Nowhere is the barely veiled anti-Dalit stance of the ongoing Maratha protests across Maharashtra more apparent than in the Dalit colonies around the cities where the silent marches have been organised. At the Nanded rally (September 19), Dalits actually joined Marathas to express solidarity on the Kopardi killing and rape but subsequent rallies saw Dalits distancing themselves. Reason: It became increasingly apparent that the Maratha marches were also exercises in muscle-flexing vis-a-vis the backward communities.
In rally after rally, the animosity towards the SC/ST communities has been palpable.
At the Solapur rally (September 21), for example, the Maratha Kranti Morcha took to social media to ask why Dalits needed to hold Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations every half a kilometre. In Ahmednagar, pointing to a crossroad, one Maratha volunteer asked what is the significance of an Ambedkar flag. At Boudh Nagar in Latur, Ambedkarite Keshav Kamble said, “If they demand scrapping of the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and ask for reservation, we want nationalisation of all private educational institutions.”
Die-hard Ambedkarites dismiss the notion that their communities are nervous but believe there is mounting pressure within to retaliate with larger silent morchas in every district where Marathas took centrestage. In fact, over the last 15 days, the top leadership of Republican Party of India (A) and other Republican parties were in a series of quiet huddles to evolve a strategy to counter the renewed assertion of the Marathas.
Dalit activist Ramrao Pandurang Gawali says Latur will witness a retaliatory Dalit rally on November 14. “Every district across Marathwada and western Maharashtra has decided to hold rallies to vociferously protest against any demand to scrap the Atrocities Act,” says Gawali. Dalit writer Arjun Dangle says there are two views. “One is to counter them with a larger morcha. Second, is to convene seminars for academic debates on the Maratha versus Dalit conflict which was uncalled for at this moment.”
Questioning the objective of the Maratha rallies, Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr B R Ambedkar and president of the Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh says, “The Marathas had no problems as long as Dalits/OBCs got reservation in education and jobs. Now that the Dalits/OBCs have started making inroads in grassroots politics, the Marathas’ identity is at stake.”
While the Congress-NCP’s defeat in 2014 also meant loss of power for Marathas, the last few years have seen growing self-awareness among Dalit communities in Maharashtra coinciding with programmes to mark 2015 as the 125th year of Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, a Dalit entrepreneurship initiative by the Centre and a robust albeit fractious debate around Rohith Vemula’s death.
Also, while the current protests were ostensibly set off by popular anger in the community following the rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi (Ahmednagar), much smaller but visible protests were conducted by Dalit groups in 2014 following the killing of three members of a Dalit family in Pathardi (also Ahmednagar) and of a Dalit boy in Shirdi (in Ahmednagar as well) in 2015 reportedly for selecting an Ambedkarite song as his cellphone caller tune.
Venkatesh Kumar, a professor at the School of Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), says the mobilisation of Marathas in such large numbers is reflective of a narrative across the country of dominant castes reasserting themselves, not unlike the Patels or Jats. Also, Kumar says the fact that the movement has sought the dilution of the SCs/STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is evidence that the underlying theme is anti-Dalit. “Any law can be misused, so why ask for the dilution of one particular Act?” he says.
Yashwant Zagade, an M Phil student at TISS, himself an OBC from Satara and an active leader of the Ambedkarite Student Association at the university, points out that the demand was initially to repeal the Act but was later watered down to seeking amendments. “When the law was amended in 2015, these leaders didn’t say anything about the Act being strengthened. Also, their contention that there is misuse of the Act is not based on any data.”
Indeed, numbers show no significant uptick. In fact, the number of cases under the Atrocities Act across India was approximately 45,000 last year. Of these, 1816 cases — barely 100 more than the number the previous year — were reported in Maharashtra which works out to less than 1 per cent of all IPC cases in the state.
Demanding a white paper from the government on the Act, Dalit activist Gawali says: “Let there be a district-wise audit of the actual number of cases and punishment. Let them reveal the names of the individuals, how many Marathas have been arrested.”
Zagade also says that as a student, he believes the Marathas are “degrading and belittling all OBC and SC/ST students” in contending that Marathas with higher exam scores don’t make it into higher educational institutions while those with reservations do. “They’re saying we don’t have any merit.”