Irony of the decade
Caste wars have centred on the fight for a casteless India — highlighting the prime political agenda for 2019, writes Aditya Aamir.
If there were no castes in 1818 and assuming there was an idea of India at the time, the 900 Mahars who joined the British to defeat the Peshwa's 20,000-strong army would have been treated as traitors and anti-nationals. But, there was a 'British India' and the Mahars had become celebrated symbols of lower caste resistance to upper caste oppression, even if in the company of the foreign occupier.
Attendance at the January 1 Bhima Koregaon rally this year was impressive. Lakhs of Dalits attended, 10 to 15 times more than in any of the previous 199 years.
Why did the numbers swell? It could not be because every Dalit in the proximity woke up with the same thought: 'Nice day to picnic at Bhima Koregaon.' No, it had to be an organised turnout for a particular reason, a reason other than the annual celebration of the famous Dalit victory over the Peshwa's army.
So, what was the reason for the rise in numbers? Was it a deliberate move to use the Dalit-dignity to kick-start caste conflicts ahead of the 2019 general elections for electoral gains? As it turned out, violence disrupted the 'outing', with pitched battles between the Dalits and upper castes. Several people were injured and one person was killed.
The dead man's caste became an issue. First reports said he was Dalit. Later clarifications said he was an upper caste Maratha. It would not have mattered even if he was Dalit; he was the casualty of an organised attempt to create a confrontation, ostensibly for a casteless society, but in reality to make political capital by hardening caste divisions.
There were villains on both sides. Upper caste outfits with Hindutva links and lower caste Dalit groups with shady ties. Both parties were familiar with each other's tactics, strengths, and weaknesses. But on the 200th year anniversary of 1818, the Dalits rose to battle like it was 1818 all over again.
The rightwing groups were aware of the Dalit plan to swamp Bhima Koregaon. In the mix were 'outsiders' like Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid. The duo kept away from Bhima Koregaon but their voices were heard and digested. The spread of the 'uprising' was spontaneous and across the state.
Somebody was taking political advantage out of the lakhs gathered at Bhima Koregaon. It was not difficult to guess who? The target was the 2019 general elections, the first available chance after 2014 to unseat Narendra Modi. There was no equivalent to Article 25 of the United States' Constitution in India's statute book with which to impeach Modi.
In the violence that spread to Mumbai, the Fadnavis government was caught on the wrong foot and the media eventually took sides, some with boundless criticism of the Dalit and the Congress, others with unalloyed warts and all reprisal of the role of rightwing groups in targeting the oppressed Dalit.
It was not difficult to read Independent Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani. He was a disrupter. Point him in the right direction and he'd strike. He was not an Ambedkarite. Neither was he impressed by Mayawati's exploits. If he was around in 1818, he would have been one of the 900, a martyr to the cause.
With his election to the Gujarat assembly, Mevani was expected to shake up the status quo. In hindsight, it is clear that it was a calculated move not to join the Congress. Staying Independent raised his value multifold for the Congress.
For Rahul Gandhi, Mevani was the hammer of Thor; the disrupter who would shake up the defeated Dalit. With Mevani by his side, Rahul Gandhi can be the liberal 'janeoudhari' and leave the Dalit to the Dalit. In the Congress of his forefathers, the Dalit was a fixture in the south end of the village, with no place in the village square.
It was a brilliant strategy to let Ambedkar write the Constitution. It is a pity there is no catch-all word like 'Secularism' to vanish caste. Jignesh Mevani's goal is a casteless society. But with every rally he addressed, he was digging himself a hole in the caste mire.
At the moment, BJP does not have an answer to Jignesh Mevani, who has made it his life's goal to see the back of Narendra Modi. Rahul Gandhi can't wait to be PM and then Jignesh can rewrite the Constitution for a casteless India. Never mind that the last person who said he wanted to rewrite the Constitution found himself in the south end, an outcast with a 'mutter-brain'.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)