Valmiki was the sage who wrote the Ramayana, which Hindus consider sacred text. Ram is Hindutva’s most potent political symbol. Valmiki is also from the much oppressed Dalit community and a frequent target of upper caste fury.The violent confrontations between Dalits and Marathas in Bhima Koregaon, where the former had gathered to celebrate the defeat of Peshwa forces in 1818, exposed the faultlines of caste in Indian society. The Battle of Koregaon was between 2,000 Maratha soldiers of Peshwa Baji Rao II and 800 East India Company soldiers. The Peshwa was defeated. Dalits celebrate it as their own triumph since most of the Company soldiers were Mahar Dalits of the Bombay Native Infantry.
History has a long memory. The socio-economic conditions of pre-Mughal India were ultimately responsible for the violence. Most Indian armies of the period did not include Dalits, since they were untouchable and fighting alongside them were unacceptable to other castes. Maharaja Ranjit Singh enrolled Mazhabis—lower caste converts to Sikhism—in his army. But much like the Negro soldiers in the US Army during the Civil War and the two World Wars, Dalit soldiers were formed into separate companies. It was the British who gave them large scale employment.
The Bengal Army, led by Lord Clive at the Battle of Plassey, consisted mainly of lower caste soldiers. British military service was a boon to Dalits. All Indian soldiers were compulsorily educated. Dalit soldiers were sent on overseas expeditions since caste Hindus were averse to crossing the sea. Education and travel gave Dalits exposure to the outside world where they were not treated as untouchables. The tragedy of Koregaon is that Marathas, Sikhs, Tamils, Telugus, Bengalis, and other groups have myriad victories to celebrate over invaders while the Dalits have few. History has a cruel sense of humour.
The Congress party, which recently gained some torque, immediately accused the BJP—which has 40 Dalit MPs—of being anti-Dalit. Maharashtra is a BJP-ruled state. The incongruity is that since Independence, it was the Congress that has treated the scheduled castes as a vote bank. What it studiously avoids to mention is that the trust deficit between Jawaharlal Nehru and Babasaheb Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution, was a significant reason why the Dalit icon converted to Buddhism. Nehru treated him as a political untouchable.
His resignation letter from Nehru’s Cabinet in 1951 reveals, “Many Ministers have been given two or three portfolios so that they have been overburdened…. I was not even appointed to be a member of main committees of the Cabinet such as Foreign Affairs Committee, or the Defence Committee. When the Economics Affairs Committee was formed, I expected, in view of the fact that I was primarily a student of Economics and Finance, to be appointed to this Committee. But I was left out.”
The Dalit leadership, no doubt invigorated by recent political surges, should also be aware that the Congress needs them for its revival. The BJP, on its part, should go beyond the symbolism of a Dalit president and empower Dalits as an economic and social force, who are stakeholders in the development story. The Ramayana is the tale of the triumph of good over evil, and equality is the only god in the temple of democracy.