Casting a Veil

What we miss by ignoring Maratha caste politics in the Bhima Koregaon case

Supporters of Sambhaji Bhide, who heads the Hindu-nationalist organisation Shiv Pratishthan, take part in a rally demanding the removal of all allegations against him in the Bhima Koregaon violence case in 2018. Uday Deolekar/Hindustan Times
31 December, 2020

THREE YEARS AGO, on 1 January 2018, an annual gathering of largely Dalit visitors to the memorial of Bhima Koregaon, near Pune, was attacked by mobs led by Hindu-nationalist organisations. For several weeks, these organisations had been trying to rouse the area’s Maratha population against the Dalit Buddhist community. A day after the violence, Anita Sawale, an anti-caste activist who was present at the gathering, filed a first-information report identifying the mobs as followers of the Hindutva leaders Manohar Bhide—who calls himself Sambhaji Bhide—and Milind Ekbote.

However, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Maharashtra government ensured that little came of Sawale’s complaint. Instead, a week later, on 8 January, a counter FIR was filed by Tushar Damgude, a supporter of Bhide, alleging that incendiary speeches had been delivered at the Elgaar Parishad, an event organised by Dalit and Left organisations, on 31 December 2017, which led to violence at Bhima Koregaon the next day. The state government chose to make Damgude’s complaint the focus of the investigation, implying that it was the Dalit attendees who had perpetrated the violence. This ran contrary to reams of video, photo and testimonial evidence that showed mobs with saffron flags attacking the Dalit crowd, which has been gathering peacefully every year at the memorial for decades. The organisers of the Elgaar Parishad were branded as “urban naxals,” even though they included people such as the retired Supreme Court judge PB Sawant and BG Kolse Patil, a former judge at the Bombay High Court. Several human-rights activists, lawyers and intellectuals, all of whom had been critical of the government, were arrested. In October 2019, the BJP was unseated in the Maharashtra state elections and, as a result, lost control of the state’s police. The National Investigation Agency, controlled by the BJP-led central government, jumped to wrest control of the case from the Pune police, ensuring that the case did not change directions, and that activists and lawyers remained in jail.

The BJP has been particularly successful in controlling the narrative. The activists’ arrests across states and the transfer of the case to the NIA have allowed the BJP government to completely dislocate the conflict from its regional context and characterise it as a “national” threat. Dissenting voices, on the other hand, have situated this episode within two discourses: the attack on civil liberties, including the criminalisation of dissent, by an authoritarian regime; and the history of Dalit politics, including the discussion over the meaning associated with the memorial of Bhima Koregaon.

This has helped the BJP hide the insidious politics played at the local level by Hindutva organisations in Maharashtra. This national characterisation by the BJP, and the focus on Bhima Koregaon matter as only a Dalit issue, pulls the attention away from the regional dynamic in which this episode is rooted. The ideological and economic conflicts within the Maratha caste cluster is at the heart of this episode, as are the state’s electoral politics, which has always been feeding into it. This regional dynamic is particularly revealing of the politics of the Right and the way in which it seeks to mobilise the Maratha caste cluster.  

Pramod Mandade is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology from IIT Bombay, where he is studying the integration of the princely state of Hyderabad into the Indian union and the contemporary bearing of the event.
Firdaus Soni is a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Her doctoral work is a study of jatras (fairs) in the Marathwada region, especially their economic, religious and cultural aspects.