The Atrocities of Nationalism Offer History Lessons Beyond Bhima Koregaon

If the non-dalits use this historic opportunity to humanise themselves, the Second Battle of Bhima Koregaon of January 1, 2018 will have served some purpose.

Ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality – B.R. Ambedkar, in 1942

Puranic lore and mythologies have held sway over the Hindu mind for quite some time. Hindutva is just a new manifestation of this same desire, for a return to the mythical dystopian time of Parashurama – the angry brahmin who killed his own mother to uphold dharma, slaughtered all kshatriya men, disembowelled pregnant kshatriya women, and got brahmin men to cohabit with the (remaining) widows, hoping to exterminate the kshatriya ‘race’, quite like the Hindutva forces set out to do with Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. This figure is the mascot of a sectarian brahmin organisation in Maharashtra today. The Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh, whose logo features the axe-wielding Parashurama, called the nearly five lakh dalits who congregated at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 anti-national. In concurrence, the government of Maharashtra, led by its brahmin chief minister, filed FIRs against Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid for their speeches at Shaniwarwada, near Koregaon.

It has taken a riot, some violence, a death and a bandh for the non-dalits to wake up this new year to certain aspects of history that appear both curious and troublesome. In histories – even those written by scholars who imagine they are secular, independent-minded and objective – the 1857 revolt, the Dandi salt march, the Quit India movement, the Battle of Haldighati, the story of Laxmibai of Jhansi and suchlike, occupy a place of pride. They have come to be part of our collective memory. However, the 1818 Battle of Bhima Koregaon, or the series of struggles anchored by Ambedkar at Mahad in 1927 (culminating on December 25 with the ceremonial burning of a copy of the hierarchy-endorsing Manusmriti), will not be known to most people. At Mahad, three thousand dalits had assembled March 20 to not just draw water from the temple tank but to “establish the norm of equality” as Ambedkar saw it.

Ayyankali, Gandhi, Shantaben

It will also not be known to many that Ayyankali (1863-1941) made history in 1893 by merely riding in his willuvandi (bullock cart); defying the powerful nairs and brahmins, this pulaya pioneer rode the cart on the Rajaveedi (royal path) in Travancore, a road proscribed for untouchables like him. He famously wore a dhoti and an upper garment, rounding the attire off with a stylised turban and an angavasthram wrapped around his shoulder. This, at a time, when the very shadow of a pulaya was said to pollute.

The same year, 1893, we have the fabled story chronicling the beginnings of M.K. Gandhi’s political career and his spiritual epiphany, when he was thrown off a first-class compartment of a train in Pietermaritzburg. He was 24, and trained in law. However, his resistance in faraway South Africa arose not from a desire of equality for all but from the belief that it was wrong to “degrade the Indian to the position of the kaffir”. In other words, he did not want to sit with the ‘lowly’ blacks in a third-class compartment, but with the whites in first-class.

Two years later, when he realised that the Durban post office had two entrances, one for blacks and one for whites, instead of demanding one common entrance, Gandhi launched a satyagraha for a third entrance for Indians so that they did not have to use the same entrance as the blacks—and he succeeded. To win over the whites, as Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed have argued in The South African Gandhi: Stretch-Bearer of Empire, Gandhi cited Max Müller and Schopenhauer and argued that whites and high-caste Indians both “spring from common stock, called the Indo-Aryan” (of course excluding the mostly untouchable indentured labour from this imagined racialised nationality).

Unlike Gandhi’s dubious narrative of victimhood, what Ayyankali did in 1893 was as momentous as what Rosa Parks was to do in Montgomery in 1955. Thousands of nameless dalits, over centuries, have likewise stood up every day against injustice. We just have not had the inclination nor made the effort to know these stories and learn from them. Here’s one I was fortunate enough to bear witness to.

Shantaben Parmar, 2009. Credit: S. Anand

In October 2009, I met Shantaben Parmar, then 72, in Bakrawadi, a dalit settlement in Baroda city, who said that when she was 13 years old she defied the unwritten law in her school and drank water from the common water pot, from which all the non-dalit students drank. When the authorities objected, she smashed the pot, saying she’d rather not have anyone quench their thirst if she had to go thirsty. She too made history.

If you go by what’s reported from across India today, little has changed—dalit children are routinely asked to clean the school toilets; in one case, a dalit teacher was asked to do the same by a principal. For dalits, quite often, life every single day is an insurrection against the Hindu social order, a posture of alertness and defiance against an imminent atrocity or humiliation. It is only at places like Bhima Koregaon, Deekhsabhoomi and Chaitya Bhoomi, and at scores of such sites that have come up across India, that dalits can be themselves in public. Such a reclamation of human personality by dalits is largely seen as an affront by caste Hindus. The assertive dalit – she could be a branch manager in an office, a schoolteacher, a Buddhist nun, or a sweeper who applies for leave from work to attend the 1 January function at Koregaon – immediately becomes a militant, and is criminalised both by the Brahman Mahasanghs and the state that accuses the much persecuted Kabir Kala Manch of promoting enmity. And there are a million Ambedkars today reclaiming history using reason, experience and emotion – these are not puranic fables.

