The protests, violence and paralysis that gripped Mumbai and parts of Maharashtra in the past three days had administrative, economic and political underpinnings. One person was killed, much property was destroyed and normal life disrupted in a chain of events that saw old and new grievances and social divisions come to be expressed in the most disruptive ways. The Maharashtra administration, police and intelligence failed to anticipate the possibilities of trouble when over 10 lakh Dalits assembled at Koregaon Bhima to commemorate a battle fought 200 years ago. The occasion was important for the Dalits because a predominantly Dalit army won the battle for the British against a high-caste Peshwa army. This was a proud event for the Dalits who mostly have a history of being oppressed. The local pro-Hindutva bodies took it as a challenge to their version of nationalist commitment and created trouble. Two Hindutva leaders were arrested by the police. If the state government had taken timely steps to avert a political provocation and to enforce standard operating procedures for dealing with such situations, the trouble may have been avoided.
Maharashtra is a state where social and political mobilisation of the Dalits has taken place for decades. It has also seen consolidation of upper castes and dominant communities like the Marathas. The Marathas' recent agitations for reservation have widened the gulf between the Dalits and them and other communities. There have been some recent cases of failure of the police in ensuring justice for the Dalits. The counter-mobilisation of the Dalits against the rising demands of the stronger communities has happened not only in Maharashtra but in other states, too. The Koregaon assembly was a national event in which Dalit leaders from other states were also present. The BJP governments in the state and elsewhere have misread the Dalit sentiment and tried to dub all challenges to them and to the communities that support the party as casteist or politically instigated.
It was also wrong on the part of the Hindutva forces to dub the Koregaon commemoration as a celebration of the victory of a foreign power over nationalist forces. These categories did not exist as we understand them today at the time of the battle. In any case, the Hindutva groups themselves do not have a great record of fighting the British during the freedom struggle. The same event in history can be interpreted by different groups in different ways and all viewpoints must be allowed to prevail. It is the intolerance for the Dalit view that lay at the root of the trouble, and the BJP may have to deal with the consequences politically and electorally in the days to come.