Bhima Koregaon and the Steady Incline of Dalit Awakening

Social Commentary

Bhima Koregaon and the Steady Incline of Dalit Awakening

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The recent clashes in Bhima Koregaon cap off the last two years of Dalit assertion. The juggernaut, that began with the death of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad University in January 2016, rolled into the protests at Una, and the ones in Mumbai against the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan in July, before coming full circle to the Mumbai bandh today.

It’s an insistent reminder that a historically oppressed caste now refuses to take things lying down. It takes me back to Varanasi, two years ago, and what I learnt about the subtle and unsubtle forms of discrimination that Dalits continue to face in Uttar Pradesh.

Right behind the historic Banaras Hindu University (BHU), lies a small village called Seer Govardhanpur. In the vicinity of the village is the famous Ravidas Mandir, a physical as well as symbolic presence: Being dedicated to the 14th-century lower-caste Bhakti poet, Ravidas, it has come to represent Dalit assertion.

Two years ago, when I went to Varanasi during my research, I met a young man named Ashok Kumar, an old resident of Seer Govardhanpur and a paper supplier to many local presses dotting Varanasi’s literary landscape. One evening, I accompanied Ashok to a small gathering behind the temple, where other men from the village would sit around after a day’s work to talk and smoke bidis. That day, the subject of discussion was the Patel agitation in Gujarat led by Hardik Patel, and its large-scale repercussions that would echo through the country.

For people like Ashok and others from the Chamar community, the argument for reservations on the basis of economic status rather than caste, underscores fears they have had for a while. That the present establishment just isn’t interested in understanding the forms of discrimination the Dalits of today are being subjected to. “You have to recognise that Dalit oppression is not just history, but also the present,” Ashok told me.

The Dalit uprising is a sleeping dragon beginning to awaken.

Ashok’s opinion turned out to be prophetic, considering it was followed up by Una and the agitation against the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai. It is clear that this assertion of Dalit identity has heralded its arrival. From the scorching plains of Telangana to the non-descript towns of Gujarat to the fields of Punjab, you can see it in young people like Jignesh Mevani, who has taken on the mantle of leadership in Una, and Dalit pop sensation Ginni Mahi.

How did we turn this corner?

In June last year, scholars from the Carnegie Mellon University published a fascinating study of India’s higher education in the American Economic Review. According to this study, years of reservation has finally led to a situation where the gross enrolment rate of scheduled castes more than doubled in the years between 2000 and 2014. This is a scheduled caste youth armed with an awareness of their rights and an education. Introduce the spark of discrimination, right inside the very institutes of which they are a part, and you have yourself a Molotov cocktail.

It’s a miracle that scheduled caste students continue to fare well, despite the hideous forms of injustice they face.  

Ashok Kumar, for instance, told me of his own time as a student, when he and a few friends – all of whom are Chamars – would take tuition from a professor. The lessons would be conducted on weekend mornings in the professor’s veranda.

The other students, however, would study in the afternoon – and inside the professor’s house. “At first I did not understand what was happening,” Ashok said. “My friend later explained that the professor’s surname was Upadhyay, a Brahmin. If we had gone inside the house, we would have ‘polluted’ it. So we had to sit outside in the veranda, in the heat.”

As more and more people like Ashok enter academic institutions, they not only begin to understand the subtle ways of discrimination, but also learn the means to speak out against it in confrontational and disruptive ways. A masterstroke was visible in Una, where Dalit youth refused to dispose of cow carcasses, letting them rot in the streets. This symbolic act, powerful at so many levels, let Dalits detach themselves from a profession that was traditionally yoked to their surnames. More than anything, it was a refusal to recognise the sacrality of the cow, and by extension, that of Hinduism.

The Dalit uprising is a sleeping dragon beginning to awaken. We’ve not only seen it unfold in the civilian clashes in Bhima Koregaon that spilled over into Mumbai, but also on the electoral stage: Most recently in Gujarat, where the Dalit vote eschewed BJP and went to Jignesh Mevani. It’s time we shook off our slumber too.

Edited by Karanjeet Kaur