Friday, October 7, 2016

On the Ongoing Maratha Agitations in Maharashtra

Suresh Sawant and Rahul Vaidya

The shocking Kopardi rape and murder case happened on July 13th in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Spontaneous protests over this brutal gangrape and murder however soon took a casteist turn. The word spread that victim belonged to Maratha community, Maharashtra's biggest and politically dominant community; and what is worse; the perpetrators belonged to the Dalit community. The dual narrative of honor of women as well as the caste fuelled the protests which have been spreading like a wildfire across Maharashtra. Already, there have been massive agitations at Ahmednagar, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Jalgaon, Beed. Similar rallies have been planned in Latur, Parbhani, Solapur, Amravati and many other districts. The final rally will be held in Mumbai. These agitations have witnessed crowds over a lac at every location- with significant number of women participating.

Thus far, the agitations have been largely peaceful. However, the underlying casteist tone is discernible through invocations of demands for Atrocities Act to be changed/ revoked as well as demand for Maratha reservations getting a fresh lease of life. Both the demands are indirectly aimed at Dalits targeting the entire community using this incident as backdrop. What is more, the Maratha organizations and their political backers, (mainly from NCP of Sharad Pawar) are fishing in troubled waters by raking up such provocative demands. Other politicians like Raj Thackeray of MNS, Uddhav Thackeray of Shiv Sena are not behind. They have also tried to gain political mileage by calling for revocation/ alteration of Atrocities Act.

All these developments have naturally resulted in growing disquiet among the Dalits. There is a word around that Dalit counter-agitations are being planned. However, ultimately all these developments are going to undermine the aim of ‘unity of the oppressed’, which Mahatma Phule called ‘Stri-Shudra-Ati-shudra’ and in which he included both the Kunbi-Marathas as well as Dalits.

It is with such concern; Suresh Sawant has warned about the false propaganda being carried out even by established and seasoned politicians like Sharad Pawar and has appealed to Ambedkarite, progressive community about how should be its response at present.

(This note was originally in Marathi. Here’s the translated version below):

Sharad Pawar’s Dangerous move
During the Namantar movement, Sharad Pawar played a key role in negotiating with wealthy Maratha leaders-activists who were staunch opponents of ‘Namantar’ (name change of Marathwada University to Dr. Ambedkar University) and ultimately he succeeded in carrying out the Namantar (to be precise, Namvistar- name extension; since the name was changed to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University) in 1990s. As a Chief Minister, he had ensured that there would be no repeat of instances of burning down Dalit households (as had happened during 1978 when the issue first erupted).

In short, Sharad Pawar is not a politician with a feudal mindset. He is supporter of market capitalism and neo-liberalism.  However, his politics and party organization is dependent on feudal powers. His recent wager on Atrocities Act is testimony to that:-

He raised the issue of ‘misuse’ of Atrocities Act through his comments over ongoing Maratha Agitations for justice for Kopardi case. This is a serious wager with plenty at stake for everyone involved. His argument that ‘Atrocities Act is misused to settle scores between two Savarna parties where Dalits are used as pawns’ is technically not putting the blame for misuse on Dalits. He is free to argue that ‘I don’t maintain that Dalits register false complaints under this Act’. It is notable that wherever there are Maratha caste agitations, the placards invariably carry the slogans calling for amending the Atrocities Act. Sharad Pawar is backing up this demand. The atrocities against Dalits and tribals are going up in Maharashtra over the years. The percentage of ultimate punishments under Atrocities Act is extremely low-just about 5 per cent in Maharashtra. Despite being aware of all this reality, Sharad Pawar is playing this dangerous game of fuelling the fire of casteist tensions. 

Further, he is also very well aware that there is no constitutional provision and support for the demand of reservations for Maratha community. However, in his obsessive pursuit of political maneuvering, he has supported this demand of Maratha reservations.

