By- Vishal Jitendra
I have been meaning to write about Bhima Koregaon for a long time. I was wondering that if I were to say anything, what would I say that is not being said already. Everybody has something to offer, from the rabid Viraat Hindu to “casteless” Savarna, from leftist writers to the clueless centrist “liberals”.
Mostly it was the Savarna commentary that prompted me to write this.
An average savarna, who often claims that he does not even know his caste despite carrying his surname everywhere, is the most clueless person about the caste. His ignorance could be feigned or deliberate, it varies. What is notable is that the profound lack of understanding these people have about how caste comes into play.
It is no secret to any educated person that how Dalits and other oppressed classes have been treated throughout millennia. And it isn’t a secret either that how Brahmins and Kshatriyas reigned over all.
Since people were lumped into groups of castes, there emerged a consciousness of the caste as a whole, a collective feeling, a sense of belonging with each other, and the way each caste perceives other castes.
Brahmins and Rajputs never fail to show their pride for several reasons that go back for hundreds of years. They have the history in their favour to back them up – the kings, the warriors, the artists, the writers, all of them have come from the higher echelons of the caste system. There is a sensation and a consciousness among them that flows from generation to generation: of being superior, of being smarter, of being more respectworthy, of deserving more.
When it comes to Dalits, we have nothing like that. Our histories are wiped out, our struggles are forgotten, our heroes have faded out of our collective memories. We grew up in a society that told us we were inferior, that we were stupid, that we didn’t deserve more than what we had. We had nothing to look back at, except for humiliation and violence and fear.
Even now I see Dalits in my village living in a shadow of fear, where they tolerate disrespect and rebuke, where an old Dalit touches the feet of a young Savarna, where Savarna kids call old Dalits with their first names and the old Dalits call Savarna kids by adding the honorific of “Baba” to their name.
Such low self-esteem has been inculcated into the lower castes by centuries of oppression and psychological control. Our collective feeling is of fear and apprehension because that is what we see when we look back into the obscurity of our history.
A collective feeling of a caste, about their self-worth and self-respect, it goes back in history to the time when the first memorable event of their history had taken place.
So when a small army of a few hundred Mahars managed to defeat several thousands of Peshwas: it was an act of valor, courage and strength that we did not even know we had in us.
The Peshwas treated Mahars worse than cattle, denying them basic rights, refused to treat them with the basic dignity of human beings, instilling self-doubt and fear and apprehension in them. Dalits were made to tie a broom around their waist to clean the dust they had contaminated by just walking on it, a pot around their necks so they don’t defile the public space by spitting, and denied the wearing of any upper body cloth, denied education or jobs, and subjected to constant ridicule, abuse, humiliation and violence.
So when a group of people, who were downtrodden in such a manner, rose to claim a victory by their sheer valor, it was a momentous occasion that is very rightly marked so.
One can argue that they were fighting for the British, who were fighting against the Peshwas to establish foreign dominion over our lands and their fight had nothing to do with caste as it was merely a group of people doing their job – in fact, many people have argued so.
So first of all, we need to know that the British army consisted of people from not only the Dalit community but also from all the upper castes. In fact, the Untouchables weren’t even allowed to be a part of any army, British or local empire’s, since the cadres of other castes wouldn’t collaborate with them. At a point in time, Britishers had a Mahar regiment, but it was promptly discarded due to protest from upper caste soldiers in the British army. So the British army for the greater period of time consisted of Rajputs and other castes, fighting against local empires, kingdoms and factions.
If we are going to play the game of contemporary news reporting by assigning the false binaries of nationalism and anti-nationalism in a context when our nation did not even exist, then the fact is as clear as day that who was being Anti-national here. No points for guessing it right. Although there are certain brownie points for our well-meaning Savarna folk who have managed to read this far, and are able to give the right answer.
Second, they were indeed a group of people doing their job. But if you remember what I said earlier, the regiment founded on the basis of caste is supposed to have a collective feeling that comes associated with that caste. And when such a group of people refute all the history of subjugation to write a new one of triumph, it becomes much more than being just another day of doing their job. It changed the way they see themselves, the way they see other castes, and the way other castes see them.
