Trigger Warning: Mentions Violence
Akshay Bhalerao, a Buddhist Bahujan Ambedkarite youth lost his life to a brutal attack by a group of men from the upper caste Maratha community earlier this month, in Bondhar Haveli village, in Maharashtra’s Nanded district. An FIR has been filed at the Nanded Rural police station in this matter.
The FIR states that a group of men charged towards Akshay, yelling casteist slurs when he along with his brother Akash had gone to the grocery shop in the evening. The men were part of a Maratha bridegroom wedding procession that was going down the main route.
The men held swords and daggers while shouting and dancing to DJ music in the procession. One of the accused began throwing casteist insults at Akshay and Akash when he saw them at the grocery shop and said, “These two must be killed, you dare to celebrate Bhim Jayanti?“
The backdrop of the incident
Rahul Pradhan, the President of Yuva Panther in a conversation with the Quint has alleged that the Bondhar village is notorious for crimes against the Buddhist residents. The Bondhar Haveli village has more than 30 per cent Scheduled Castes population. The Buddhist community in the village has not been able to take out a procession on Ambedkar Jayanti for the last 40 to 45 years due to opposition from the dominant Maratha community.
In a podcast with Dilip Mandal, Pradhan mentioned an incident when in the same village there was an attempt to celebrate Bhim Jayanti and was met with massive resistance from the Maratha community. They cut off the electricity of the Dalit Basti and pelted stones at the homes of people, they barged into the local Buddha Vihara and vandalised the statues of lord Buddha and Dr Ambedkar. Since then, the Buddhist community lives in fear and there have also been incidents of exploitation and abuse of the Bahujan women by the savannas in the village, Pradhan stated.
The Marathas were angry that the Buddhists had celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti again this year. Akshay was at the forefront of the Bhim Jayanti arrangements and that’s why he was targeted, he claimed.
The incident has created a rage amongst the Bahujan organisations in Maharashtra through social media but the mainstream media and press are unbothered. Eight of the nine accused have been arrested by the Police according to reports. The groom is among those held. The police said 16 different sections — including murder, attempt to murder, rioting and unlawful assembly of the Indian Penal Code and relevant sections of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, and Indian Arms Act have been initiated.
The Wire in conversation with the residents of the Bondhar village has reported that Bahujan in the village were consistently targeted by members of the Maratha community, with incidents of caste-based abuse being common. Some even said that the Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena was supporting the Marathas in this regard.
National Congress Party president Sharad Pawar has said that the act has brought “shame for the state.” The regional media is trying to portray this incident as a mere case of murder and not a caste atrocity, whereas the national media and the National parties have remained silent.
Bahujan assertion and progressive cloak of Maharashtra
Maharashtra has a rich legacy of anti-caste struggle despite the land of Dr Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule even after 76 years of Independence is grappling with brutal incidents of caste atrocities. The state has been a hotbed of reactions from the upper caste Brahmins and Maratha communities whenever the Bahujan have claimed their rights to resources such as water, land, education, and public space and assert their identities through festivities and celebrations. The Nanded incident thus is no such isolated incident.
The Marathwada region has a history of violence against the Dalits. Professor Gopal Guru, former Professor of the Centre for Political Studies at JNU and the editor of Economic and Political Weekly in his article “Dalit Killings in Marathwada” has thrown light on the issues of violence against Dalits in the Marathwada region.
He mentions that Marathwada a drought-prone area has been a backward region under feudal rule for more than five centuries. After the 1970 Marathwada Vikas Andolan, the government took some steps for development but despite that the development in this region has remained slow and uneven. This affects the situation of Dalits in the region.
He writes “Even in 1991, as the observations of some voluntary organisations show, the social conditions of Dalits in Marathwada have not improved. On the contrary, it has worsened. Dalits from this region do not have common drinking water facilities, they are not allowed entry into upper caste houses and Hindu temples, Dalits are prohibited from taking part in village cultural festivals and some villages have to celebrate Ambedkar’s birth anniversary under tight police security.”
“Akshay, a staunch Ambedkarite, had been instrumental in getting the police to permit them to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti (the birthday of Dr B.R. Ambedkar) in the village. For many years, the Maratha community has been against the idea of celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti in the village. Many villagers alleged that the police too supported the caste Hindus and refused to permit them,” reports The Wire.
Prof Gopal Guru states several reasons behind the violence against the Dalits in the Marathwada region. The first is the servile economic conditions of the Dalits in the region. The Maharashtra govt in the 1960s abolished the Vatan land system which was given to Dalits during the Nizam rule under which small patches of lands were granted to Dalits in return for the traditional duties that the Dalits performed for the feudal lords.
Since then, there have several political and social controversies over the issue, certainly leading to the passage of a growing number of Dalits to the ranks of agricultural labourers. The second reason he states is Bahujan migration. Due to persistent drought in Marathwada and lack of employment, a sizeable number of Dalits particularly from Beed, Latur and Aurangabad districts migrate to western and southern Maharashtra for sugarcane harvesting.
Because of the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, some Dalits have been trying to cultivate government wastelands. There have been demands from those Dalits to raise the ceiling of this wasteland land and also a demand for Vatan land for which they have started adopting Dr Ambedkar’s methods of self-determination and started to assert their identities, which brings the Dalits directly in conflict with the Savarnas of the region. The next reason he states is the feudal attitudes of the Savarnas especially the Maratha community of the region, their political dominance and ownership of resources.
Why the Savarnas cannot tolerate Ambedkar’s Jayanti celebrations?
Months ago social media was full of images of massive gatherings of the Bahujan community celebrating Bhim Jayanti, across the country. These celebrations invoke a sense of pride and self-confidence in the Bahujan community. The speeches, the songs and the slogans of these celebrations talk about the histories of the Bahujan struggle against oppression by the upper castes with mentions of events like the Mahad Satyagraha, Manu smriti Dahan, Bhima Koregaon Etc.
By reclaiming their past, the community marches out in huge numbers in rallies as a symbol of claiming the public space that was kept sequestered from them for generations. It’s a message of equality and dignity. But the politics of hatred and stigma of caste has not vanished yet.
Rahul Pradhan says that in Nanded itself in the past 2 to 3 months there have been at least 20 incidents of caste atrocities all because of Bhim Jayanti celebrations. The reason being the socio-political solidarities of the local leadership and the Police.
The feudal attitudes that Prof Gopal Guru talks of reflect in these incidents, as it is intolerable to the orthodox Savarna mind to see a Bahujan standing up, wearing good clothes, getting educated, owning resources and most importantly asserting their identity and celebrating the Bahujan icons in the public sphere.
Akshay, a dynamic youth and an activist of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi aimed to get a government job to transform his socio-economic condition. He dared to challenge this orthodoxy by being at the forefront to get this right of assertion for his people but in doing so he lost his life and the Bahujan community of the village has lost one more youth to the caste violence.