Beyond Bhima Koregaon: A Tale of Dalit-Maratha Relations in Modern Maharashtra

Over the last few decades, Hindutva groups have been increasingly radicalising Marathas to counter Dalit assertion.

Protests against the violence in Bhima Koregaon area. Credit: PTI

The recent violence at Bhima Koregaon has once again brought the relationship between the Dalits and Marathas of Maharashtra into the limelight. The violence follows a long and complicated history of their camaraderie as well as the antagonism between them, which often revealed the social and political turbulence of the time. The terms of the relationship between the two communities are not directed solely on the basis of caste; they are also defined by the roles these communities play on the ground. Numerically, Marathas are dominant in the state. They are a landed community and enjoy significant monopoly over key political offices. Compared to them, Dalits are less in number, but have a significant population dispersed across Maharashtra. After the arrival of the Ambedkarite alternative, Dalits, particularly Mahars, have consistently posed a challenge to Maratha hegemony by explicitly rejecting stigmatised traditional village-based duties. Since then, tension between the Mahars – who have converted to Buddhism – and the Marathas has actively grown, leading to volatility in the state.

For the last decade or two, the terms of caste antagonism between the two communities have fundamentally changed. Hindutva groups are using the pretext of hostility to increasingly radicalise the Marathas to counter Dalits. The Marathas have been witnessing a significant decline in their social and political stature since the late 1990s. The cause of this is primarily the loss of political monopoly in recent years. Before the 1990s, anti-Dalit violence perpetrated by the Marathas was a crude assertion of caste superiority. On the other hand, anti-Dalit violence in contemporary times is packaged with Hindutva ideology, which seeks to push the society back into primitive darkness. The invocation of past Maratha glory is strategically used to fuel social tensions between the two communities. Maratha youth, who are facing unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities, are easily pulled into this conflict.

Also read: Bhima Koregaon and the Dalits’ Never-Ending Search for a Nation

Non-Brahmin politics and the invocation of Shivaji

The history of the Dalit-Maratha relationship is, however, not confined to hostility and antagonism as is often showcased. Like the Marathas, Dalit castes like Mahars, Matangs and Chambhars were important constituents of the village community. Like the Marathas, Dalits too traditionally celebrate Chhatrapati Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha empire, though focusing primarily on his progressive and inclusive role as a state administrator. He is also remembered by Dalits as one who nurtured an unprejudiced attitude towards the lower sections of society. In the last 100 years, the history of Shivaji has been communalised by popular writers and leaders in Maharashtra. But Dalits here identify him as their inspiration and a ruler who ruptured the caste hierarchy. Moreover, the iconic stature of Shivaji has been one of the significant factors that helped collectively mobilise Dalits, lower castes and Marathas on several occasions. Mass movements like the non-Brahmin movement, which sought to bring together different caste groups such as Marathas, Dalits and other lower castes, have frequently used Shivaji’s iconic personality to sustain the unity.

Jyotiba Phule. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In modern times, it was Jyotiba Phule who was the first to make Shivaji’s socially and politically relevant. Phule saw him as one of the most prominent Shudra-friendly rulers of India. He wrote a powada (ballad) on Shivaji, depicting him as a ruler who actively promoted social integration. Phule also portrayed Shivaji as an egalitarian ruler who never discriminated on the basis of caste and religion; he was described as the pride of peasants and the toiling masses, with Phule fondly calling him Kulvadibhushan. In his writings, Phule asked the Marathas to follow Shivaji’s profound sense of equality and justice. Phule’s Shivaji was one of the first significant efforts to situate dominant Marathas into the nascent non-Brahmin discourse. It was also an attempt to creatively construct a history by using prominent symbolism available to society. After Phule’s death, non-Brahmin and Dalit leaders like Narayan Meghaji Lokhande, Vitthal Ramji Shinde, Chatrapati Shahu, B.R. Ambedkar and Nanasingh Patil employed Shivaji’s symbolism to mobilise the masses. In fact, in the 1920s, Ambedkar’s letterhead depicted Shivaji’s sword (Bhavani talwar), which also reflects the all-encompassing image of Shivaji.

