State of conflict: on the Bhima-Koregaon violence

The speed with which tension spread from Bhima-Koregaon, a village on the outskirts of Pune, on Monday to bring cities across Maharashtra to a shutdown by Wednesday, is a pointer to multiple failings. It appears that the police had failed to anticipate the potential for trouble breaking out in Bhima-Koregaon and then ensure that normal life continued in the days after. Every year on January 1, a large number of Dalits visit a memorial in Bhima-Koregaon to mark an 1818 battle in which the East India Company, with Mahar soldiers prominent in its ranks, had defeated the Peshwa. From being a battle lauded in colonial times only to be forgotten by the British, over the years Bhima-Koregaon came to be marked as a site of Dalit valour and repudiation of caste stereotypes. With a visit by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1927, it got invested with political and spiritual meaning beyond the specifics of the original battle and in a forward-looking politics. This year being the 200th anniversary, the commemoration was always going to be larger and more high-profile. The police should, therefore, have increased security. But there were also indications of tensions brewing after a vandalisation attempt in late December near the samadhi of a Mahar who it is said had performed the last rites of Sambhaji, Shivaji’s son. This is not far from Bhima-Koregaon and the administration was aware of the incident and its potential for causing trouble. The pent-up anger, which resulted in widespread incidents of arson and vandalism, ended with the bandh that brought Mumbai and other places to a halt.

The judicial inquiry promised by the Devendra Fadnavis government must determine who provoked the violence, how it spread, and to what extent right-wing Hindu groups were responsible for fomenting it. Law and order may have been restored in Maharashtra, but there is a political failing framed by the caste tensions that have bubbled over in the State. These are the result of many factors ranging from contested histories, at a more abstract level, to economic insecurities about jobs and livelihood, on the ground. The tensions of this past week have come against the backdrop of neo-reservation movements, such as by the Marathas in Maharashtra over the past couple of years. This and demands by Marathas to dilute the provisions of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act may be borne of economic and social anxieties — but they, in turn, have created understandable anxieties among Dalits about being left adrift to wage the political battle for their protection on their own. This time the Dalit assertion appears to have resulted in a degree of consolidation as well. The country’s politics must bridge differences by addressing anxieties holistically — instead of nurturing new polarised constituencies by widening these fault lines.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 5:33:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/state-of-conflict/article22369262.ece

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