The New Year's Day violence at Koregaon Bhima in Pune, Maharashtra, has brought the issues of Dalits centre stage once again.
Not only has the incident exposed the fault lines in the complex caste system in this western Indian state that sends 48 MPs to Lok Sabha and has a 288-member Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, it also poses a challenge to the governments of the day at the Centre and the state.
The incident will surely have an impact on the 2019 general elections, if not on the 2018 Assembly elections in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Maharashtra has a history of strong Dalit-Buddhist movement, a socio-political movement started by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the greatest fighter for Dalit rights in the 20th century and the chief architect of the Constitution of India.
Dalits constitute some 16.6% of India's population, according to the 2011 Census. In Maharashtra, of the total population of over 11 crore, about 12% are Scheduled Castes and 8% are Scheduled Tribes. Other Backward Classes (OBC) comprise about 19% and the others/General around 48%, which includes 33% Marathas.
There are 59 communities under the umbrella of SCs in Maharashtra, whereas across India, there are 1,092 SC communities registered. Mahar or New Buddhist, Matang or Mang and Chambhar are the major communities among the 59 SCs. Mahar or New Buddhist (57.5%), Matang (20.3%), Bhambi and Chambhar (17.2%) constitute 95% of the SC population in the state.
The full view of Dalit politics is quite complex: Dalits vs non-Dalits, Dalits vs Marathas, Dalits vs Brahmins, and so on.
The movement against discrimination started as early as the 13th century in Maharashtra, known as Bhakti Chalval, part of the larger Bhakti movement across India, with earlier parallel movements in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. This movement was started by saints like Jnanadev, Namdev and Tukaram and continued by Chhatrapati Shahu in the 16th century and later social reformers like Mahatma Phule in the 19th century and Dr Ambedkar in the 20th century.
Ambedkar left behind the legacy of a federation of Scheduled Castes under the umbrella of the Republican Party of India (RPI). Today, the RPI is split into four main factions €" the Republican Party of India (A) of Ramdas Athawale, Republican Party of India (United), Republican Party of India (Gavai), now led by Rajendra Gavai, the RPI faction led by Prof. Jogendra Kawade and the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh of Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar. His brother Dr Anandraj Ambedkar leads the Republican Sena. Besides, there are over 40 splinter groups. Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party also has a presence in Maharashtra.
The two most important Dalit leaders as of now are Athawale, who is Minister of State for Social Justice in the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and Prakash Ambedkar, a two-term Lok Sabha and one-term Rajya Sabha MP. In the aftermath of the Koregaon Bhima incident, Ambedkar could swiftly consolidate the Dalit forces and impose a near-total Maharashtra shut-down on January 3. It's going to be a tough balancing act for Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is a Brahmin in a state where the CMs have mostly been from the politically-dominant Maratha community.
Into this mix comes a potent tweet from Congress chief Rahul Gandhi: "A central pillar of the RSS/BJP's fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society. Una, Rohith Vemula and now Bhima-Koregaon are potent symbols of the resistance."
A series of incidents have led to a widespread feeling among Dalits that there is a renewed surge in the targeting of Dalits in the last few years.
n In late April 2014, Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old Dalit boy, was murdered, allegedly by members of a Maratha family for talking to a girl from the family in school. In November 2017, all nine accused of the murder were acquitted by a court.
n In July 2016, the death sentence awarded to the convicted in the horrific Khairlanji massacre in 2006, in which an entire Dalit family was wiped out save for one member, was commuted to life terms, whereas in November 2017, death sentences were awarded to three Dalits for the July 2016 rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Ahmednagar district.
n In January 2016, a 27-year-old Dalit PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after the university allegedly stopped paying him his fellowship money because an enquiry against him found that he was "raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association".
n In Una, Gujarat, four Dalit youths were stripped and flogged in public by self-appointed gau rakshaks in July 2016. The protests following the incident propelled Jignesh Mevani into leadership of a renewed Dalit movement. Mevani won an Assembly seat on a Congress ticket in the Gujarat elections in December, but the families of the victims still await justice.
n In October 2017, in a village barely 15 kilometres from Gandhinagar, Gujarat's capital, a Dalit teenager was stabbed by two men for sporting a moustache, just days after another Dalit youth was murdered for watching garba at a temple.
Another issue to anger Dalits is the unfulfilled demand for a grand memorial for Dr Ambedkar in the defunct Indu Mill, located next to Chaitya Bhoomi in Shivaji Park, where he was cremated. Both the UPA government and the current Modi government have created hurdles in the path of the memorial.
Even as reports of atrocities on Dalits increase, the demand, particularly by the Maratha community, for amendments in the Schedule Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, commonly known as Atrocities Act, has not gone down well with the community. Neither has the beef ban imposed by the BJP government in the state.
The Koregaon Bhima incident, where Dalits were attacked for commemorating a 200-year-old war in which they had sided with the British to defeat the Brahmin Peshwa rulers under whom they had suffered atrocities, has added new fuel to the Hindutva forces versus Dalits confrontation. This will have an impact in the coming Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, which are held by the BJP as well as in Congress-ruled Karnataka. In fact, Dalit leaders from Maharashtra are preparing plans to campaign in all these states.