THE simmering tension between Marathas and Dalits over a gangrape-murder in Ahmednagar is threatening to boil over with members of the upper caste demanding a repeal of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Castes (Prevention of Atrocities Act).
The Marathas have been holding morchas across the state against the Act, with one such protest in Aurangabad earlier this month drawing thousands of people. The organisers claimed to have set up 5,000 WhatsApp groups to gather numbers for the march.
Among those who have demanded scrapping of the SC/ST Act is MNS chief Raj Thackeray, while NCP chief Sharad Pawar has raised concern over its “misuse”.
The gangrape had been reported from Kopardi village of Karjat on July 13, with the three accused allegedly waylaying the teenager on her way back from her grandparents’ home and assaulting and killing her. Police said the autopsy report showed her hair had been pulled out, her hands dislocated from the shoulders and her teeth smashed. The girl was a Maratha and the accused are all local Dalit boys.
After the three were arrested, police, fearing violence, provided protection to the local Dalits even as relatives of the accused invoked the SC/ST Act fearing a backlash by the Marathas. Rural Marathwada has a long history of violence between Dalits and Marathas.
The girl’s family has been visited by several dignitaries and politicians, including Pawar, Raj Thackeray, activist Anna Hazare, and godman Bhaiyyu Maharaj.
Apart from seeking that the SC/ST Act be repealed, Thackeray has opposed caste-based laws and reservation. Hazare called for setting up ‘Gram Raksha Dals (village protection groups)’. Pawar praised the local Marathas for showing “restraint” despite the gruesome incident.
Raising the issue in the Assembly, NCP leader Ajit Pawar called the Kopardi case more heinous than the December 16 gangrape in Delhi.
The Dalit leadership is on the backfoot as the accused are Dalits. Dalit leaders Ramdas Athawale (the Union Minister of State for Social Justice) and Prakash Ambedkar, who wanted to visit Kopardi, were advised by officials to stay away.
Apart from Aurangabad, Marathas have held protests in Osmanabad, Jalgaon and Beed districts. At the morcha in Beed on August 30, a schoolgirl read out an open letter to CM Devendra Fadnavis in which the rape incident was described as a challenge to the community. At many of these protests, anger is directed at the recent Marathi blockbuster Sairat, with protesters complaining that the story of a Maratha girl eloping with a Dalit boy had emboldened Dalit boys.
The gangrape and its aftermath could have serious political implications in the region. The Shiv Sena gained strength in Aurangabad, Osmanabad and Beed districts of Marathwada during the riots of the 1970s to oppose the renaming of Marathwada university after Dr B R Ambedkar.
It was in the Shirdi Lok Sabha constituency in Ahmednagar that Athawale was defeated in 2009. Local Maratha leaders of the then ruling parties (the Congress and NCP) were blamed for ensuring the RPI leader’s defeat, although he belonged to an ally party at the time. Athawale broke his alliance with the NCP and tied up with the Sena and then with the BJP.