Bhima-Koregaon caste violence in Maharashtra: In depth

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Amid allegations and counter allegations, it is still unclear who instigated the Bhima-Koregaon clash that sent ripples of violence and rioting across Maharashtra but the political reactions to the unfortunate incident points to a disturbing road ahead as the country hurtles towards the 2019 general elections.

It now seems certain that the caste-division formula that we saw during the Gujarat Assembly elections will be increasingly replicated elsewhere as BJP’s political rivals try to find a way to fracture the Hindu votebank. The odds for such a possibility are extremely high because on the one hand we have upper-caste anxiety resulting in aggressive demand for a share of the reservation pie and on the other, a rising Dalit assertiveness that feeds on decades of social oppression.

At two ends of the social circle, both these churnings ironically draw from the same resentment — the government’s failure to mitigate the agrarian crisis or create employment for millions of youths. The Opposition, which has been struggling to cope with BJP’s aggressive rise and expansion of national footprint, sees in this adversity a chance to fracture the polity and halt the Narendra Modi juggernaut.

Caste fault lines have always existed. In 2014, Modi had been able to paper over the cracks through his campaign of hope. That hope is receding fast, reality is setting in and the fault lines are regaining prominence.

As this article in The Indian Express argues: “…poor Patels, Jats and Marathas are now lagging behind affluent OBCs (sometimes even the Dalits)… (and) their demand for quotas reflects anxieties regarding education and jobs.” They go on to write, “the current services-led economic growth demands a certain level of education, social skills and attributes. The dominant castes often lack these assets, and while the SCs and OBCs miss them too, they partly make up for this because of reservations.”

All it needs for this cauldron to burst in flames is a trigger of resentment and the Opposition, led by the Congress, has lately been trying to do just that. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s tweet — posted shortly after reports emerged of violence spreading from Pune to different parts of Maharashtra and angry Dalit youth hitting the streets – is a callous and dangerous statement that laid bare the party strategy.

Even as one Maratha youth died, a 35-year-old police constable suffered grievous eye injury, curfew was imposed in some parts, 187 government buses along with dozens and dozens of other private vehicles suffered damages, trains stopped on tracks and shops and commercial establishment downed shutters, Rahul Gandhi saw in the violence a “potent symbol of resistance”.

Instead of displaying a modicum of responsible behaviour as the president of India’s grand old party, Rahul’s tweet was an effort to keep alive the rifts that he hopes would bring political dividends. This wasn’t an isolated effort. Members of his party started issuing similar statements, as did some Opposition leaders.

AICC general secretary in charge of Maharashtra, Mohan Prakash, claimed “wherever the BJP is in power, its supporters and RSS execute such actions when events related to Dalit pride are organised”. Prithriraj Chavan, senior Congress leader and former Maharashtra chief minister saw in it “a deliberate attempt to cause a law-and-order situation by certain forces.” He blamed it on chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, whereas NCP chief Sharad Pawar said, “I am told that some outsider, right-wing elements are instrumental in provoking violence.”

Monday’s incident at Bhima-Koregaon and adjacent villages in Pune is now under a judicial probe by a “sitting judge” but a blame game is already under way with repercussions being felt on Wednesday in the Parliament.

Two local Hindu right-wing leaders — Milind Ekbote of Hindu Ekta Aghadi and Sambhaji Bhide of Shiv Pratisthan – have been booked by the police for instigating violence. A counter-complaint has also been filed against Dalit leader and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani and JNU student Umar Khalid — both invited at the bicentenary celebration of Bhima-Koregaon battle — for inciting the crowd.

Protests at the Pune-Mumbai highway on Wednesday. Image/Team 101 reporters

Protests at the Pune-Mumbai highway on Wednesday. Image/Team 101 reporters

The police complaint against Mevani states that the Gujarat Dalit leader told “people to come on street and retaliate” that resulted in tension erupting between the two communities.

While the truth behind allegations will eventually emerge – and it is entirely possible that right-wing groups were indeed behind the clash — it seems odd that RSS or the BJP would actively instigate division between Hindu communities that defeats its stated purpose of ‘one India’. If anything, a fracturing of the Hindu vote bank immensely benefits its rivals and unless the BJP is on a suicide mission, it makes no sense for the party to drive a wedge between Dalits and the Marathas.

To increase voter base and pitch it as a ‘pro-poor party’, Amit Shah and Modi have been trying vehemently to rid BJP of its ‘bania-trader-upper-caste’ moorings and spring ‘development’ as a plank to cement the fault lines. It had paid handsome dividends in the past. It is unclear why BJP would suddenly reverse its efforts and court trouble in an election year. Expectedly, BJP leaders have been circumspect, issuing statements to control the damage.

A report in The Indian Express quotes a BJP MP as saying that the party is worried at the turn of events. “This (Gujarat Dalit leader Mevani’s presence in Bhima-Koregaon) suggests a deepening of caste fault lines. This is not good for us and highlights the increasing challenge for the BJP to use our promise of vikas (development) to paper over this fault line.”

Conversely, Gujarat experiment has convinced the Congress that it can benefit from a laser focus on caste equations and break into the BJP vote bank. A News18 report quotes a post-Gujarat Lokniti study to show that “36 percent of the Patel votes went to Congress this time” as opposed to 10 percent in 2012. “The most number of votes from the community – 46 percent – came from Leuva Patels. This is a 31 percent increase from what the party got in 2012 state elections when only 15 percent of the Leuva Patels had voted for the Congress.” The party also received 27 percent Kadwa Patel votes, an 18 percent increase compared to 9 percent in 2012. It also registered an uptick in OBC votes.

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