Dr Ambedkar was very right in making sure that this incident, the memorial and the feeling associated with it is etched in our consciousness. He wrote about it, he reinforced it, he reminded us of it – because it had happened, because we needed something to look back at, because our pride needed a foundation stone to stand on. Because we needed to know that we can claim our rightful place and our respectable lives even against seemingly indomitable odds.
It has also been argued that the whole take of Dalits on Bhima Koregaon actually reinforces the boundaries we are meant to transcend. But need we a reminder about who created those boundaries, who has been reinforcing it, and whose efforts would it actually take to transcend them?
If you put a plank on top of me and stand on it, crushing me; and I start to push the plank, causing you a little discomfort – am I the one reinforcing it? Am I the one who is supposed to transcend the plank? There is a certainty that I’ll get myself free, and there is also a certainty that you would have to bear a lot more than a little discomfort if you happen to be the one standing on top of me.
As long as the caste system continues to be in existence, as long as the hierarchy keeps telling us that we are inferior and less deserving, we shall need such monuments and legends to uphold our collective pride and confidence.
The life lesson I received from people of my caste was to keep my head down and keep out of trouble, that if I do mess with a Savarna then I’ll be helpless and I’ll be threatening the safety of my family, jeopardising my future and my family’s chance to have a better life.
Most Dalit people are daily wage workers, small shopkeepers, farmers, vendors, and people working small jobs and odd jobs, housekeepers and more. Many educated Dalit youngsters are first-generation academics and maybe second-generation learners, most of us are still the first-generation learners.
The gift of education is something we have achieved after a long struggle; and due to the lack of inherited family wealth or land, getting a job and ensuring that our family lives a comfortable life stills seems like a distant dream for many of us.
We cannot afford to get in trouble.
There will be no respite for us even from the fabled elite Dalits that many Savarnas seem to “personally know”, and love to quote in their arguments against reservation.
Maharashtra police has rounded up hundreds of Dalit teenagers throughout the state and charged them with severe accusations. All of them are school-going teenagers, children of wage labourers and small job workers. They were inspired by the struggle we have had for decades, and were driven by their desire to join the protests and do their part.
Police has charged them with cases of vandalism, rioting and even attempt to murder. It is evident that these are preposterous accusations and wouldn’t stand a trial in court.
So why was it done?
Imagine the hundreds of bright youngsters spending time in jail, their poor parents abandoning their livelihood to make rounds of the court to ensure that the career of their child is not ruined. Their school is interrupted, their career halted, their parents have gone into dismay. In such a case, most youngsters would not want to risk these things happening to them, their education and their career is what their whole family counts on.
These cases have been lodged up against innocent teenagers to ensure that their predicament is seen by others, that fear is instilled, that we are shown what we could lose should we choose to protest.
And I remember one wise Savarna gentleman benevolently preaching that Dalits should complain to the police, Dalits should take this to court, Dalits should let the law take its course, Dalits should let the justice prevail.
Little does he know, or realise or admits that the police and the judiciary is in cahoots with vile Brahminism, playing the game of whack-a-mole with Dalits. If we do not come out and raise our voice, who can possibly be gullible or ignorant enough to believe that the Savarna-dominated system of our nation would do any good for us?
I remember my grandparents used to tell me about an incident that had happened when they were young. A Dalit man was chased for miles by a group of Savarnas, they finally caught him and chopped him into pieces, filled all the pieces into a sack and then dumped the sack at his doorstep in front of his family. His fault? He had said something that some Savarna had found offensive.
So this was one of things that chilled my bones as a child, it still does.
There is a reason why I am not as vocal as I want to be. There is a reason why my grandmother does not let me speak on these issues whenever we are on our roof or outside the house, because someone may hear us. There is a reason why she has never let me confront the goons who come to extort donations for the new temple they are making in the village or the new yajña they are organising; she frantically apologizes to them and gives them money, knowing full well that not a single person from our caste would be allowed within a hundred yards of it.
The reason is fear. And it’s still there.
Youth and teenagers have been arrested and pressed with false charges to instill fear in them.
Bhima Koregaon is important because it shows us that we can overcome that fear. That we can win.
More than that, it is important for us to be united and stand together, to educate ourselves and others, to know our strengths and to show our strengths.
Fear will not hold us back anymore.
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