Around the world, January 1 is celebrated as the beginning of a new year. The day, however, is especially significant to the Dalit community in India.
Dalits, previously referred to as “untouchables,” were considered to be outside the Hindu caste hierarchy and have been oppressed for centuries by caste Hindus. Dalit, which means “oppressed” or “broken,” is the preferred self-identification of a large part of the community, which is now widely accepted. Dalits continue to face bigotry and violence every day. Dalit women are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and Dalit youth can face lynchings and abuse for the most innocuous actions such as riding a horse or a bicycle through caste Hindu neighborhoods or falling in love with caste Hindus. Dalit communities can also face social boycotts, which puts them in double jeopardy as they often depend upon income earned from their oppressor/dominant caste employers through seasonal agricultural work, or other kinds of employment.
Bhima-Koregaon, a small village in Maharashtra’s Pune district in India, inter-connects a crucial period of the Maratha Empire and Dalit history. On January 1, 1818, in Koregaon, a British army contingent consisting of a majority of Dalits had successfully overcome the Peshwa Brahmin army led by Peshwa Bajirao II, a king of the Maratha Empire.
For Dalits, this was a huge victory against the stratified caste system as well as the acts of violence perpetrated by the Peshwas themselves. To commemorate this triumph, a victory pillar (Vijay Stambh) was erected by the East India Company and it is this pillar that thousands of Dalits come to pay their respects to every year.
The annual celebration of the Bhima Koregaon battle on January 1, 2018, triggered another wave of assaults on human rights and freedom in India. On the days following, tensions between Hindutva nationalists and Dalits led to violent clashes at the site. The year before also, the ‘Shaniwarwada Elgar Parishad’, an event held to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima, was followed by unforeseen violence.
In the months following the 2018 event, several participants, as well as many prominent activists who were far away from the scene and not connected with the event, were arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which restricts the right to bail and other due processes to those arrested. Most of the arrested activists, called the Bhima Koregoan 16, are still in prison, denied bail, or the opportunity to prove their innocence. All this despite forensic findings that the digital evidence on the basis of which the activists were arrested was planted on their computers.
Those who were arrested include Jyoti Jagtap, Sahar Gorkhe, and Ramesh Gaichor of the anticaste cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch, Sudhir Dhawale, a writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist; Surendra Gadling, a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur; Mahesh Raut, a young activist on displacement issues from Gadchiroli; Shoma Sen, a university professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University; Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist; advocate Arun Ferreira; advocate Sudha Bharadwaj; writer Varavara Rao; Vernon Gonsalves, and Anand Teltumbde, the son-in-law of Dr. Ambedkar.
204 years after the victory of Dalits at Bhima Koregaon, Dalits are still far from achieving true equality under the law.
[The content has been provided by the Voices of Peace team in India. The views expressed are their own.]