantry. Dr. Ambedkar’s Independent Labor Party fought against the unjust Khoti land revenue system in Maharashtra.  Leaders like Keshavrao Jedhe and others who came from Brahmanetar Paksh (Non-Brahmin party founded by Shahu, a party which often co-operated with British government to seek concessions for Non-Brahmins) would eventually join Congress and later go on to form Leftist Peasant Workers Party. Theirs was a nationalism committed to the oppressed and hence they emphasized on egalitarian democracy as a pre-condition of modernity and capitalism. Their national project required a counter-hegemonic history; which was provided by Phule, his satyashadhak movement, and sites such as Bhima-Koregaon. It is true that there often were clashes and conflicts between peasant castes and Dalits; but it equally needs assertion that there were many occasions of unity.  

What is also instructive that once this massive awakening of Bahujan samaj and their joining of national movement started happening, the Brahminical elements (and mercantile capitalist elements at many places) started drifting apart from anti-colonial struggle. By 1920s and 1930s, they would go on to form their rabid militia called RSS and Hindu Mahasabha with explicit aim of founding Hindu Rashtra. They were not averse to modernity/ modernization/ capitalism under colonial rule or post-colonial India for they had sufficient material and intellectual resources to integrate within that. What they were afraid of was the possibility that popular forms anti-colonial struggle was taking and its emphasis on egalitarian democratization.

Hence Peshwa rule formed a glorious page of history for such elements which symbolized a counter-revolution with restoration of traditional feudalist Brahminical rule in culture, politics, society, economy. While appropriation of Shivaji remains a key for nationalist project of every color in Maharashtra as he signifies the Bahujan rule and how its anti-Mirasdari, peasant-centric agenda captured popular imagination, the celebration of Peshwai is what sets apart the revivalist agenda and its darkest face. In fact, it is also instructive to remember how Shivaji’s own Samadhi was discovered, and celebrated by Mahatma Phule. Such was Peshwai’s legacy which had sought to totally erase Shivaji-Sambhaji and their revolt against Brahminism from annals of history. The axis joining Vadhu-Budruk and Bhima-Koregaon is an important instance of exposing all this- it should be seen and understood as such and not as a site of particular caste glory but to recognize and fight the apologists of new Peshwai which rules the day.

 The Author is an Interdependent Researcher based in Delhi 

[1] Where British East India Company troops, consisting many Mahar Dalit soldiers, fought off and defeated Brahmin Peshwa army in 1818. This defeat was a decisive blow which would eventually end Peshwai and consolidate British rule
[2] Incidentally, these descendants went to court to stay the commemoration at Bhima-Koregaon; however, Court declined their request
[3] Com. Sharad Patil, ‘Caste ending Bourgeois Democratic Revolutionn & its Socialist Consummation’ pg.8-12
[7] Com. Sharad Patil, ‘Caste ending Bourgeois Democratic Revolutionn & its Socialist Consummation’ pg.11,100
[8] A trend within the Left to prioritize the anti-imperialism led Dange and many others to celebrate Tilak and other revivalists. Later, the caste question was also seen and handled as ‘secondary’ contradiction. This was theoretically and practically wrong. 

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