The clashes between Dalits and right-wing groups at Koregaon Bhima on Monday and then the violent protests by Dalits across Maharashtra the day after singularly point to failure of state intelligence and police. Around 10 lakh Dalits had turned up at Koregaon Bhima on January 1 to mark 200 years of the British battle with Peshwas in which Mahar Dalits sided with the Raj. With such a large number of people assembling, the Maharashtra government should have done a better job of ensuring law and order. Over three days, a man was killed, numerous vehicles torched, property damaged, roads and railways blocked, and normal life crippled in Mumbai and beyond.
On the other hand, that the bicentenary commemoration became a trigger for violence exposes socio-political undercurrents at play. While Dalits view the Koregaon Bhima battle as a landmark event where a smaller British East India Company force comprising Mahars had held off the much larger upper-caste Peshwa army, right-wing Hindutva historians see it as a fight between indigenous rulers and British colonisers. Each year thousands of Dalits visit the Koregaon Bhima memorial to pay respects to slain Dalit soldiers and assert their Dalit identity – a practice that gained currency since BR Ambedkar visited the spot in 1927.
Today a Dalit socio-political consolidation appears to be taking place across the country. This time Bhim Army president Vinay Ratan Singh, Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar and Gujarat’s new Dalit face Jignesh Mewani were all present at the bicentenary event. Similar trends are also taking hold in other communities. The Maratha agitation for reservations in government jobs and education in 2016 is a case in point.
The fact is that rising tensions between communities over different readings of history, perceived injustices and demand for quotas stem from unfulfilled aspirations. There simply aren’t enough jobs being created to accommodate the 10 million youths joining the workforce each year. As a result, community affiliations are becoming pronounced in the hope that collective bargaining will yield special benefits. However, quotas have failed to either solve the jobs problem or promote inclusion – which means Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale’s suggestion of reservation for upper caste poor to aid inter-caste harmony is completely off the mark. What’s required is single-minded focus on growth that increases the jobs pie. Meanwhile tolerance for multiple readings of history must prevail.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.