On the other hand, there has been a concerted attempt by the right-wing to paint Shivaji and Maratha history with communal colours, including an evident upper-caste slant. Right-wing historical narratives are often situated within anti-Muslim and upper caste-centric discourses, thus complicating the social and political fabric of Maharashtra. With active government support since the inception of the state, these histories have dominated historical discourse in Maharashtra. As a result, it has become easy to appropriate Shivaji and Maratha history into the Hindutva fold. This appropriation started a long time ago; it predates the rise of the political right-wing in the state.

Shivaji in battle. Credit: Youtube

Ambedkar and Dalit-Maratha relations

The late 19th century witnessed an enormous churning in Maharashtra (a significant portion of this region was part of the erstwhile Bombay presidency). Under Phule’s leadership, efforts to bring the oppressed caste groups together was largely contingent on the participation of Dalits and Marathas. The reason for the phenomenal success of the Satyashodhak Samaj, founded by Phule, was that it was followed and supported by large number of Marathas, Malis and Dalits. Phule was partially successful in establishing ‘non-Brahmin’ as an important category to reckon with. While defining this, he had famously argued that non-Brahmin society was defined by its distinct culture and history. However, the argument regarding socio-cultural unity could not sustain non-Brahmin prospects in politics for long, as it was filled with inherent contradictions. One of the factors that led to the decline of the non-Brahmin voice was the inability of dominant castes to overcome internal social and political differences. Since the 1920s, Dalits began to assert themselves separately as a powerful and organised group. From the beginning of his public life, Ambedkar was not very keen to associate himself with non-Brahmin politics. He believed that the non-Brahmin identity, despite being an important instrument of social change, was not capable of tackling the question of caste discrimination. Additionally, the involvement of Marathas and other dominant non-Brahmin castes in the perpetration of violence against Dalits resulted in the intensification of hostility. Reports of violence against Dalits increased phenomenally when Dalits began to actively organise and assert themselves against the dominant Maratha supremacy in the villages.

After Phule’s death, the Satyashodhak-led anti-Brahminical assertion transformed into a credible political movement under Chhatrapati Shahu’s leadership. During this period many Maratha leaders emerged, and they actively allied with Dalits to advance the fight against untouchability. They were instrumental in establishing strong institutions that helped foregrounding the assertive and organised Dalit movement. Vitthal Ramji Shinde, a Maratha social reformer, was one such example. He was one of the most important Dalit leaders before the arrival of Ambedkar, and aggressively spoke on behalf of Dalits. Despite his serious differences with Ambedkar, the schools and hostels started by him became prominent hubs of the Ambedkarite Dalit movement. Many prominent Dalit leaders emerged from his institutions.

Chhatrapati Shahu. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, Shahu, the ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur and one of the most charismatic Maratha leaders, shaped the course of Dalit politics in the early 20th century. He was able to bring together a range of leaders from disparate caste groups and provided a strong push to the cause of assertive non-Brahmin politics. He also enthusiastically supported Ambedkar and was instrumental in helping fund his education abroad. The first major public meeting that Ambedkar ever addressed was attended by Shahu. His untimely death created an enormous vacuum within the Maratha and non-Brahmin leadership, which eventually led to the decline of non-Brahmin politics in Maharashtra. He was replaced by two prominent leaders from western India, Keshavrao Jedhe and Dinkarrao Jawalkar. They actively supported Ambedkar in the 1920s and 1930s, but eventually chose to join the Congress. They were instrumental in decimating the upper-caste leadership within the Congress, paving the way for Maratha-oriented leadership at a provincial level. From then onwards, Marathas began to politically dominate the Marathi-speaking landscape of western India.

Dalits enthusiastically sought the help of progressive Marathas and actively appropriated them in the anti-caste movement. Simultaneously, Ambedkar was able to attract activists and leaders from different caste groups in his organisations. The peasant organisation led by Ambedkar in the Konkan region, particularly in the decade of the 1930s, was led by his prominent non-Dalit colleagues; one of them was Narayanrao Patil, a Maratha. Patil played a crucial role in shaping the thumping electoral victory in the 1937 elections for the Independent Labour Party, Ambedkar’s first political party, particularly in the Konkan region. On the other hand, the Vidarbha region also produced significant Maratha leaders who actively aligned with Dalits. One of them was Punjabrao Deshmukh, the first agriculture minister of India, who started his public life as a radical social activist and an active organiser of the anti-caste movement. Before switching allegiance to the Congress, he served as a member of the provincial legislature of Central Provinces and Berar, representing the Independent Labour Party.  He remained Ambedkar’s trusted colleague for a long time.

