From Rohith Vemula to Bhima-Koregaon: The Dawn of Dalit Identity


From Rohith Vemula to Bhima-Koregaon: The Dawn of Dalit Identity

Illustration: Palak Bansal

Another day, another Dalit atrocity. This week, the entire state of Maharashtra has come to a halt over clashes between right-wing elements and Dalits — this time over the commemoration of an anniversary. in 1818, the British-led Mahar Regiment defeated the Maratha Confederacy’s forces at the Battle of Bhima-Koregaon. However, according to a report in Mumbai Mirror, tensions were already simmering in the area since December 29, over the desecration of the samadhi site of Govind Gaikwad, a Dalit Mahar icon. The kettle boiled over on January 1, when thousands of Dalits gathered at the village of Bhima-Koregaon for their annual memorial service, and local Hindutva elements clashed with attendees.

Two days later, the fallout of the clashes is still being felt. The protests have reached the country’s financial capital Mumbai, and brought the city’s daily life to a standstill. As the city witnesses a bandh the likes of which have not been seen since the heyday of Bal Thackeray, here’s a look back at the consolidation of Dalit identity in the Indian political landscape over the last few years.

October-November 2017: Jignesh Mevani and the Navratri Killing

The young Dalit leader from Vadgam, Gujarat, staged a massive upset for the BJP. But it’s an idea that has been percolating for around 24 months now. Before the Bhima-Koregaon disturbances, before Mevani’s unprecedented victory, there was the incident that cast a pall over Navratri celebrations in October. A Dalit youth was lynched for merely watching revellers do the garba. The retribution was swift; eight accused were promptly arrested, and a few days later, Dalit villagers took part in a modified Navratri celebration, which they called Ambedkar Garba. It was a moment of affirmative action on the part of the state toward a community that has been historically starved of it.

Jignesh Mevani, the young Dalit leader from Vadgam, Gujarat, staged a massive upset for the BJP.

Photo by Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

September 2017: Much Ado About a Moustache

Just a few weeks before that, we witnessed another instance of Dalits facing up to oppressive customs and prevailing. When a Dalit man was beaten up in Gujarat because he sported a signifier of upper-caste masculinity, the twirled moustache, the community rallied in defiance, setting their social media profile pictures with an icon of a twirled moustache and a crown with the words “Dalit King”. Clearly, these Dalit folks were no longer content living on society’s margins, and had drawn their line in the sand.

July 2016: The Una Atrocity

Last year, there was a watershed moment for the community in July 2016. Una, a town in Gujarat, became the focal point of the entire country when a hideous video surfaced. Four Dalit youths were tied to a vehicle and flogged with sticks and iron rods by an angry mob and the atrocity was filmed. Their crime? They were assigned the task of disposing of cow carcasses by virtue of their birth, and then blamed for killing cows when found in the presence of a dead one. At that point, gau rakshaks were running amok across the country.

But the Una video mobilised the Dalit community, which hit back by organising large-scale protests. The state highway was blocked, the matter was discussed in the Rajya Sabha, 20 culprits were arrested, and PM Modi even broke his trademark “see no evil” policy to condemn the actions of the gau rakshaks.

Family members and relatives of Dalit victims who were brutally assaulted by self-styled gau rakshaks July 21, 2016 in Una.

Photo by Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

January 2016: Rohith Vemula, the Martyr

Perhaps it all started with Dalit student-activist Rohith Vemula’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad. At the time, Vemula seemed little more than a tragic statistic, but the groundswell of support and attention his death received was unprecedented. The changes have snowballed since then, and today the Dalit community looks set to get its due on a national and political level. He might have died as a statistic, but today Vemula is a martyr.

He might have died as a statistic, but today Vemula is a martyr.

Photo by Saikat Paul/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Of course, no birth occurs without labour pains, and the birth of the Dalit political identity is no different. However, if the last two years are any indication, the community is fighting for a future where they don’t need to disrupt public life, because their basic rights are violated. To quote Harvey Dent, voice of the voiceless, “The night is darkest before dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.”