For a leader who has always prided himself on his socialist leanings, Nationalist Congress president Sharad Pawar seems to be frequently disconcerting political observers with remarks that can only be interpreted as casteist.
On Monday he was reported as saying the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act merited a fresh look to prevent its misuse. That instantly divided people down the middle. Not surprisingly, leaders of the Scheduled Castes who interpreted that comment to mean there is a move to dilute the provisions of this protective law were up in arms against the suggestion.
Pawar was swift to clarify, in a nuanced statement, that all he had said was the Act should not be misused – unlike MNS president Raj Thackeray’s position that the act should be scrapped altogether in case it was being majorly misused.
But on the flip side there are many others who believe that indeed the law is put to misuse many a time and, by Pawar’s own admission, this happens generally within a milieu where groups tend to politicise issues. There is some merit in that admission.
I believe, this is one issue where both sides of the argument are correct and there is no escaping the fact that while the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes need to be fiercely protected in both rural and urban areas of the country, there have been many instances of the law being used against people of upper castes merely to settle scores or gain political advantage. Why Pawar’s argument has drawn so much flak is also because it was made in the background of the Kopardi rape in Ahmednagar district in July this year, where a young girl from the Maratha community was brutally raped and murdered allegedly by some `Dalit’ youths.
The incident had shaken both authorities and sections of society with unceasing debate in Maharashtra’s polity over the issue.
Pawar, as I have often stressed, despite being out of power continues to be the most astute and politically savvy of leaders in Maharashtra with little challenge or match to his political prowess, at least so far. He has always been measured about his statements and public stands. But now he is being accused of having rather overstretched himself with observers convinced that he is greatly putting his reputation of being a “Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar’’ ideologue at risk (Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and BR Ambedkar, all of who fought bitterly for the upliftment of the socially and politically deprived masses in their time in the 19th and 20th centuries).
In the background of huge protests of Marathas in the rural hinterland fighting for reservations, but among those who may be also victims of the act’s misuse, I would tend to believe Pawar is attempting to achieve a fine balance regarding the concerns of both communities.
I am a little confused about where all this might lead.
Maharashtra is among the most progressive states in the country and with the Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar ethos that has gone down among the masses, I do not believe an Una-like incident might ever take place in this state. Having said that, it is also true that even today there are instances of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes being denied entry into temples in villages and sometimes, even killed for insisting on their rights to pray at a temple alongside upper castes.
Then, again, even in the urban milieu, there are cases of subtle and covert discrimination where people belonging to the upper castes are reluctant to share spaces with those lower down the rungs of the social ladder – any overt attempt at such discrimination would then, of course, also invite the risk of attracting the provisions of the atrocities act.
Why I think nothing is going to move the needle of discrimination against Dalits is because I have seen people in cities refuse to drink out of tumblers or cups as the lower castes – both subtle and telling case of discrimination,. That memory is from my days as a student.
Can anyone truly claim or believe that such incidents do not happen anywhere in this country any longer?