Prop up Bhindranwale to contain Akalis. Yield on Shah Bano to appease Muslims, then go for soft Hindutva to placate Hindus. Now, in Koregaon, the strategy of the Congress is all too familiar.
A fancy French quote “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” or its more popular English version “the more things change, the more they stay the same” came to mind watching the visuals on the Bhima-Koregaon issue. Indian society is changing and hence this quote is not contextual, one may say. That is true. Rather, this quote is about mercenaries within trying to foment unrest based on the tried and tested faultline of caste.
Identities, real or imagined, and associated grievances, again real or imagined, are important to people. Traditionally, Indian society has had reasonable space for identities to coexist and grievances to be expressed and addressed without much rancour. Dr Ambedkar himself is a prime example. While he was a fervent critic of Indian society, his acumen and his work along with his activism was enough for him to win over the same society. The society that he was critical about, made space for him to have an indelible role in shaping the future of this country. Similarly, the Bhima-Koregaon memorial meet, even with its contested history, has been happening for many years now with very little trouble.
What was different this year then? A down and almost out Congress party and its ecosystem think they have tasted blood, and are thirsty for more. The more things change, the more they remain the same – of course, this applies to the Congress party’s strategy. Indira Gandhi covertly backed Bhindranwale to break the grip of the Akalis and ended up creating a monster that almost did permanent damage to our nation. Rajiv Gandhi too tried to be more Islamist than Islamists in both the Shah Bano and Salman Rushdie cases, while also trying to play the soft Hindutva card. Playing both sides is an old Congress strategy that helps it find electoral relevance by dividing people into smaller groups and appeasing the minimum necessary parts. Rahul Gandhi, 20 years later, seems to be on the same track. After exploiting caste discontent in Gujarat by aligning with caste leaders of the state and tasting marginal success, the Congress has moved on to Maharashtra. They have started engaging with and supporting certain elements, some of whom openly call for street wars to resolve caste conflict.
Apart from the ideological duplicity of the Congress and its purportedly neutral support base, the political necessity of such divisive politics is very stark. It is a widely accepted fact that in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, a large part of the Dalit vote across India rallied behing the BJP, on the plank of development. It was a positive vote based on aspiration. This positive consolidation is a significant threat to the Congress and the ecosystem it nurtures as it goes against the narrative of caste identity that it has repeatedly fallen back on. From the Patidars in Gujarat to Jats in Haryana, the Congress strategy of exploiting caste faultlines is no secret. Therefore, the attempts by the Congress to create rifts in this nascent unity using the complexities of caste history and motivated political actors is adequately clear.
But, the repercussions of this scorched earth policy will be very difficult to contain. Some of the key actors present in the Bhima Koregaon site this year included Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid. Mewani, a newly elected MLA from Gujarat is funded by the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) which is the political wing of the Popular Front of India (PFI). The secessionist and clearly anti-national politics of Umar Khalid is as well known as the Islamist credentials of the PFI. In a speech in Pune on the 31 December, Mewani clearly worked towards inciting violence by saying that the fight over caste has to be fought on the streets. It is this company that the Congress chooses to align with in its new political goal of fomenting caste tensions.
The passionate tweet of Rahul Gandhi does little to take away from the ideological duplicity of the Congress and the intelligentsia in standing as supporters and crusaders in this issue. The Congress, who keeps going back to the party’s fight against imperial forces as its greatest credential chooses to celebrate a win of the British in Bhima Koregaon. The Left ecosystem says that the British defeated a Brahmanical army which had ostracised the Dalits and hence, this celebration is legitimate. But, then what about Tipu Sultan, the great anti-British warrior whose atrocities against the Hindus in Karnataka are widely documented? Why is that the Brahmin Peshwas who ostracised Dalits are villains and why is Tipu Sultan, who slaughtered Hindus, a hero? Why is the Peshwa resistance against the British tarnished by their atrocities on Dalits and why is Tipu Sultan’s resistance celebrated despite his actions?
There will be no responses to this hypocrisy just like there will be no response to how the Congress and the Left intellegentsia actually define Dalit identity. The Dalit in Maharashtra speaking against Brahmanism and assembling at Bhima Koregaon and even throwing the occasional stone of resistance, is a hero. He is one reclaiming his history and unrelenting in his demands. The Dalit in UP demanding a Ram Temple though is a villain. His history is flawed, his culture is draconian and his agency is co-opted. In this dichotomy, lies the reality of the caste politics that this country has seen from the Congress, the Left-aligned activist base, and the new mercenaries of the party. The Dalit community in Maharashtra and elsewhere have their reasons to celebrate Bhima Koregaon. But, the actions of these external actors including some of their own leaders seem extremely motivated, duplicitous and dangerous.