Maratha community, accounts for massive 32 per cent of population in Maharashtra, and culturally identifies itself with ‘Kshatriya’ varna of Hindu hierarchy. However, this community is not evenly placed in economic terms. A portion of it is holding plenty of resources, while a large section remains in poverty, and deprivation. Demand for ‘Reservation for Maratha community’ is used as a tool to distract this poor section from holding the ruling class i.e. the rich section of Marathas responsible for its plight. Further, there is false propaganda that reservations for Dalits and other oppressed sections are responsible for the plight of poor Marathas. It will take a long time for the poor Marathas to see through this lie. Hence, by supporting Maratha reservations, and selectively invoking Atrocities Act, people like Sharad Pawar are stoking the casteist fire they might not be able to douse in the end. 

How should Ambedkarite community respond to the ongoing Maratha Agitation in Maharashtra?
In response to ongoing Maratha agitation across Maharashtra, preparations seem to be underway to organize counter-agitation of Ambedkarite sections. However, this step is absolutely unwarranted. In fact, this move is most likely to prove dangerously counter-productive. I would not like to argue that there should never be such mobilization of Dalits and Ambedkarites. However, this certainly is not the right time.

The Kopardi rape case is extremely condemnable and the guilty should be punished as quickly and as severely as possible. However, relentless propaganda is going on that ‘the guilty are Dalits and they raped a Maratha girl as revenge’. This has been vitiating the minds of Maratha community. Already the poison of religious polarization is being spread. This addition of casteist propaganda and hatred will lead Maharashtra into complete anarchy. It is necessary to reflect on following points before any hasty action or reaction:

-       Today the Maratha agitations are going on in a peaceful and disciplined manner. This is certainly a significant praiseworthy fact. Their demands are addressed to the government. Their proclaimed target is not any specific Dalit persons or neighborhoods. However, these agitations and mobilizations do not have any recognized leader. The similar is the situation with Ambedkarite sections. The acceptability and recognition of past leaders is extremely low and no new leadership is emerging in sight. Such times are precarious in that if any mischievous elements seek trouble, then these peaceful agitations will turn violent in no time. No leadership will be there to control them. Since these mobilizations don’t have recognized leadership, appeals by any other established leaders will not be heeded. And this anarchy would cause the greatest damage to the minority Dalits living off the village bounds.

-       It would be worthwhile to recall how the Dalit neighborhoods were attacked during the Namantar Movement in 1980s and 1990s. Dalits emerged stronger out of all the violence, bloodshed, and destruction of property and life during those times. They didn’t buckle down. Dalit Panthers’ committed urban-rural activists and their militancy inspired them through the Namantar movement. That is lacking today. The middle-class, vocal section among Dalits is active on social media (and sometimes, in academic debates and conferences). However, this is not translated into activism on the ground. Many of them don’t have spare time to meet their relatives living in urban slums. Sometimes, this section participates in prominent agitations such as the one that took place condemning the demolition of Ambedkar Bhawan in Mumbai. This section has lost the habit of foot- soldiering for enlightenment and building mass organization. On the other hand, even though his economic status has improved, fundraising for agitations and movements remains difficult as ever. Maratha agitations have solid backing of funds from the vested interests. Ambedkarite movement definitely doesn’t have such power.

Dadasaheb Rupwate used to say ‘the only tangible path to ensure no atrocities against Dalits is to have a solid unity between Savarna and Dalit progressive, egalitarian sections’. However, such unity crumbles fast in the caste-communally charged and vitiated atmosphere. Hence rationalists and progressives belonging to all sides should proactively intervene to diffuse tensions.

Instead of such counter-agitations, meetings and conferences (preferably titled ‘Dalit-Adivasi atrocities and reservations review conference’) should be organized across the state of Maharashtra as possibly the first step of intervention. Experts should be invited to participate in such meetings to discuss the real situation of how Atrocities Act and Reservations are being implemented. The spokespersons of ongoing Maratha agitations also should be invited for such conferences. Such conferences need to deliberate over objective examples of misuse of Atrocities Act, statistics for the same, as well as section-wise proposal for any amendment necessary in the Act itself. It is also quite important to investigate into the socio-economic pressures faced by Maratha and Dalit communities as well as other oppressed sections of the society. What is more, there is a need to explore how these pressures are rooted in the present system of governance policies, as well as the interests of the ruling classes. 

