The clashes that have engulfed important centres in Maharashtra, including Mumbai, testify to a sense of outraged dalit consciousness in the face of perceived historical oppression within the country’s stultifying caste framework, and also a claim to the valour of the oppressed. Considering the expanse of the disturbances, which began from the Bhima Koregaon area of Pune on New Year’s Day and quickly took in a number of towns and district centres, including large areas in the state capital, it is noteworthy that, fundamentally speaking, violence was not the motif of the frightful disorder.
There was one unfortunate death in Pune during clashes between dominant caste groupies flying saffron flags and a massive dalit crowd that had gathered to commemorate the 200th anniversary of a military event that gives the dalits solace and, equally, riles the socially dominant Maratha sections. While there is no accurate accounting yet of the private and public assets destroyed, it is possible to say that the level of chaos that was seen may ordinarily have produced far greater damage.
The Maharashtra government has done well to order a judicial probe, but it appears glaring that the authorities failed to anticipate and prevent trouble that was waiting to happen. A Facebook page in Marathi, purporting to be on history, had been causing instigation for a week. Upper caste and Hindutva elements, among whom was an organisation led by a mischief-maker known to the police, had gathered in strength to disrupt the traditional Dalit celebration, which this year was a much larger affair in view of the special anniversary.
The authorities’ lackadaisical attitude has led Hindutva opponents to suggest the mischief-makers made their pitch in the belief that they would easily get away in a BJP-run state. Anti-dalit social actions in Gujarat, Haryana and the Rohith Vemula case, which prima facie had political and state backing, could have emboldened anti-dalit elements.
Given the context, it is surprising to see Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis speak of a “conspiracy” to create disturbance to malign his government. His finger is pointing at Dalit militants like Jignesh Mevani, the Gujarat leader who has just become a legislator, and some on the far left. This is regrettable, and may be seen as an attempt to prejudice the judicial probe. The RSS and the Sangh Parivar have taken up the CM’s refrain. There were strong echoes of the unfortunate developments in Parliament. Dalit and Marxist students demonstrated outside the Maharashtra government guest house in New Delhi. Cooler heads must prevail. If the rioting spreads outside Maharashtra, involving the dalit communities and their social opponents, we could be in for a torrid time.