In the past few days I have realised that very few non-Dalits, or I can say almost nobody, had any idea about the "Bhima Koregaon battle". A legend which was limited to a few parts of Maharashtra, and among the politically aware Dalits elsewhere, is now a national news.
Many have discussed about what happened in 1818 at Bhima Koregaon, while others are arguing about what, or who, triggered the violence this year. No doubt the role of Hindutva organisations in the violence against Dalits should be talked about. But what is more important is to look for answers to why did the rightwing outfits trigger such large-scale violence this time.
Also, why did a section of the media bought by them [Hindutva forces] is reporting it with such devotion? What will be the impact, according to the Sangh, of this event on the Indian politics in the longer run?
To get the answers, one must rewind to the Babri Masjid episode. Babri Masjid situated in Ayodhya was a local issue for a long time, at least since 1948. People closely following the issue and locals knew about the claim that Lord Rama was born there. Moving away from Ayodhya, awareness about the Babri Masjid issue started fading gradually and almost diminished beyond Faizabad (the district of which Ayodhya is a town). But in August 1984 in its first "Dharm Sansad (Religious Parliament)", the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) passed a resolution that "temples should be built at Shri Ram Janmbhoomi, Kashi Vishwnath and Krishna Janmasthan".
The Mahar memorial at Bhima Koregaon. (Credit: Wikipedia)
The VHP started a Ramjanmbhoomi Mukti Yatra from Sitamarhi in Bihar on September 25, 1984, and reached Lucknow via Ayodhya. The national media covered the news as around three lakh people gathered in Lucknow on October 9, 1984.
This yatra, even though had to be stopped after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, successfully brought the mandir-masjid issue to the national discourse. Politicians and the public was in general started talking about Ayodhya.
For the Sangh Parivar, any discussion on the topic was a perfect setting to tell people that Muslims are "outsiders". They are the "invaders" who plundered and demolished the temples. Even as scholars and historians refuted those claims, the Sangh branded Muslims as agents of the "western" and "Muslim" powers. The Sangh gradually succeeded in demonising the whole Mughal rule and "made" Muslims the "enemy within".
Although this process of othering the Muslims through symbols like Ayodhya and bringing it to public discourse is more complex, in a nutshell, Ayodhya paved the way for a new kind of othering of Muslims. While earlier Muslims had to prove that they are loyal to India, and not Pakistan, after Ayodhya all Muslims became "Babar ki aulad" and hence invaders who should be treated as outsiders. This completed the Sangh's othering project.
Coming back to Bhima Koregoan violence, the anniversary of the battle was celebrated every year in Maharashtra, but almost nobody knew about it in other parts of the country. Of course, people who have interest in Dalit politics knew about it, but for the masses it had little relevance. This year, as a group of extremist Hindutva outfits attacked the a peacful procession and Dalit groups later retaliated, it made major headlines. A biased media too started insinuating that "Dalits were celebrating the defeat of an Indian army by the British". Then it was also insinuated that the British army, which conquered Indian territories during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, had high percentage of Dalit soldiers. This is exactly the narrative that the Sangh wanted - the foundation of another project, othering of Dalit communities, has been laid.
Now everybody, especially the upper caste, is discussing the role that Dalit soldiers played in the consolidation of British East India Company’s rule in the subcontinent. In a way British occupation of India, and hence the colonial exploitation, can now be blamed on the Dalits. It has already been done to the Muslims. By invoking the legend of "demolition of a temple where Babri Masjid stood", the Sangh has othered the whole Muslim community.
Years ago with slogans like "Babar ki aulad", today the Sangh have "established" that all Muslims are the heirs of invaders and hence do not belong to India. In other words, India belongs only to Hindus (not to forget the fact that Sikhs were branded terrorists in mid-1990s). Now with this new alt-truth dominating the public discourse, the definition of India has been shrunk even further. Now, Dalits have also been excluded from the Sangh's idea of "Hindu rashtra".
Since it was difficult to call them "outsiders", unlike Muslims, this whole new controversy has made them "collaborators" of the "outsiders" [British]. A few media outlets have already started branding the issue as Dalit versus Hindu violence. Thus, excluding Dalits from Hindus in their narrative.
So, now according to the Sangh definition, India comprises upper caste Hindus and OBCs. While Muslims are invaders, Christians are colonial legacy, Sikhs are terrorists, or part of Hinduism as it suits them, Dalits are the collaborators of British rulers.