Co-existence of multiple belief systems and divergent readings of historical events is a sign of mature democracy. The conflicts arise whenever an attempt is made to impose a dominant narrative over all others. If not handled carefully, this collision of diverse ideologies might lead to civil strife. The clashes between Dalit groups and right-wing elements at Koregaon Bhima near Pune and the subsequent violence across Maharashtra during the Statewide shutdown are a grim reminder of the underlying caste fault lines in society that only need a trigger to flare up. The latest flashpoint reflects Dalit angst against growing instances of atrocities that have no place in a country that aspires to become a global superpower on the back of an inclusive growth model. After the anti-Dalit violence in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur and Gujarat’s Una, the historically significant Koregaon Bhima, where the Mahar Dalit regiment of British forces had defeated the Maratha army 200 years ago, has become a new rallying point for Dalit mobilisation. The confrontation between Dalit groups, who had congregated at the place in large numbers for the bi-centenary celebration of the Koregaon battle, and the fringe right wing outfits points to a dangerous trend in caste mobilisation and serves as a wake-up call to the State and Central governments, both ruled by the BJP. Though bandh has since been called off by Dalit organisations after several parts of Maharashtra were paralysed for a day, the tension is still simmering with leaders on both sides of the divide making provocative statements.
While Dalits view the battle as a landmark event that symbolises their pride and dignity and triumph over the oppressive Peshwa regime, the contrarian view is that it was essentially a fight between British colonisers and the indigenous rulers. The right-wing groups contend that celebrating the colonial victory amounts to insulting the legacy of nationalism. It has now acquired political overtones, reflecting a clash between a surging Dalit consolidation and an upper-caste backlash. This year’s celebration was loaded with a political message with the participation of Jignesh Mewani, a newly-elected Dalit MLA from Gujarat. There is an urgent need to calm down the frayed tempers and restore social harmony. It would be pointless to frame the Koregaon episode in a rigid binary of ‘Upper Caste versus Dalit’ conflict as such a narrative would further widen the fault lines. Such unsavoury incidents can be avoided only by fostering an inclusive approach to interpreting historical events and by avoiding confrontation over instances of unjust, both real and perceived, that happened in the past. The fight over an imperfect past will vitiate the present and foreclose a better future. A harmonious co-existence of multiple ideologies is the way forward.