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Bhima Koregaon and Dalit Bahujan Movement
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swati kamble 1

 

Swati Kamble

swati kamble 1I began writing this piece over a month ago at the dawn of January 5th, after ruminating and having constant monologues with self about the violent attacks against Dalits in Bhima-Koregaon and the hunting down of protesting Dalit youth that followed in the next few days. I struggled to scribble down my racing thoughts on paper for about four days, and finally, when I couldn’t sleep on the night of 4th January, at four in the morning I sat down to put the turmoil of my mind down on paper. Two things that affected me most and probed me to write this piece were: A video circulated on social media and an upsetting opinion piece written by Mr. Anand Teltumbde.

A friend had shared this video taken in Bhima-Koregaon. It looked like it was taken mere minutes after the stone pelting and destruction of vehicles of Dalit-Bahujans who had come to commemorate the 200 years of Mahar and other untouchable castes’ bravery in the battle against the Peshwa. In the video you see a wounded elderly woman and an eight or nine year old, skinny girl dressed in white, along with few other family members. In the video this thin little girl speaks in a quivering but sharp voice “…we stood in front of a shop to buy something to eat, they circled our vehicle. They said don’t give any food to these Mahars and then they started throwing stones at our vehicles. My grandmother got wounded…” As she spoke, she imitated with pain, the disgust in the voices of the abusers as they hurled those sharp deafening words of hatred. The pain in her voice pierced me deeply. Her cries demanded answers to the questions: why should Mahars not be given food? Why throw stones at Mahars? Why treat us as untouchables? We have to look back at history to give accurate answers to these very important questions that every aspiring, educated young Dalit mind must be asking. This deep-seated hatred comes from the notion of repulsive disgust that dehumanizes Dalits. It justifies the violence and this modern form of untouchability.

The turmoil in my mind turned into depressing hopelessness in these few days as I pondered about the injustice people of my community have to endure to this day in the world’s largest democracy. I couldn’t bear watching the onslaught and humiliation the mainstream media put my people through. Soon after the protests by Dalit groups in several cities of Maharashtra to condemn the violence in Bhima-Koregaon were organized, combing operations to hunt down protesting youth, both men and women began in several cities. It made me sick in the stomach to witness the criminalization and incarceration of Dalit youth and young children who were merely exercising their right to protest against injustice. Around this time an opinion piece by Anand Teltumbde got published in The Wire. This piece writes off the battle of Bhima-Koregaon as a myth Babasaheb created to build a movement and according to Teltumbde today Dalits need not use this ‘mythical past’ and ‘imagined greatness’. This hateful piece of writing made me awestruck. To get out of depressing ruminations I went back to reading Babasaheb. His writings have always given me answers and inspiration. What follows in the next paras is my critique of Teltumbde’s piece with the help of Babasaheb’s ingenious writings. Further, I urge my Dalit-Bahujan fellow activists, youth and students to #KnowyourBabasaheb, and to start re-imagining the movement in a new light in this changing political milieu which is increasingly hateful. I urge the emerging Dalit-Bahujan-minority movement to seek solidarities globally and to become a global face for the movement towards justice and equality.

I began reading ‘The Untouchables: Who were they and why they became untouchables?’ from the volume 7 of the writings and speeches of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was Mr. Teltumbde’s troubling account of “lack of historical facts” to support the “Myth of Bhima-Koregaon” that led me to re-read Babasaheb’s theorization of broken men. Mr. Teltumbde’s opinion piece deliberately neglects the very important fact that the history of the marginalized has always been suppressed by those who are established in power. If he tries to search for the history of the oppressed in the books of the oppressors he will find nothing but powerlessness, filthiness, and undignified portrayal of the oppressed. He can’t look for the revolutions of the oppressed in the historical works of the oppressors which are filled with their own glory.

Babasaheb’s books, on the other hand, have accurate scientific studies devoted to excavating the history of what led to Untouchability, thereby producing ample evidence about the nature of systemic suppression and degradation of certain ‘classes’. In the 1940s during the course of studying Untouchability, he grappled with missing links in the historiographies of ancient Indian history. He wrote that many students of ancient Indian History have had to confront with such missing links. He stated in particular what Mountstuart Elphinstone observed on Indian history “no date of a public event can be fixed before the invasion of Alexander: and no connected relation of the natural transactions can be attempted until after the Mohamedan conquest.”(Ambedkar 1948: 243). Thus, Indian history cannot give in full extent the trajectory of revolutions of the oppressed either. How can Mr. Teltumbde trust inadequately documented historiographies to draw his conclusion that before Bhima-Koregon there is no evidence of Untouchables’ retaliation against oppressive rulers? If ancient Indian history was so ambiguous with its facts, how then would anybody have bothered about documenting any upsurge of the untouchables?