I would like to mention another point here which is necessary to recognize how big the challenge is. The term ‘Ambedkarite’ stands only for ‘neo-Buddhists’, at least such is the situation today. Non-Buddhist Dalits would not participate wholeheartedly in any such struggle today. The agitation of landless Dalits by Dadasaheb Gaikwad during 1960s was a glorious exception where Buddhists, non-Buddhist Dalits and Savarna landless laborers were united under the banner of Republican Party and Communist Party. After this struggle, the establishment leadership of Ambedkarite movement sidelined Dadasaheb Gaikwad and ensured that no such attempts at united agitations are made so that the non-Buddhists would not claim their share in the spoils. Mocking Mang, Chambhar, Dhor etc. non-Mahar Dalit communities which didn’t convert to Buddhism, keep insulting them like ‘it was our Babasaheb, from Mahar community who got reservations, which you are enjoying’ were routine which resulted in alienating the non-Buddhist Dalits. Certainly the attitude of these other castes towards Dr. Ambedkar, their leaders’ behavior etc. are also responsible for the rift. However, the Buddhist community didn’t follow its elderly responsibility of carrying every section of oppressed along. Hence, today, the Mang community formally places its allegiance to the slogan of ‘Jai Bheem’ however, it is more assertive internally over ‘Jai Lahuji’. In fact, this community has been demanding separate set of reservations for itself as it alleges that Buddhists corner away all the reserved seats. Chambhar community doesn’t even formally align itself with Ambedkarite ‘Jai Bheem’. In fact, the Chambhars in Maharashtra routinely complain that they have been mistakenly placed in the scheduled caste category.

BJP and Shiv Sena took into account this discomfort and unrest among the non-Buddhist Dalits about the Buddhists and got them on their side. In order to show how they treat all castes equally and not follow any casteist preferences, they gave significant representation of non-Buddhist Dalits in their ministries as well as assembly elections. RSS is appeasing the Buddhists on one hand. It is portraying that there is significant ideological convergence between RSS and Dr. Ambedkar turning him into its campaigner- volunteer of sorts. On the other hand, it is trying to wean the non-Buddhist Dalits away from Buddhists by invoking and asserting their ‘Hindu’ identity. Although Dalits and tribals are on similar footing in terms of atrocities act as well as reservations, the tribals are miles away from Dalits in terms of their political consciousness and leadership. These are the weak links as well as challenges lying in front of Ambedkarite movement today.

Ambedkarite community must ponder over this situation seriously. The activists should conduct regular meetings in their localities and take into cognizance the unfolding situation after Maratha Agitations. Our war is that of systemic transformation. It is a long-term, all-encompassing and holistic war. This war aims to emancipate all the oppressed sections (which includes Maratha community as well). The unfolding situation due to Maratha Agitation is an episodic rift. We should ensure that there are no compromises over the objectives of long-term war of emancipation. We should also ensure that we do not lose any of our allies and weaken our strength in such episodic battles. This is the sort of matured response warranted today.                                                         

P.S.: Dalit social reformers, writers and academicians are planning a conclave next week to discuss the unrest within the community sparked by the recent Maratha rallies. Community leaders have appealed to the Dalit youth not to take to the streets to counter the Marathas demanding the scrapping of The SC & the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

A report in ‘Scroll’ covers the different aspects of this agitation: ‘The Maratha mobilisation in Maharashtra is about more than the rape and murder of a teenager

Suresh Sawant is a noted marathi journalist. 
Rahul Vaidya is an independent researcher based in Delhi.

1 comment:

  1. One clarification: The note above was written by Suresh Sawant in Marathi. I translated it and wrote an introduction to contextualize it.


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