Every year on January 1, a large number of Mahars (Dalits) visit the memorial in Bhima-Koregaon, a village on the outskirts of Pune, to mark an 1818 battle in which the East India Company, with Mahar soldiers prominent in its ranks, had defeated the Peshwa. Over the years, the said memorial has come to be marked as a site of Dalit valor and repudiation of caste stereotypes. This year being the 200th anniversary, the commemoration was always going to be larger and more high-profile.
A vandalisation attempt in late December, near the samadhi of a Mahar (who is said to have performed the last rites of Sambhaji, i.e. Shivaji’s son) resulted in aggravating the pent-up anger of the minority. The widespread incidents of arson and vandalism, ending with a bandh, brought Mumbai and other places to a halt. The speed, with which tension spread in the area, is a poignant pointer towards multiple failings. And, it appears that the police also failed to anticipate the trouble or its potential.
Dalits have, without a shadow of doubt, suffered historical as well as institutional caste oppression over the years. Their anger can be justified by legitimate grievances. But, the question that needs an urgent answer is, ‘Should that grievance be taken as an allowance to indulge in violent conduct’? Moreover, the country’s politics must bridge differences by addressing such issues holistically – instead of widening these fault lines.
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