Take an example from a documentary on BBC about Australia’s aborigines (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myGZL9r6LQc):”they were deemed to be subhuman, little more than animals”, says the anchor of the documentary. The Encyclopedia Britannica1, he says, describes the aboriginals as “only an animal of prey: more ferocious than a leopard or hyena who devour their own species”. This articulation was created to justify the theft of their lands as well as their extermination. So they were hunted, raped and killed. The documentary reveals that “one of the most enduring myths about the aborigines is that they did not fight back, in fact the war of resistance lasted more than a century…When the British established the third British settlement in the town of Windsor in the early 1800s, the Great War began. This war was not recorded in the imperial chronicles of Australia.” But the records show the extermination policies applied by British to wipe out the aborigines and their success in doing so. These records state that a quarter of a million aborigines were systematically massacred by the turn of the century. I elaborate on this historical fact to give Mr. Teltumbde reference on how histories are manipulated by those in power. How evidences get wiped out or are not documented at all.

Bababsaheb did not stop his studies because there was lack of evidence, nor did he come to the conclusion that because there is a lack of evidence of retaliation and revolution of oppressed Untouchables in history, therefore, the resistance didn’t occur. Like a skillful historian, he analyzed the available facts and came up with educated hypotheses and theories about the origins of Untouchability giving visibility and history to the people who were left out of it. He didn’t say, because their names are not mentioned in historical evidence, therefore they ceased to exist as humans except as subservient slaves. Mr. Teltumbde likes to believe that while the whole world was busy in revolution and changing the history dynamically, the untouchables remained mute and served their masters without questioning even once as to why they were enslaved. These claims do not appeal to my curious mind. Mr. Teltumbde takes comfort in functionalist theory and assumes that the society functioned in harmony with masters oppressing their servants and my people, the Untouchables, followed the role of mute followers until of course they were educated by the British. I, on the other hand, think that no humankind in history can endure oppression without revolting back, and therefore Mahar and Untouchables too must have, as a principle, revolted against their oppression, even before British rule, even before Bhima-Koregaon. I base this claim on well-formed conflict theory. One has to agree with ample historical evidence that any community that faces oppression retaliates. Could Mr. Teltumbde, a Marxist himself, disagree with Marx’s claims that class struggles and oppression result in the revolution?

Mr. Teltumbde portrays Mahars as disempowered servants when he says Mahars were merely doing their service to the British Empire. However, I see them as effective negotiators, who found their way into the army of the enemy of their oppressor. I would call it a very meticulous strategy.The inferiority Mr. Teltumbde instills in my people is surprising. It is indeed a matter of perspective. My standpoint and the standpoint of my community is rooted in the history of my people’s struggle for which the oral histories of our forefathers stand as testimonies.

To think that the ex-untouchables were frozen in time, accepted their oppression until their savior British transformed and empowered them with education, and thus their movement was formed is a flawed argument. To think that they had no agency to retaliate against oppression goes against the innate nature of humanity. History shows us that the oppressors, rulers of the land had to create a myth, indoctrinate masses with that myth to alienate a certain class of people and to shut down their resilience. Take an example from not so long ago of the systemic massacre of Jews during the holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, the slavery and extermination of aborigines and present day projection of Muslim minorities as terrorists. We have ample evidence in the present day about systemic inculcation of fear and hatred. However, today, the European society and Germany, in particular, feels remorse and apology for their oppressive history. There are policies for reconciliation. But no such reconciliation is to be found in the Indian society. In fact the violence against Dalit-Bahujan and minorities is escalating in India.

