The commemoration of a 200-year-old British military victory in India has spilled over into days of violence and protests in Mumbai and across Maharashtra state.
Streets in Mumbai were deserted on Wednesday as hundreds of Dalit protesters blocked roads and train lines and attacked buses, forcing transport delays and the closure of schools and shops in the financial hub.
Roadblocks, arson and the death of a teenager were reported in towns elsewhere in the state where Dalits, formerly called untouchables, were protesting against the alleged disruption of a memorial event by Hindu nationalist groups.
An estimated 300,000 Dalits had gathered in the Maharashtra village of Bhima Koregaon on Monday to celebrate the 1818 victory of the British East India Company over the Peshwas, a faction of the Maratha empire that ruled much of the subcontinent before the British.
Hundreds of Dalits were involved in the battle on the side of the British, forming part of battalion of 900 soldiers that repelled Peshwa forces numbering 20,000 by some estimates.
The Dalits, who occupy the lowest place in the Hindu caste system and have suffered thousands of years of exclusion and extreme poverty, sided with the British in response to mistreatment by high-caste Peshwa rulers. Today the battle is regarded as a historical moment of self-assertion by members of the community.
The 200th anniversary memorial on Monday turned violent when Dalit activists allege members of two Hindu nationalist groups attacked processions near an obelisk installed by the British to commemorate the battle.
One man died and dozens of cars were burned in clashes between the two groups. At least 100 Dalits were reportedly arrested in the protests that followed on Tuesday, which quickly spread to Mumbai and drew national media attention.
On Wednesday, outside Chembur railway station, a centre for the protests, one activist said police had been trying to shut down demonstrations in a “brutal” fashion.
“They attacked us with lathis [clubs],” the young man identifying himself as Sumit said. “I have a mark here on my back from last night.”
There were reports of journalists being attacked and vocal anger towards the media, whom one protester accused of ignoring violence against Dalits and being “sold to politicians”.
“Our women and small children were attacked in Bhima Koregaon and in Mumbai,” said the demonstrator, Rajesh. “Why don’t they talk about that?”
Fleets of protesters on motorbikes were also seen roaming the empty streets of Mumbai shouting “Jai Bhim”, a Dalit protest slogan.
Order began to return to the city by early evening on Wednesday after a key Dalit leader, Prakash Ambedkar, called for an end to the protests.
The Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, has asked for a judicial inquiry into Monday’s violence.
Caste was officially abolished by the Indian constitution in 1950 but remains deeply embedded in social customs and still shapes the lives of most Hindus.
- Additional reporting by Anish Gawande in Mumbai
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