Despite active efforts to bridge differences between the Marathas and Dalits, the top non-Brahmin leadership was unable to prevent large-scale anti-Dalit violence in the rural hinterlands of Maharashtra. Reports between the 1920s and 1947 clearly suggest that anti-Dalit violence erupted when Dalits actively resisted the dominant hegemony. Dalit resistance during this period was reinforced by the presence of a strong assertive Dalit movement under Ambedkar’s leadership. In fact, anti-Dalit violence played a crucial role in shaping organised Dalit politics. As a result, Maratha-Dalit relations at the village level remained fundamentally unchanged for several decades.

Dalit-Maratha relations in post-independence India

In the post-independence period, the relationship underwent significant changes. The demographic majority attained by the Marathas in the newly-created state of Maharashtra and their unchecked political monopoly over state affairs tilted the balance of power in their favour. Being a landed community, the majority of Marathas continued to work on the land and in agriculture, and they aggressively controlled the rural regions of Maharashtra. This led to a constant tussle between the Marathas and Dalits. The long-term volatile situation eventually led to the explosion of radical voices in the 1970s in the form of the Dalit Panthers.

The case of caste violence perpetrated by the Marathas at Bavda village triggered the formation of the Dalit Panthers in 1972. The primary focus of this organisation was ending caste violence against Dalits. Though short-lived, the Dalit Panthers emerged as a formidable voice of aggressive Dalit youth.

Also read: Will Prakash Ambedkar Take the Lead in the Fight for Dalit Rights in Maharashtra?

Meanwhile, Maratha monopoly over the social and political landscape of Maharashtra continued until the 1990s. The decade of the 1990s witnessed important changes which deeply affected Maratha supremacy. The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, the introduction of the New Economic Reforms and the enactment of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act collectively led to the decline of Maratha supremacy. As a result, they witnessed a substantial decline in their social and political stature. This decline became palpable only in the 2000s. Simultaneously, it was in the 1990s and 2000s that Hindutva organisations began to expand their organisational network. In the last few years, they have grown primarily due to the large-scale participation of disgruntled Marathas from rural areas. These organisations have been polarising the political landscape on religious and caste lines, particularly against Ambedkarite Dalits who are largely identified as a major impediment to their political project. Consequently, a substantial section of the Marathas and other dominant middle castes, particularly from rural regions, have been getting increasingly attracted to these organisations, thereby creating the possibility of perpetual social tension.

The incident that took place at Bhima Koregaon was not an isolated one. Cases of caste violence and atrocities against Dalits have become habitual since time immemorial. They demonstrate the intimate relationship between caste and violence. When Dalits challenge dominant society, they are often castigated and targeted by the political establishment. In modern times, this phenomenon has been frequently repeated, particularly after the inception of an assertive Dalit movement under Ambedkar’s leadership. Ambedkar was regularly mocked as anti-national and sectarian by the Congress leadership during his lifetime. In post-Ambedkar Maharashtra, Dalits who challenged the dominant notions of society were conveniently marginalised by political elites. Caste violence has been a part of Maharashtra’s culture for a long time. Hindutva ideology did not develop overnight; it was actively aided and patronised by the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party for many decades. On the other hand, history textbooks taught in the schools of Maharashtra reflect this clandestine alliance between the two; an alliance that has collectively led to the communalisation of intellectual discourse.

The Bhima Koregaon violence is significant primarily because it illustrates the new strategy used by dominant castes against Dalits. There is a significant difference between the anti-Dalit violence of the 1980s and 2018. The violence perpetrated by the dominant castes in the 1980s was a localised affair; on the other hand, violence at Bhima Koregaon was not. It was not a spontaneous reaction as has been claimed. It was carefully managed and strategised from a distance. The friction between the Marathas and Dalits, which began at Vadhu Budruk, was carefully used to instigate violence at Bhima Koregaon. The rage of crisis-ridden Marathas was deliberately directed to disturb social harmony. Maratha history is continuously invoked to attract disgruntled Marathas. If this trend continues, it will provide a template for greater social conflicts between different communities that could lead to a breakdown of dialogue. More than any other community, such conflicts will significantly impact Dalits.

Prabodhan Pol teaches history at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.