Educating and humanising the non-Dalits

What little education non-dalits have gained over the past decades owes to dalit efforts to ‘educate, agitate and organise’ the rest of society about the repressed aspects of a history that both have been a part of. In the past decade, fuelled by the social media boom, independent dalit initiatives from across the globe have variously amplified the ‘educate, agitate and organise’ Ambedkarite mantra with the observance of Dalit History Month every April (modelled on the black American tradition of observing February as Black History Month). Dalit Lives Matter is also a similar, serious ongoing campaign.

The largely dalit-free corporate media today is more accommodative of such news, perhaps recognising the new demographic of readership it has come to have. This inevitability has been enforced upon non-dalits by decades of sensitisation that dalits have resiliently and quietly advanced, often lacking the resources and inherited assets that non-dalits can boast of. The Indian Express in 2016 carried a feature on these new platforms. Likewise, we saw Scroll, which has been around for four years, report the Bhima Koregaon event the past two years from the field. It ran a long report in 2016 on the commemoration that has been happening at Bhima Koregaon for decades. The same writer in 2017 reported how people with saffron flags and shirts were seen attacking people with blue flags and cars with blue signs—this was shot on camera. This year, The Wire and The Print and several online news platforms carried extensive essays and reports that showed sensitivity to the dalit point of view.

Yet most media houses do not think it is their responsibility to introspect on whether dalits work as reporters and decision-makers in their midst. Like Sudipto Mondal wrote in a scathing piece last year, the “Indian media wants Dalit news but not Dalit reporters”: “Indian journalism is so mind-numbingly upper-caste that the mere act of ‘coming out’ by journalist Yashica Dutt was celebrated as a milestone in the quest for caste diversity.”

Till a few years ago the ‘national’ media and most of non-dalit society turned their faces away from events such as Bhima Koregaon, just as much as history books excluded facts that disturbed their ‘nationalist’ grand narratives. Some ten years ago, when the Khairlanji atrocity happened – on 29 September 2006, Surekha Bhotmange and her daughter were mass raped and put to death, along with Surekha’s two sons Roshan and Sudhir, as the entire village of Marathas watched – the ‘national’ media took a month to report the ‘story’. And it took a white American correspondent at Times of India’s Mumbai edition to travel and file the first report in the ‘mainstream’ English language media. “Just another Rape Story” by Sabrina Buckwalter (The Times of India, 29 October 2006) is still worth a read.

The Central government, then headed by the Congress-led UPA, created visa issues for Buckwalter, and she had to head back to her country. Buckwalter later told the website Atrocity News, “A police officer from the Mumbai police station even showed up unannounced at The Times of India office, to serve me official paperwork informing me the Government of India had instructed me to leave within five days and that my visa appeal was denied.”

Was Khairlanji-as-news an American conspiracy, Arnab Goswami and his many clones may want the nation to know. Much has changed since 2006, despite the racket news anchors habitually make over the inconveniences of a bandh.

Ambedkar on the British empire

The right-wing opposition to dalits commemorating what ostensibly is imperialist Britain’s victory over a feudal and brahminical regime at Bhima Koregaon gives us an opportunity to consider how someone like Ambedkar viewed such events in history. In “The Untouchables and the Pax Britannica”, an unfinished book-length essay likely written in the 1930s in the wake of the Round Table Conferences (but published only posthumously), he says that after the Battle of Plassey, “the last battle which completed the [British] territorial conquest was fought in 1818. It is known as the Battle of Koregaon. This was the battle which destroyed the Maratha Empire and established in its place the British Empire in India.”

In another of his fragmentary works, “Waiting for a Visa”, Ambedkar writes of his father Ramji Sakpal and grandfather Maloji Sakpal:

“From the very commencement of the rule of the East India Company, my forefathers had left their hereditary occupation for service in the Army of the Company. My father also followed the family tradition and sought service in the Army. He rose to the rank of an officer, and was a Subedar when he retired.”

On 1 January 1927, the year that later witnessed the Mahad revolt, Ambedkar visited the Koregaon memorial at the behest of Shivram Janba Kamble, the pioneering senior mahar leader of the Pune region who began mobilizing mahars to commemorate the obelisk at Koregaon. In 1910, Kamble organised a conference of mahars from 51 villages in the western region. By then, the British had stopped recruiting mahars to their armies. Kamble, and others before him, had been lobbying for the reinstatement of the Mahar Regiment.

Ambedkar chastises the British for neglecting the interests of the untouchables who had often stood by them. After arguing how it would be “true to say that the Untouchables not only helped the British to conquer India they helped them to retain India”, he asks:

“How have the British treated the Untouchables so far as service in the Army is concerned? Strange as it may appear, the answer is that the British Government has since about 1890 placed a ban on the recruitment of the Untouchables in the Indian Army. The result was that, those who had already been recruited remained. It is a great mercy that they were not disbanded. But in course of time they died or went on pension and ultimately by about 1910 completely disappeared from the Army. Nothing can be more ungrateful than this exclusion of the Untouchables from the Army.”

