Newly elected Vadgam MLA, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, will attend the event commemorating the victory of 200 years of Battle of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra.

Mevani has been invited to speak at the two-day conference on December 31st to January 1, 2018. Mevani rose to prominence after leading a Dalit agitation sparked off by flogging of dalitsby self-styled ‘GauRakshaks’ – cow vigilantes – inUna in July 2016.

On January 1, 1818, a small army of the British East India Company succeeded in thwarting the advance of the forces of PeshwaBaji Rao II into Pune despite being outnumbered three to one. Over the past several decades, this “victory” in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon has become an important symbol of Dalit assertion in Maharashtra.

In the Dalit narrative, the East India Company’s force in that battle consisted mostly of soldiers from the Dalit Mahar community. The battle is seen asa war for “freedom” from the alleged casteism of the Peshwas, who were upper caste Brahmins.The ‘Mahars’ were considered untouchable in the contemporary caste-based society.

Dr BR Ambedkar visited the site on 1 January 1927. Now every New Year’s Day, thousands of his followers visit the site at Perne village in Pune where a ‘jaystambh’ (victory pillar) erected by the British commemorates the memory of the soldiers who fell in that battle.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the battle and the event is expected to attract attendance in huge numbers. A report in The India Express (IE) said the organisers claim between four and five lakh Dalits from across the country are expected to join the Bhima KoregaonShauryadinPrerna Abhiyan, making it one of the largest Dalit mobilisations of recent times.

Mevani is scheduled to speak at the “ElgaarParishad” conference on December 31 at Pune’s historic Shaniwar Wada, the headquarters of the Peshwas. The following day, Mevani, along with thousands of activists, is expected to march 30 km to the jaystambh, the venue for the main event.

Apart from Mevani, other prominent speakers include Umar Khalid, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student who was at the centre of the controversial slogan-shouting incident last year, Chhattisgarh activist SoniSori, and Vinay Ratan Singh, the national president of the Bhim Army.

Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Prashant Dontha of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, Hyderabad, Maulana Abdul Hamid Azhari, national secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and artists of Kabir Kala Manch — some of whom are alleged to have Maoist links — are also expected to participate and speak at the all-day event, which will be presided by the retired Supreme Court Justice PB Sawant, said the IE report.

There is a clear political, anti-Sangh parivar angle to the event. A pamphlet for the conference makes an appeal to masses, mainly Dalits, tribals and minorities, to unite and take inspiration from the heroes of the Bhima Koregaon battle to defeat the “new Peshwas” — BJP, RSS and other “Hindutva” forces like the Shiv Sena, Abhinav Bharat, SanatanSanstha, and Sri Ram Sene, as well as gaurakshaks and the “anti-Romeo squad”. The pamphlet names the ATS (Anti-Terrorist Squad), CBI and even R&AW, as allies of “casteist” forces.