An unprecedented wave of social unrest including silent rallies by Marathas, crime and apparent political patronage to criminals is pushing Maharashtra towards a spiral of turmoil.
The latest in this series is the alleged attempt to rape a minor girl by a juvenile Talegaon near Trimbakeshwar in Nashik district.
The unrest forced authorities to suspend mobile internet services for the first time in any district in the state while police arrested at least seven WhatsApp administrators for vitiating the atmosphere with provocative posts.
The five year old child was reported safe and unharmed and swift action was taken against the alleged culprit. But the incident which came after the gangrape and murder of a Marathi teen by Dalit youths in Kopardi Ahmednagar district in July, once again brought the communities in conflict with each other
Nashik erupted in arson and other forms of violence. All these incidents happened in villages, seven of which are still under curfew, and not in larger towns or cities as might have been the case previously.
Political leadership missing
Amid the disturbance there was a lack of political leadership to calm the situation. It was the Nashik police which contained the violence with its independent action and community interactions.
“Where is the political leadership?” asks Professor Sudhir Gavhane of the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University.
“Safety of women was always an issue in the large towns and metropolises but now this disease has spread even to the villages. Such acts have a direct co-relation with the failure of government policies in the rural areas over the years and the inability of those in active politics today, both government and opposition, to understand the issues and defuse the situation,” he says.
Gavhane, who has deeply studied social and political issues troubling the country, says Marathas have set an example before the country through their silent morchas which should be a lesson to communities like the Patidars of Gujarat and Jats of Haryana who were rather violent in their agitations demanding similar reservations.
But the fact that Marathas are on the streets in the first place is not because they want reservations per se but the failure of the farming sector and the inability of various governments to either spot the crisis or stem the consequences, he adds.
The Maratha agitation which is without a leadership worries Gavhave.
“I am deeply concerned that if a leader does not soon emerge to take charge of the Maratha agitations, anything could happen and the state could go up in flames,” he cautions.
As Nashik almost did last week with the flames spreading towards Pune where there were some clashes between two communities in Lohegaon. The police once again brought the situation under control with no political leaders in sight.
Political and social interactions are essential, stresses Gavhane. “Police are only law enforcers.”
Political patronage for criminals
However, the police themselves under attack by criminal elements everywhere. Apart from traffic cops who have been beaten up, even killed, by common citizens for simply doing their duty, even top cops in some parts of the state have been recently threatened with knives and other weapons while on duty.
A former police officer, Dhanraj Vanjari, last week led a morcha of families of such police personnel who were attacked to the Raj Bhavan to petition the Governor for their safety. Why not to Mantralaya? “What’s the use of appealing to ministers who do not do their jobs?”’ he questions in return. “The goons who are attacking the cops have political patronage. All political parties whether in government or opposition support such goondaism. No action is going to be taken against them by political authorities.”
“This kind of lawlessness with political patronage used to be common in parts of some North Indian states. That seems to have travelled to Maharashtra and is threatening to tear apart the state’s social fabric,” says Gavhane.
He clarifies that he does not mean that it is migrants from North India who are creating the unrest. “They are local Maharashtrians but lawlessness now seems to have seeped into the culture of a previously lawful state. I am not saying that we never had any problems but it was never as bad as it is now.”
That, he says, is because of the lack of statesmanship among Maharashtra’s political leaders, including those from the opposition. “They should immediately have tried to calm the situation in both Kopardi and Talegaon. But all they wanted to do was to throw barbs at each other instead of taking citizens into confidence and soothing their frayed nerves.”
Dr Neelam Gorhe, leader of the women’s cell of the Shiv Sena seems to agree. She holds the guardian minister of Nashik District (Girish Mahajan) responsible for jumping the gun in announcing that the minor girl was unharmed when that announcement should have been left to doctors and the police.
“Mahajan’s eagerness to bypass the authorities gave the impression of an attempted cover-up by the government and led to immediate eruption of violence in the district,” she alleges.
Reacting to the incident of an arms haul from the home of a BJP functionary, Gorhe says, “During the police raid, they almost stuck a knife into the officer’s stomach. What does this mean? That they are not afraid of the law authorities anymore?”
That corroborates both Vanjari’s and Gavhane’s theories that goons in Maharashtra today live under political patronage.
On Thin Ice
Gorhe says that while Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is doing his best to calm the situation, elements within his party are attempting to destabilise his government.
Amid the unrest only one leader has shown statesman-like qualities -- Prakash Ambedkar of the local political party Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM).
“After both the Kopardi and Talegaon incidents, he chose not to incite passions. He first prevented retaliatory morchas by Dalits against Marathas and now, after Talegaon, has called for stern action against the alleged rapist while at the same time appealing to people not to vitiate the atmosphere while maintaining law and order at all times.”
Who was that message for – Marathas or Dalits? “Both are equal offenders,” says Murtuza Kachwalla, a senior journalist from Nashik “No one is less guilty than the other in adding to the tensions.”
But as Maharashtra continues to sit on what could be a tinderbox, sociologists and political scientists fear more chaos and unrest to follow.
The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @sujataanandan