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Significance:  In last week or so, section of people belonging to Dalits protest across Maharashtra, including the city of Mumbai. It happened in the aftermath of the violence in Pune during the 200th anniversary celebrations of the battle of Bhima Koregaon. A state wide bandh has been called in Maharashtra in  response to the violence against Dalits at Bhima Koregaon with few reports of violence and  widespread demonstrations.

What happened in Battle of Bhima Koregaon?:  On June 13, 1817, Peshwa Bajirao II had been forced to cede large amount of territory to the Company which officially dissolved the Maratha Confederacy. In November, the Peshwa’s army revolted against the British Resident at Pune, but was defeated in the Battle of Khadki. However, Bajirao intended to attack Poona and recapture the ceded territory belonging to Marathas. Being aware of this development, Britishers sent additional Infantry and weaponry to Poona. It is believed that the caste of Indian soldiers in the additional army sent were Mahars.

The Battle took place at the village of Koregaon 16 miles northeast of Pune, where 800 British troops faced 30,000 Marathas on January 1, 1818. Of the 834 British troops, 275 were killed, wounded, or missing. The Marathas lost between 500 and 600 killed and wounded. Subsequently by the time Maratha strongholds started falling Bajirao II went on the run finally surrendering in 1823. The East India Company government praised the bravery of its troops who could not be overpowered despite being outnumbered. Since the battle was one of the last ones to be fought in the Third Anglo-Maratha War it came to be remembered as a Company victory after the war ended with Peshwa’s defeat

Why Mahar community celebrate the historic event?: The Koregaon pillar inscription features the names of the 49 Company soldiers killed in the battle out of which some of them belong to people from Mahar caste. Today it serves as a memorial of the Mahars. The Mahars were considered untouchable in the contemporary and yesteryear caste-based society. The Peshwas belong to high-caste Brahmins and were notorious for their mistreatment and persecution of the untouchables. 

Because of this, in post independent India Dalits saw the Koregaon pillar inscription as a symbol of their victory over the high-caste oppression.The Dalit Buddhist leader B. R. Ambedkar visited the site on 1 January 1927. To commemorate his visit to the site, now thousands of his followers visit the site every New Year’s Day.

Similar Dalit Protests in India: 

  • Khairlanji Protest: Protests were organised against the Khairlanji massacre of Dalit women and family took place in various parts of Maharashtra. On 19 November 2006, over 4,000 Dalits gathered at the Azad maidan in Mumbai to protest against the Khairlanji incident.On 23 November 2006, several members of the Dalit community in the nearby district of Chandrapur staged a protest over the Khairlanji killings.
  • Una Protest: Violent protests were organised by Dalit communities in Gujarat two years back with incidents of bus burning, clashes and highway blockades being reported from Saurashtra and north Gujarat. The protest emerged in the backdrop of violences from cow vigilante group members who publicly flogged Dalits in Una and they demanded stern action.
  • Rohith Vemula Incident:  The Roopanwal Commission report which was appointed to investigate upon the case of death of research scholar Rohith Vemula observed it was due to personal issues and not because of caste discrimination. About 250 students and some faculty members of the University of Hyderabad protested against the Roopanwal Commission’s report.

Why Dalits are discriminated?: Even after 70 years of Independence, political rhetoric and Constitutional protection have failed to end atrocities against Dalits.  A recent report on caste-based discrimination by the United Nations Human Right Council’s special rapporteur for minority issues pointed to several references to the plight of the Dalits and other lower castes in India.

It quotes India’s National Crime Records Bureau data to note there has been an increase in reported crimes against the scheduled castes by 19% in 2014 compared to the previous year. It mentions that despite prohibition through legislation, the state has institutionalised the practice with local governments and municipalities employing manual scavengers.

The reason for Dalit discrimination includes:

  • Caste system: Caste system continue to prevail in the nooks and corner of the country especially in villages, it is prevailing today in sectors like educational institutions, job market and even on the political battlefront. Thus it leaves Dalit with little respite in any sphere or at any juncture of their lives.
  • Inadequate protection mechanisms: There has been no dearth of political rhetoric or creation of laws. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, prescribe punishments from crimes against Dalits that are much more stringent than corresponding offences under the IPC. Special courts have been established in major states for speedy trial of cases registered exclusively under these Acts. However, weak enforcement mechanisms act against the purpose of it.
  • Reluctance in creation of new social order: Caste is not simply a law and order problem but a social problem. Caste violence can only be eradicated with the birth of a new social order. However, vote bank politics in India continue to hinder such a social order set up.  Even though justice, equality, liberty and fraternity are promised in the Preamble of our Constitution, it just is not available to everyone.
  • Non availability of assets:  Land reforms have still not been effective in many states of India. Land grabbing by mafia and landowners have to be curbed. As per SECC, over half of rural India owns no land at all. Among households who do own land, 40 per cent is not irrigated. Without having land or any assets, they do not have any bargaining power.
  • Unemployment: Joblessness among Dalits runs through the urban and rural landscape. According to 2011 Census data, the unemployment rate for SCs between 15 and 59 years of age was 18 per cent, including marginal workers seeking work, as compared to 14 per cent for the general population. Among ST, the unemployment rate was even higher at over 19 per cent. It makes them vulnerable to higher caste domination.

New forms of Dalit Assertions:

  • Dalit Panthers: It is a forefront organization & forum founded specifically for the cerebral freedom of the humans across the world from the enslaving & unjust social & economic system prevalent for ages together everywhere and securing justice for all. It emerged to fill the vacuum created in Dalit politics resulting from B.R. Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India splitting into factions. The Dalit Panthers led to a renaissance in Marathi literature and arts. They advocated for and practised radical politics, fusing the ideologies of Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Karl Marx.
  • Dalit Capitalism: Dalits own disproportionately lower share of businesses compared to their total population in India. The representatives of Dalit capitalism want to correct this imbalance because they believe that capital is the best way to break caste in the modern economy. The idea can be traced back to a conference of Dalit intellectuals held in Bhopal in 2002 which argued that the state in the era of globalization means that dependence on reservations will bring diminishing returns.
  • Broad based Dalit politics: Dalit politics is not restrictive as it was two three decades back. It has become reactionary in cases of atrocities on them, it has incorporated new modes of struggles in their protests, it involves alliances, and also has nodal concepts and norms invoked for action. While one can say that all these features were part of the Dalit movement at one time or the other, it is their combined effect which is proving itself lethal.