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Caste rift over British battle

Policemen patrol in Mumbai after Dalit protests turned violent. PTI picture

Mumbai: Dalits have erupted in protest in Mumbai and several other parts of Maharashtra after some "Hindutva" outfits took exception to the commemoration of a British-era Dalit victory over Brahmin forces in a 200-year-old battle.

The Battle of Koregaon on January 1, 1818, is seen as a symbol of Dalit assertiveness. Troops from the Mahar Dalit community, then considered untouchable by upper caste Hindus, fought for the British East India Company and beat back the Brahmin Peshwas on the banks of the river Bhima in Koregaon, Pune.

On Monday, the bicentenary celebrations in Pune were opposed by Hindu groups, triggering clashes in which a 28-year-old man was killed. The victim was identified as Rahul Phatangle, but it was not clear which side he was on.

The protests spread to Mumbai on Tuesday. Buses were stoned and rail services on the Harbour Line were hit. Around 160 buses were damaged and over 100 protesters were arrested. Several airlines have waived cancellation fees because passengers could not reach the airport.

Dalit leaders have called a Maharashtra bandh on Wednesday.

In Pune, cases were registered against Hindu Ekta Aghadi leader Milind Ekbote and Shivraj Pratishthan chief Sambhaji Bhide on the charge of inciting violence.

Sources said the bicentenary commemoration drew more hostility than usual possibly because of a higher profile and larger turnout. Among those who attended a related event in Pune on December 31, which called for an end to "neo-Peshwai", was Gujarat land rights activist Jignesh Mevani. 

The controversy is particularly worrisome for the BJP, which is in power in the state as well as at the Centre. The Sangh parivar has been finding itself locked in confrontations with Dalits in multiple states, including Gujarat.

Appealing for calm, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has ordered a judicial inquiry.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi called the event to celebrate the Bhima-Koregaon battle a "potent symbol" of resistance to the Sangh parivar's "fascist vision".

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