Huddled among the lush green pomegranate fields of Ankoli village, farmers pour out tales of “harassment”, alleging how a section of Dalits use the atrocities Act as a weapon to settle scores against them.
The say they are all for the scrapping of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, one of several demands that are fuelling a string of silent protests by the Maratha community all over the state.
Rajaram Dongre, a Maratha farmer, alleges he has been implicated in a false case under the Act by a Dalit villager. The issue, he says, relates to a dispute over the boundaries of an agriculture land after the ceiling Act came into force.
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Sunil Pawar, another farmer, alleged that a case had been registered against him after he questioned some boys he claimed were misbehaving.
Twenty feet away sit rows of Dalit homes painted in vibrant blue. A housewife is busy with domestic chores. The men are away on work.
There is not a single barrier in the village dividing the Marathas from the Dalits or OBCs. The communities have been co-habiting like this for decades.
But now the communities seem divided with the Marathas demanding the scrapping of the atrocities Act and the Dalits insisting that it should remain.
The Dalits ask – “Why are the Marathas afraid of the Act?”, “Why are other communities not seeking its repeal?”, “Why is the Act being debated in Maharashtra and not in any other state?”
The atrocities Act was enacted in 1989 by Parliament with an aim to check the harassment of Dalits. After 17 years, the forward caste alleges its misuse and are demanding its scrapping.
At every Maratha rally, the demand to repeal the Act is repeated with renewed aggression. The protesters have alleged its gross misuse by the Dalit community against the Marathas, which they say have landed many in police stations or undermined their social image.
“The scrapping of the Act will make Dalits vulnerable in society. In most cases, Dalits are made scapegoats as one Maratha leader misuses it against the other to settle personal scores,” said Republican Party of India (A) general secretary Raja Sarvade, who argued, “No case is pursued without investigation.”
“I wonder why leaders like Sharad Pawar first raised the atrocities Act? Was it not to create caste polarisation, pitting the Marathas against the Dalits,” he asked.
But villagers in Ankoli claimed there were at least 26 cases under the Act registered in Mohol taluka (Solapur). While in most cases, the villagers are let off but the immediate arrest and harassment rankles, they said.
Two amendments to the Act are being recommended by the Maratha community.
The first relates to ascertaining the facts before the Act is invoked. Besides, allowing at least one witness from the forward community when a case is registered. They claimed that there is a provision that mandates a witness, which has been ignored.
The demand to repeal the Act has found overwhelming support from women attending the rallies, who say even verbal disputes between school and college-going children of the two communities attract cases under the Act.
Some also wonder why there is no provision for any action if a case is proved false. In such cases, they say, the person who slapped false charges should be penalised.
But dismissing the Marathas’ apprehensions of misuse of the Act as exaggerated, Dalit activist Ramrao Gawali said, “We demand a white paper on the number of cases registered under the Act in police stations in every district across Maharashtra. Let the government make public the total number of cases and those involved in such cases.”