In 2014, the BJP managed to win 15 of the 29 reserved seats in the 288 member Maharashtra assembly, becoming the party with the highest proportional share of Dalit MLAs in the state. On Wednesday, after protests by Dalits rocked the state following violent clashes in villages around Bhima Koregaon near Pune, many of these BJP legislators preferred to play it safe.
While some called for an end to the policy of caste-based reservations, while others questioned why the community was paying homage to those who had fought for the British.
In contrast, MLAs of the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s alliance partner, were far more vocal in claiming that there was a feeling within the community that there was an anti-Dalit bias on part of the state government. The Sena
has nine Dalit MLAs elected from reserved seats.
“The Koregaon rally that was taken out should have been done peacefully. Some people in that rally did something and then members from the other side started pelting stones, which caused the flare-up. Both sides need to understand that our purpose is the same. We should remove casteism from our minds. I am of the belief that caste-based reservations should be stopped. We should see people only on the basis of whether they are rich or poor and given benefits accordingly. Giving reservation on the basis of caste is wrong,” said Ramesh Bundile, BJP MLA from Daryapur.
Another Dalit MLA, Ramchandra Avsare of the BJP, compared those who paid homage at Koregaon to an Indian Muslim who would laud Pakistani soldiers killed in a battle against India. Dalit activists see the battle of Koregaon as a struggle for annihilation of caste and an attempt by the untouchables of Maharashtra to break the shackles of the age-old caste order.
“It is said they had fought for the British, so why do we need to give them so much importance. Imagine that I am a Muslim. If my relative was in the Pakistan army and died while fighting India, will I make a monument for him here and pray before it? This is wrong, they can do it on an individual level but doing it publicly means that you are promoting the British rule. This is a conspiracy of Congress-NCP. There is no role of Hindu organisations in this. If SCs behave this way, the Hindu will get centralised. The BJP will not suffer because of it. The community needs to behave in such a way that it inspires confidence in others,” said the Bhandara MLA.
Many other Dalit MLAs from the ruling party claimed that the BJP government had done all that it could to ensure that the trouble did not flare up, stressing that the Narendra Modi government had done the most for the upliftment of Dalits.
“A perception has been created for the past 60 years that the BJP and its associates are anti-Dalit. However, as a young Dalit who has been given ticket twice by the party, I vouch for the fact that Modiji believes in Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas and the BJP is doing the most for upliftment of the community,” said BJP MLA from Umerkhed Rajendra Najardhane.
Nanaji Shamkule, BJP MLA from Chandrapur, said, “This government has done all it could to ensure that there is peace and perpetrators of the incident are booked. As far as the perception that this government is anti-Dalit, no government has done as much for upliftment of the community as the BJP has.”
Other BJP MLAs chose to give a guarded response. “I do not have the complete details of what transpired that day. However, whatever happened and whoever may be at fault, this is not good for society. Despite being in the 21st century, we are fighting in the name of caste,” said BJP legislator from Bhusawal Sanjay Savkare.
Washim MLA Lakhan Malik called for calm. “The government will take the right decision on this issue but people need to stay calm. What has happened is not right but we need to maintain peace. I don’t want to say anything beyond this,” said Malik.
Some other BJP MLAs did not want to comment on the issue. Murtizapur legislator Harish Pimple said he had no idea of what was happening. “I am presently out and do not have any idea of what has happened. I will reach back and get details about the incident,” he said. Badnapur MLA Naryan Kuche refused to speak, saying he had nothing to say. The other seven Dalit MLAs from the BJP did not respond to calls.
The Shiv Sena lawmakers were far more vocal. “Lakhs of people were to come to that place and the administration should have made adequate arrangement, which evidently was not made. There is anger among the community over the incident. The home ministry is with the CM and we will meet him to ensure an impartial inquiry into the incident. Had it been handled effectively in the first place, it would not have slipped out of our hands and created this chasm in society. The feeling of casteism is there in people’s mind and I feel it will take a long time for us to evolve out of this,” said Dalit MLA from Mehkar Sanjay Raimulkar of Sena.
Another of Sena’s Dalit MLAs claimed that the entire attack in Koregaon was planned. “The perception of the system being anti-Dalit is there in people’s mind, people feel it that way. I am in the government but I also feel that. The police in this state are present for every small function. Here we had 2 lakh people gathering and there was no adequate security. Some people indulged in stone-pelting but not a single one was arrested. It means it was planned and the government also lost control,” said Sena MLA from Aurangabad West Sanjay Shirsat.
Sena MLA from Umerga claimed that the handling of issues concerning the Dalit community by the government had created a sense of uneasiness among the community. “It is a reality that a lot of Dalits feel that there is an
anti-Dalit government sitting in power. Their concerns are not without basis. There is concern about the ways funds meant for schemes for the SC community are being handled and how even reservations in promotions have been struck down. This has created a sense of unease,” said Umerga MLA Gyanram Chowgule.
Party MLA from Devlali, Yogesh Gholap claimed that the entire incident was an attempt to drive a wedge between
the Dalits and the Marathas. The remaining five Dalit MLAs from the party did not respond
Dalits constitute nearly 13 per cent of the state’s voting population and are a politically active community.
In major urban centres like Mumbai, Dalits make up nearly 15 per cent of the voting population.