World News

Mumbai Shuts Down as Protests Erupt Over Caste Tensions

Posted January 3, 2018 11:32 a.m. EST

MUMBAI, India — Mumbai, India’s bustling commercial hub, came to a standstill Wednesday as protesters called for a general strike and thousands took to the streets.

The catalyst for the strike was violence against members of the lower-caste Dalits, or so-called untouchables, that occurred when several hundred thousand gathered on New Year’s Day at a monument southeast of Mumbai to commemorate the victory 200 years ago of a British-led force against high-caste Hindus.

But as marchers blocked train tracks and highways, they also expressed deeper frustrations with both of India’s major political parties, which they accuse of failing to improve the lot of the hundreds of millions of Indians who have traditionally been stuck at the bottom of the country’s economic and social hierarchy.

“We are here to demand justice,” said Jitender Nikalje, a Dalit protester.

On Wednesday, both houses of Parliament were repeatedly adjourned in response to the protests. Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, wrote on Twitter that the attacks by far-right Hindus were part of a “fascist vision” by India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which has ties to Hindu nationalist groups, to keep Dalits “at the bottom of Indian society.”

In the Goregaon neighborhood of Mumbai, a Dalit stronghold, nearly 1,000 people marched down closed streets Wednesday, shouting chants denouncing both the BJP and the Congress party, which ran India for most of the period since independence from Britain.

“India has been the same for 2,000 years,” said Shobhitb Anbavabe, who brought his twin 11-year-old sons to the march. “People are still dominated and humiliated by the upper castes.”

Anbavabe, whose aunt and uncle were at the giant event Monday, near the city of Pune in the western state of Maharashtra, said he and other protesters believed far-right Hindu groups affiliated with the BJP had planned and carried out attacks there that left one man dead and several people injured.

But he said both parties had failed to help low-caste Indians and others on the fringes of society. “Congress is slow poison,” he said. “BJP is instant.”

By shutting down Mumbai for a day, he and other protesters hoped to prompt swift arrests of the Pune assailants and to draw India’s attention to those left behind despite India’s booming economy.

That message was similar to the one sent by Dalits and other marginalized groups in state elections last month in Gujarat, where the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is from Gujarat, suffered some erosion of its governing majority.

Every year, thousands of Indians assemble near Pune to commemorate the Battle of Koregaon, when Dalits were hired by the British army to defeat upper-caste Hindu rulers 200 years ago.

The 1818 battle is seen as a point of community pride for Dalits, who are at the bottom of India’s stratified caste system and have long been subjected to discrimination.

But the celebrations turned sour this year, with scuffles breaking out Monday and Tuesday between Dalits and far-right Hindu protesters, who threw stones at people leaving the event.

The unrest in Pune fanned out to Mumbai, about 75 miles northwest, where schools, trains and businesses shut down Wednesday. Dalit protesters, reacting to the violence near Pune, blocked traffic, hurled stones at buses and deflated tires in some areas of the city. In the cosmopolitan Pali Hill area of Mumbai, only pharmacies were open Wednesday, having received special permission from protest organizers. Fruit and vegetable sellers, who usually do brisk business during the day, covered their wares with burlap bags, keeping a watchful eye for protesters.

In 1818, members of the Mahar community, who are Dalits, were recruited by the British East India Co. to fight in the Battle of Koregaon, when a small group of army men apparently defeated thousands of Peshwas, high-caste Hindus.

For generations, Peshwa rulers had imposed horrific conditions on Dalits, who were considered so unclean that they were forced to wear pots around their necks so that their spit would not touch the ground.

According to news reports, the Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh, a group of upper-caste Brahmins, had urged the police in Pune to halt a seminar involving Dalit and leftist leaders a day before the commemoration Monday, saying it would “spread casteism.”

Vishwajeet Deshpande, who leads Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh in Maharashtra state, said by telephone Wednesday that his group had nothing to do with the violence this week, and attributed it to “Hindu hard-liners” unaffiliated with his organization. But he did take issue with the Dalit version of the centuries-old battle.

“That battle was not decisive,” he said. “Nobody was defeated or victorious in that war.”

Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister of Maharashtra, told reporters on Tuesday that violence at the event had been contained by the police. “Some people are trying to create caste tensions,” he said. “We should not allow them to succeed.”

Dalits have made inroads in securing higher-paying jobs in India’s public and private sectors. Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of a Dalit leader, said at a news conference that celebrating the Battle of Koregaon represented a “symbol of social and religious freedom” for the community.