The Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra has been taken aback by lakhs of people belonging to the Maratha community taking to the streets, unprecedented in the socio-political history of the state since it was formed in 1960. This has happened after the murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village of Ahmadnagar district on July 13. More than 150 incidents of atrocities were committed against Dalits, some brutal murders, in Ahmadnagar district in the last four-five years. Yet, not a word of protest was uttered by any section of society in the state, let alone the Maratha community, other than the Dalits. This once again underlines that community sensitivity or conscience even in the crime of rape is determined by one’s caste. This time, four Dalit youths have been accused of the crime.
I visited the village on July 26 and met the girl’s parents, both poor brick-workers. With no words of consolation, I met some villagers. It was gratifying that despite being about 2,000 in number, the Maratha community collectively decided on a policy of restraint towards the Dalits, numbering about 150 to 200, as they were not collectively responsible for the crime. This is contrary to what normally happens in the northern parts of the country. It was equally gratifying that the entire Dalit community demanded, I was told by the chief of the Dispute-Free Village Community, that the guilty must be hanged.
Now, nearly a month after the gruesome incident, the Maratha community has started the protest marches, mobilising lakhs of people, including doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors, teachers, university and college students and even housewives, the last being unconventional so far as the community is concerned. Second, the participants in the protest marches belong to all political parties — Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena — and include their MLAs, MLCs and MPs, to show solidarity with the community and ensure that its political fortunes are not harmed. Third, the OBCs in the state are not allowed to join these protests, the reason being that they are the beneficiaries of reservations.
Fourth, these protest marches were so far organised mainly in Marathwada and Western Maharashtra, but are now spreading to the Vidarbha and Konkan regions. It is understood that about 25 lakh of these protesters from across the state will be marching to Mumbai in October.
The community has three main demands: Punishing the guilty of Kopardi, scrapping the SC and ST ( Prevention of Atrocities ) Act, 1989 (POA), and getting reservations to the community in education and public employment. Let me deal with each of these demands.
First, it is not only the demand of the Maratha community, but of all sections in Maharashtra, including the Dalits, that the guilty be punished. The state government must hasten the process. Second, as regards reservations, Article 340 of the Constitution empowers the president to constitute a commission to look into the difficulties of the “socially and educationally backward classes” (SEBCs) in the country, and on the basis of the commission’s recommendations, the government may suggest suitable measures for their advancement. This was the case of the Mandal Commission that has provided 11 criteria, that is, four each that are social and economic in nature and three educational. If the Maratha community wants reservations as the SEBs, commonly known as the OBCs, they should be ready to be seen to be socially on par with the OBCs, who are lower in the social hierarchy. Further, they need to qualify the majority of the criteria, as prescribed by the Mandal Commission. If not, the government needs to find some appropriate alternative method within the framework of the constitution, because this demand of the Maratha community has been pending for the last 20 years or so. Again, the present system vis à vis the SCs, STs and OBCs must remain unaffected. The Fadnavis government should take the call at the earliest.
Third, the demand for scrapping the POA is totally unjustifiable. The POA was passed by the Parliament in 1989 and extends to the whole country, except Jammu & Kashmir. It is the prerogative of the Parliament alone to amend it, if necessary. Thus, it was amended in 2015 to make it more effective. But no state has been implementing it with a sense of commitment and honesty, mainly for political considerations. Maharashtra is no exception — out of a total 7,345 cases of atrocities brought for trial in the state in 2014, only 59 persons were convicted, making the conviction rate 0.8 per cent of the cases. Of 36 districts in the state, only three have special courts, the least in the country. The bogey of misuse of the POA is unfounded. Yet, in cases where this happens, it is the state government’s responsibility to punish the offenders instead of making it an argument against the law itself.
The true remedy is the creation of an atrocity-free society where the POA is rendered irrelevant. But all said and done, I would suggest, the Dalits in Maharashtra must resist being provoked for many reasons. In the end, I must come to the real genesis of the story that is forging unity among the Maratha community in the state.
The Kopardi incident is just the immediate cause. Though the Maratha community has been ruling the state since its inception in 1960, irrespective of the ruling party or parties and irrespective of who was the state’s chief minister, the ordinary, poor and resourceless of the same community could not avail themselves of any special benefits over these years. Their hardships were the same as those of the other poor except their so-called higher social status (next only to Brahmins). They remained away from the real power centres comprising the cooperative sugar factories, thread mills, banks, trade and commerce, construction industry and private educational institutions controlled by their elite fraternity. They, and particularly the educated among them, are also victims of the growing unemployment, and have been suffering from the unaffordable fees charged for professional courses, thanks to the uncontrolled privatisation, nay, commercialisation of education. Hence the demand for reservation.
The demand has been pending for nearly 25 years. The state government must act sooner rather than later in the interest of the socio-political stability in the state.