The fact that caste system, a systemic myth created to oppress a class of people has sustained over thousands of years and continues to thrive talks volumes about the sickening nature of Hindu society in history and as we know it today. It does not say anything about the oppressed communities being vegetables and accepting this violence and oppression mutely. The myth of religion and the myth of purity and pollution played a very important role. There were resistance and reform movements in many Bahujan castes. We have great social revolutionaries – from Kabira, Shahajiraje to Jotirao Phule – who shook the grounds of the caste system and transformed Indian society. However the disunity amongst the castes and obedience to the religiously sanctified rulers as well as the religious rules made it difficult to dismantle the caste system from its roots2. Caste system gave perks and power to each graded class high up in the hierarchy as well as instilling the fear of god among all. The sacrosanct nature of this system was set in stone and it was not to be touched. About this too Babasaheb has written amply. In ‘Castes in India’ he talks about the sustenance of caste system in India, as the classes lower in the hierarchy imitated the nature of those above them, thus imitating endogamy and segregation, the key to the existence of caste system.

With regards to the British rule, we must be very clear here: ‘British East India Company’ was a joint stock company whose owners comprised of oligarchs and the elite British royalty. They had their own system of sustenance. They created the myth of monarchy to play the game of power, giving sacrosanctity to the monarch, one of the oligarchs. They expanded their business, with their own private army. They came to India with the purpose of developing business by shaking hands with the ruling royalties of this land. As the British political scene changed in Britain and the Indian retaliation grew stronger in India against the company’s rule, the monarchy took hold of the company and Indian territories came under the ‘British Raj’. The British had no intention to educate and empower the Indian masses, except to have obedient servants, we all know that. This was a strategic move and the trickledown effect was that: initially trained to be sepoys the untouchable classes, who had their own agency and who were empowered, took advantage of this education. The fact that they could visibly mobilize during British rule only points to the fact that they already had a history and strong inclination to mobilize against oppression on land.

Mr. Teltumbde says that the “ungrateful British” stopped the Mahars recruitment to the army, refusing to acknowledge their past bravery. This didn’t happen as an emotional decision. It was a British tactic, as they feared upsurge of martial castes shaking the British rule. Here too, the Mahars used their agency to negotiate with the British for future recruitment knowing fully the advantages of it. You cannot overlook this important fact as a tactic from the Mahars’ front.

With regards to Mr. Teltumbde’s claim: “There is no evidence that after the defeat of Peshwai, there was any relief that accrued to Mahars. As a matter of fact, their caste oppression continued unabated.” How does the continuation of caste oppression relate to the fact that Mahar did not use every opportunity to resistance, be it entering the British army to defeat their oppressive ruler Peshawa? Caste system wasn’t dismantled because not everybody playing in this filthy game of hierarchy retaliated with the same force for dismantling the caste system like the Mahars and a few other untouchable and Bahujan castes did.

Finally, when Mr. Teltumbde calls Bhima-Koregaon a myth he shows total disregard to Babasaheb’s intellectual honesty. Babasaheb was an intellectual historian-anthropologist who didn’t stop with his quest after ‘seeing lack of evidence’ in the history he wished to analyse. He made intelligent hypotheses and he tested these based on available information to prove his claims about how untouchables became untouchable. This history as narrated by Dr. Ambedkar shows the resistance and eventual negotiations “broken men” underwent, proving that it was innate to the “broken men”, the untouchables, to fight when necessary and seek negotiations as a strategy. Therefore when it comes to Bhima-Koregaon, Babasaheb had no reasons to create a myth. And acknowledging that history by commemorating the battle of Bhima-Koregaon is not to ‘imagine greatness’, it is to pass on this piece of history to the next generations. For it is our responsibility to sustain our history, it is in our benefit, not in the benefit of our oppressor.

As much troubling I have found Mr. Teltumbde’s opinion piece, with good faith in his scholarly abilities I request himto inculcate intellectual rigor and honesty in himself as a scholar. I urge him to read Babasaheb with an open eye and finally, read the Indian historians-scholars with the same skepticism and critical eye he applies while criticizing the Dalit history and movement.

I urge the larger Dalit-Bahujan movement and educated youth from Dalit-Bahujan community that we should work towards creating sustainable strategies to strengthen our movement. If our ultimate goal is to overthrow the oppressive systems of power with democratic means, our revolution must have clear and sustainable strategies to achieve this goal. The resources and energies of the community should not get invested in reactionary politics. Caste is a hundred headed giant and we need multifold strategies to behead this caste monster. We therefore need a studious approach to achieve this, engaging in critical dialogue and using safe spaces for sharing these ideas is one step.

We have plenty of evidence on how Dalit communities are being segregated, how Dalit leadership is sabotaged and co-opted and how the state has total disregard for the human rights of the Dalit-Bahujan. Therefore our strategies should tap into many levels, right from the mass protests, to lobbying and advocacy at the state, national and international platforms. Above everything it is very important to bring the movement closer to the communities and to the people. The protests such as the one that followed after Bhima-Koregaonis are one way of creating resistance but it is not sustainable. The repercussions of agitation are much greater, such as the combing operations, the incarceration of our youth and portrayal of our young children as street urchins and hooligans. The youth and kids who are the education seeking generation and the future of our community should be protected. The traumas and disillusionment due to the ongoing hatred spewed against them can be and is harmful. Take the example of the civil rights movement in America. It was sabotaged and the black panthers were criminalized, hunted down and killed. Panther’s movement gave the black movement gems like Angela Davis but the repercussions of the black uprising took away Martin Luther King and Malcom X. The Dalit Panther in Maharashtra in the 1970s saw the same fate. The establishment is powerful and we need to build our resistance with safeguards to protect and strengthen our community with constitutional and democratic means.

We as a community and movement have many challenges in front of us. Accessing education has been a struggle and even after defying these structural inequalities, our young minds enter colleges and universities only to experience further segregation and discrimination. In the slums and rural parts, sustaining a family with meagre income is a challenge. We must create a dialogue and platform to devise solutions and strategies. Our movement can have fragments and it can be scattered, as diversity will only strengthen it, but we should be on the same page about the goals we seek to achieve. We should focus on the education of our youth, alliance building with other global movements and negotiations with global entities with common ideas on justice and equality of the oppressed.

I envision a pentagon comprising of educated-aspiring youth politicians, bureaucrats, civil society activists and NGO workers, researchers and academicians, artists and professionals such as lawyers and doctors. On the social media I can already identify these five strands of people interacting with each other, these interactions should also reach our grassroots from where we hail. Our community people, people from the vastis and villages have been good listeners, good followers. They now need an ideal set of leaders, they need new messages to take home, goals to pursue. We should talk about these time-bound, clear goals for coming years and with a vision for working towards them. We are over sixty percent of Dalit-Bahujan-minority masses but how many Dalit, Bahujan and minority faces do we see in the political leadership, civil society and in the mainstream media. We should envision changing the political discourse by sending out trained-educated political representatives from Dalit-Bahujan-tribal-minority communities.

These wishes might feel like lofty ideas but when I look at the emerging diverse leadership of BAPSA in JNU, the vibrant student movement in HCU, RTI as a social-intellectual space for young minds, young intellectual-academics in making in Wardha, TISS, IITs and many more young voices active on the social media I feel we have a strong foundation. We have to take our place and reconstitute the academe, politics, and policy. I do not want to leave an empty wish-list of what all we should do on a larger level, because it is a mammoth of a task. I only wish that we start a dialogue, come together on a common platform to share and continue the work of community building, movement building.

Lastly and very importantly I want to come back to Babasaheb. Earlier in this write up I said we all need to know our Babasaheb. And I say it again, let us all read Babasaheb, discuss his discourses and devise intelligent arguments from his intellectual prowess. The young curious minds of our community who are asking the right questions, who demand dignity and equal rights will find Babasaheb in new light through these readings and their fresh interpretations of these readings. I therefore call uponDalit-Bahujan students and youth to #KnowyourBabasaheb

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Notes

1. The anchor in this video clip mentions that the Encyclopedia Britannica with the aforementioned description of the Australian aboriginal people was still in circulation at the time when he was a child. The present day online encyclopedia on Britannica contains a researcher’s note. This note acknowledges that past articles on Australian Aboriginals written by contributors and editors show “a long history of usage practices and terminology that, too often, were insensitive to the peoples described and expressed the writer’s—and the writer’s cultures—racialist theories and imagination.” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Australian-Aboriginal)

2. I acknowledge here the critical insights given by Kuffir to elaborate on the complexity connected with caste sustenance and to also recognize the important works of revolutionaries from across the caste spectrum in dismantling this system.

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Swati Kamble is a Dalit women’s rights activist and a PhD student in the University of Geneva. She is also an executive director of a Dalit women’s rights organisation based in Mumbai, Alliance of Dalit Women, since 2011.

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