At a time when Hindu-Dalits are discovering the philosophy and importance of Dr BR Ambedkar as their path of liberation against casteist ill-treatment as manifested at Una in Gujarat, in his home state of Maharashtra where Buddhist-Dalit militancy has spearheaded the movement against casteism in recent times, caste tempers are rising. The powerful Maratha community is flexing its muscles in different parts of Maharashtra, to oppose the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
The Marathas have started organising silent morchas, which are evoking a massive response. The protest marches appear leaderless and are organised without any political banner, but have attracted political attention. Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar has expressed his concern over the misuse of the Atrocities Act, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray has called for the scrapping of the Act as well as the caste-based quota. The Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray on Saturday demanded that a special session of legislature be convened to discuss the issue.
Besides, the incident has also prompted several dignitaries like veteran social worker Anna Hazare (who called for the formation of Gram Rakshak Dals), and Godman Bhaiyyu Maharaj. Interestingly, Dalit leaders Ramdas Athavale (minister of state for social justice in the Modi cabinet) and Prakash Ambedkar (BR Ambedkar’s grandson and chief of Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh) who wanted to visit Kopardi, were persuaded by the law and order machinery to refrain from visiting the village, to prevent any law and order problems.
The trigger for the outrage among Marathas is the gangrape and murder of a teenage Maratha girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district, allegedly by some Dalit youths. Although the gangrape and murder took place at Kopardi on 13 July, the first morcha was taken out on 9 August in Aurangabad, followed by Osmanabad, Jalgaon, Beed and the latest was in Parbhani on 3 September. There is also a misconceived feeling that the recent Marathi blockbuster Sairat (gone wild), in which a Dalit boy elopes with a Maratha girl and the couple is eventually killed by the girl’s family, has emboldened Dalit boys.
Interestingly, the flexing of muscles by the community has originated in the Marathwada region (Aurangabad, Osmanabad, Beed, Parbhani), where the Shiv Sena gained strength through anti-Dalit polarisation during the riots in 1970s to oppose the renaming of Marathwada University after BR Ambedkar.
The Ahmednagar district, where the girl was raped and killed, has also witnessed caste hostilities in the past.
In 2014, a teenage Dalit boy Nitin Aghe was murdered over an affair with an upper caste girl in Kharda village. Last year, a Dalit youth Sagar Shejwal was hacked to death in Shirdi for playing a song on his mobile that praised BR Ambedkar. In January this year, three Dalits were killed and dumped in a septic tank in Sonai village, as one of them was in love with an upper caste girl. Elsewhere, a Dalit teenager Swapnil Sonawane was killed in Nerul, Navi Mumbai last year, for being in a relationship with an upper caste girl.
Besides, it was in the Shirdi Lok Sabha constituency in Ahmednagar district that Athavale was defeated in the 2009 polls. Athavale had blamed Maratha leaders of the Congress and NCP for the defeat, despite his party being their ally. The debacle made him break his alliance and tie-up initially with the Shiv Sena, and later, with the BJP.
Nevertheless, the anger of the Maratha community, coupled with the possibility of similar demand (to scrap the Atrocities Act) in other states (which is a Central Act, as pointed out by Pawar in Mumbai recently), has the potential of a caste flareup at a time when the country is celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar.