India: Hundreds Detained for Caste Violence in Maharashtra

Prabhat Sharan
180104-IN-dalit-620 Members of India's Dalit community shout slogans as they block a road during a protest in Mumbai, Jan. 3, 2018.

Indian police have detained over 300 people in connection with violent protests that broke out across Maharashtra state earlier this week following the killing of a low-caste youth during a clash between the marginalized Dalit community and Hindu nationalists, an official said Thursday.

The Dalits, who form the lowest rung of Hinduism’s rigid caste hierarchy, brought state capital Mumbai to a grinding halt on Wednesday as tens of thousands poured into the streets of India’s financial hub to demand action against Hindu fundamentalists, who allegedly attacked their community members on Jan. 1 because of ideological differences over a 200-year-old war.

One Dalit youth was killed in Monday’s violence in the state’s second city of Pune, as Dalits celebrated the bicentenary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, in which their ancestors helped the British East India Company defeat the ruling-class Peshwas in 1818.

“We have detained more than 300 people and are questioning them about their role in the violence,” a senior police official told BenarNews while requesting anonymity, adding that as of Thursday evening the police had made about 40 arrests.

About 35 policemen sustained injuries when protesters began hurling stones and torching vehicles during Wednesday’s protest, which garnered widespread media attention. Police nevertheless kept a lid on the chaos, Maharashtra’s Director General of Police Satish Mathur told reporters.

“We had made elaborate arrangements throughout the state, with special focus on sensitive areas where intelligence inputs suggested that a major flare-up was possible. In hindsight, the statewide protests went off largely peacefully,” he said.

‘High-level probe’

On Thursday, Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar met the state’s Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to demand action against those responsible for Monday’s violence near Pune, some 150 km (93 miles) from Mumbai.

Fadnavis has “agreed to initiate a high-level probe into the violence,” Ambedkar, who heads the political party Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), told reporters after his meeting with the chief minister.

“A discussion has been held with the Chief Justice of Bombay High Court to recommend a panel of judges. One of the judges will head the inquiry commission,” he said.

India’s nearly 180 million-strong Dalit community has been at the receiving end of frequently violent caste-related discrimination for centuries. Violence against the marginalized community has increased since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014, according to activists.

Rakshit Sonawane, a columnist who has covered caste-related issues in Maharashtra for decades, suggested the violence against the Dalit gathering was planned.

“The stage was deliberately set up for a flare-up as miscreants and people who planned it knew that every year on Jan. 1 the Dalits gather in the Bhima-Khoregaon village to celebrate the victory of their ancestors over Brahmin-dominated Peshwa rulers,” he told BenarNews.

“The Dalit anger also stems from the vitiated air in the country wherein Dalits are being hounded and beaten and humiliated rather routinely while the government just turns a blind eye. Dalits faced violence before the BJP rose to power as well. But then, even if it was a tokenism, the government in power would take cognizance,” he said.

Vivek P.S., a sociology professor at Mumbai University, differed.

“The recent flare-up is an inter-play of political forces rather than a caste-clash,” he told BenarNews. “BJP has virtually overshadowed most rival political parties in today’s India. Such flare-ups help opposition parties to stay in the news by attacking the BJP. It would be extremely simplistic to dub it as a caste-clash,” he added.

The Indian National Congress, India’s principal opposition party, squarely blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rightwing government and its ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), for being “anti-Dalit.”

“A central pillar of the RSS/BJP fascist vision for India is that Dalits should remain at the bottom of Indian society,” Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi said in a Tweet.

However, Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis denied this charge, saying none of those who indulged in violence against Dalits would be spared.

“Inquiries will be conducted in the incidents of violence that took place across Maharashtra,” he tweeted.


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