The historian of the Ambedkarite movement Eleanor Zelliot writes in Ambedkar’s World: The Making of Babasaheb and the Dalit Movement, that the mahars had been heavily recruited into the Bombay Army of the English East India Company. This tradition of service-in-arms was disrupted by the British government in 1894 – owing to the rise of the ‘martial races’ theory, which altered military priority towards the recruitment of privileged caste groups into the British Army. A mahar battalion was raised during the First World War, only to be disbanded in 1921. It was only in 1940 that mahar recruits were regularised in the army, partly as a result of Ambedkar’s lobbying with the colonial government.

Answering the detractors of his time – and anticipating the Arun Shouries, Brahmin Mahasanghs and Fadnavises to come – Ambedkar spells out clearly:

“There are many who look upon this conduct of the Untouchables in joining the British as an act of gross treason. Treason or no treason, this act of the Untouchables was quite natural. History abounds with illustrations showing how one section of people in a Country have shown sympathy with an invader, in the hope that the new comer will release them from the oppressions of their countrymen.”

Had he been around today, Ambedkar would surely have been called an anti-national and booked for sedition with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah leading the chorus. There’s much in history, and in the unfolding present, that disturbs and unsettles nationalist anxieties. Here’s another story.

Rather a white man than a brahmin as judge

In 1878, the immediate provocation for the founding of The Hindu, as a weekly magazine by six brahmins of Madras, was the criticism by the British newspapers of the appointment of T. Muthuswamy Aiyar, a brahmin, to the bench of the Madras high court. The Hindu’s founding claim, though, was that it represented the “feelings of natives”. This was essentially a cover for brahmin interests, says Ravikumar, public intellectual and general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in Tamil Nadu. In an important essay that documents how dalits had pioneered the culture of journalism in the Tamil-speaking areas of Madras Presidency, “The Unwritten Writing: Dalits and the Media” (in the volume 21st Century Journalism in India edited by Nalini Rajan, 2007), he writes: “The opinions of the untouchables, who too were ‘natives’, were not similar to those of the founders of The Hindu. They felt that people like Muthuswamy Aiyar should not be given the position of a judge.”

Iyothee Thass and his One Pice Tamilian. Credit: routesblog.com

Ravikumar, who recently challenged the casual use of the word ‘pariah’ by Time magazine and often by the Indian media, draws our attention to how the pioneer of the dalit movement in Madras Presidency, Iyothee Thass (1845–1914), regarded such developments. Thass, who in 1907 launched the newspaper Oru Paisa Tamilan, featured a news-cum-opinion item in 1908 entitled, “Power of District Magistrate for Indians”. Arguing that such positions should not be given to brahmins, the report says:

“The self-styled Brahmins migrated to this country from alien lands… If we give the power of District Magistrate to these people, they will employ the people of their caste and cheat common Hindus. There will be endless troubles if high positions are given to those who call themselves ‘higher caste’ .… They regard even the British as inferior to them. They don’t have intellectual, physical, economic or even numerical strength. They have only the strength that comes from calling themselves people of high caste.”

Based on this, Ravikumar concludes: “This statement of Thass, and the consistent stance taken by Parayan [another dalit-run journal] on such issues, leads us to infer that the untouchables would certainly not have supported Aiyar’s appointment as a judge.”

Ambedkar, too, had reason to think along similar lines. In June 1927, after five orthodox Hindus, who were part of a mob that attacked the dalits at Mahad, were sentenced by the (colonial) district magistrate to four months’ rigorous imprisonment, he said: “Had the chief officers in the district been Hindus, justice would have been denied. Under Brahmin Peshwa rule I would have been trampled to death by an elephant.”

In the Indian judiciary, according to a CSDS study cited in 2007 by Outlook, 47 per cent of all Supreme Court chief justices between 1950 and 2000 were brahmins, who constitute a mere 3% of the population.

If Ambedkar and many dalits sought to strategically gain from the presence of the British empire, and saw it a more benign force compared to the brutal Peshwa-brahminism – which forced untouchables in the region to tie a broom to their waists to sweep away their footprints, and hang spittoons around their necks to collect their saliva – Gandhi, as late as in October 1920, had this to say of the same empire:

“I put my life in peril four times for the cause of the empire – at the time of the Boer War when I was in charge of the Ambulance Corps whose work was mentioned in General Buller’s dispatches, at the time of the Zulu revolt in Natal when I was in charge of a similar corps, at the time of the commencement of the late war when I raised an Ambulance Corps and as a result of the strenuous training had a severe attack of pleurisy, and, lastly, in fulfilment of my promise to Lord Chelmsford at the War Conference in Delhi, I threw myself in such an active recruiting campaign in Kheda district involving long and trying marches, that I had an attack of dysentery which proved almost fatal. I did all these in the belief that acts such as mine must gain for my country an equal status in the empire.”

If history is a contest for power and supremacy for both Gandhi and the brahminic-Peshwai forces that assassinated him, for dalits the principal object of history has been the pursuit of equality and justice, a battle for freedom and the reclamation of their human personality. The battle against caste is as much a battle of ideas and identities. If the non-dalits use this historic opportunity to humanise themselves, the Battle of Bhima Koregaon II of 1 January 2018 will have served some purpose.

The author is publisher, Navayana