Indian Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, are challenging the supremacist ideology of hard-line Hindu groups. But rights activists are blaming Hindu fundamentalism for a recent attack on Dalits celebrating victory in a 19th century battle against their upper-caste overlords. A series of violent clashes between Dalits and higher-caste Maratha people were reported in several parts of western Maharashtra state in early January. This follow a Jan. 1 attack on Dalit people marking the centenary of an 1818 battle
between local rulers and forces of the British East India company. The battle in Bhima Koregaon village resulted in the British curtailing the dominance of local Maratha ruler Peshwa Bajirao II. The rout has been celebrated by Dalits ever since. However, this centenary year it turned violent, with one person killed and hundreds injured. Media reports suggested that right-wing groups carrying saffron flags pelted Dalits with stones, prompting them to retaliate. In the ensuing clashes, more than 30 vehicles, including buses and police vans as well as private vehicles, were torched or damaged and 28-year-old Rahul Fatangale
, a Maratha upper-caste bystander, was killed by a hurled rock. “It is a very dangerous trend because we are going back to 1947 when caste and creed divided the country,” said Joseph Dias, a Catholic leader based in Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra. It was shocking that what has happened 100 years ago was still causing conflict, he added. “All of a sudden this has happened because some fringe elements have provoked it,” Dias said in reference to Hindu fundamentalist groups. Journalist Saquib Salim said in a commentary
that the violence should be seen as the start of a campaign to taint Dalit people as unpatriotic supporters of India’s former British colonial rulers.
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Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, secretary of the Indian bishops' Office for Dalits and Indigenous People, said the attacks flowed from an age-old belief that Dalits should just be the servants of upper-caste Hindus. The word Dalit means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-level Hindu caste system. Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this socially deprived segment of society. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin. Father Raj said upper-caste Hindu groups could not accept that Dalit people are increasingly asserting their rights.