Caste, community, race, state, language, and a hundred other things that divide us. Or do they? How real is our pride in this diversity and the so-called unity in it? Enough to sustain the occasional protests, bandhs and some destruction of property, may be?
The Maharashtra Bandh that recently brought the state to a standstill, saw damage to public and private property and widespread protests. The Pune police reported around 2,000 cases of vandalism across the district while the Mumbai police detained more than 300 people during the clashes, apart from some incidents in other parts of the state.
The shutdown was called by a few Dalit groups following anti-Dalit violence during the commemoration at Bhima Koregaon village in Pune district on January 1. Every year, this day is celebrated as a mark of respect to the Mahar contingent of the East India Company that defeated the larger Peshwa army, 200 years ago, in 1818.
While caste-based clashes, bandhs and protests are no novelty to India, and their frequent occurrence is hardly ever acknowledged by the urban populace, it definitely does affect them when it comes to their property and well-being. Are they, the new breed of the educated, well-read middle-class urban youths, simply irritated with these supposedly distant and unrelatable protests? Interestingly, no!
With most of us having grown up listening to ‘It’s all politics, we need not bother’ opinions from the previous generation, it’s not necessarily just that anymore. “I did not see a political trigger in this episode at least. The reason this happened seems to be a deep rooted problem. Either intentionally kept rooted or was invoked for unrealistic mileage,” says Darsshan Mehrotra, Mumbai-based entrepreneur. He goes on to say that he was rather happy to see people in large numbers standing up for their rights. “It surely was an inconvenience but we need more such beginnings to respect every community and person,” says the 37-year-old.
Almost agreeing with Mehrotra’s viewpoint, author Sriram Subramanian says that this, according to him, is just a part of the bigger and broader issue. “We have multiple identities in India - state, caste, language and what not, and hence, multiple faultlines too. Also, we need to look at our history. We have decades, rather centuries, of being ruled by others. So there is an obvious blame game. We attribute our issues to the foreign rulers,” he says.
He believes that another crucial aspect is the two fundamentally different political parties that majorly fight for power in India - the Congress and BJP. “All these things have to be accounted for when we see these occasional protests and uprisings. Post-1857, India has seen nationalism, and then another newfound one during the Raja Ram Mohan Roy and social reforms era. The next such wave came post Independence. Looking at all of this, we have made a reasonably good attempt at building a national identity,” he believes.
These 150 years of efforts, as opposed to centuries of faultlines is definitely a job well done, he adds. Citing examples of major protests like Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and over the movie Padmavati (now Padmavat) across the country, he says that these things are unfortunately bound to happen. “Our greatest achievement, in my eyes, is that we are still a country,” insists the 44-year-old writer, adding, “Had we been good at marketing, people would have probably visited our country to see the functioning of our democracy. We are still peaceful by and large.” He also draws our attention to another aspect to these occasional protests. “With the number of disparities, a French Revolution was long overdue. Why do you think that hasn’t happened? Because we don’t let the pressure build up so much. Our pressure cooker has relief valves - elections, cricket, Bollywood and religion. So we are pretty much sorted,” he points out, adding that these protests and bandhs are a part of this very relief mechanism and they, according to him, are better than a large explosion.
While all of that is true, this behaviour by protesters cannot be justified, says Yogesh Bhoir, Mumbai-based wealth advisor. “Most of this is politically driven and created with agenda. What needs to be done in such situations is bringing the heads of these groups to book. The head of the community, group, who is at the helm of affairs needs to be identified and punished financially so that there is a deterrent. Because, a loss to public property cannot be and must not be justified and indirectly encouraged,” he believes.
Going back to the origins, Bhoir tells us how the caste system came into existence based on a person’s profession and the moment you choose a profession, that defined your caste. “Lord Krishna too says the same in the Holy Gita. If I decide to be an entrepreneur, I become a Vaishya, and if I decide to recite holy texts, I become a Brahmin. But things were all misread over the years and we came up with these rigid definitions of caste by birth and that’s where the problem began,” he tells us. “Years of this rigidity made the so-called lower caste people feel all the more downtrodden and it just keeps seeping into every generation. To make matters worse, people in power love to keep a section of society poor - financially and otherwise,” he concludes.