For some time now, I have been studying the socio-politics and socio-economics of Maharashtra and trying to make sense of its various community configurations.
In the 1990s, the then chief minister Sharad Pawar attempted some social engineering during the rehabilitation of earthquake victims in Latur and faced resistance. The government had decided to resettle the people on the basis of economic status, rather than social norms. Which meant you could end up with just about anybody as your neighbour. When I spoke to one of the women who was at the centre of the protest I was startled to discover it was not food habits or religion that was affecting her sensibilities. “I am willing to accept a Muslim as my neighbour and I have no problems with their kurbani during Id. But I will not live beside a Maang or a Mahar!”
Maangs and Mahars were considered among the lowest in the caste hierarchy and Pawar attempted to blunt the edge of their social ostracism. But he did not succeed. Although the government was firm in its resolution to mix up the castes in the villages and get rid of their enclaves, dig a common well and build a temple and mosque at opposite ends of the village, the resistance was huge. The lower castes got socially boycotted — finally, it was they who appealed for a special zone for themselves so that they could be at peace with their neighbours.
Decades later, little has changed. Now chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is trying to address the issue by bringing forward a Bill to outlaw such social boycott. Resistance, this time, is coming from his own party, many who believe this attempt at social engineering will hurt the BJP. Fadnavis has been compelled to seek advice from the Centre about the Bill —I am not sure Delhi will oblige.
Even the Congress and NCP, for over 15 years of their rule in the state, dragged their feet over a Bill to outlaw superstitions and witch-hunting. It was the killing of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar that energised the government to disregard the objections of the Shiv Sena and the BJP, and pass it in the legislature. But despite that the law is not being implemented in the manner it should.
I can understand Fadnavis’ need to bring forward a progressive law like the one he is propounding because in the past year it has become obvious, despite the tectonic shift in the polity of the state, the social ethos remains rational and progressive. Villagers are getting highly rattled by some of the regressive programmes of this government, particularly the ban on beef. This has less to do with Muslims and Dalits who may have been large-scale consumers and more with farmers in a drought-racked state unable to sell their cattle or keep them fed. Many have been abandoning their cattle in the nearest towns — the increasing number of unclaimed cattle in Maharashtra’s cities is noticeable.
Earlier there was a lot of disgust among villagers against the rural elite like the Pawars or the Deshmukhs. According to Prakash Pawar of the Shivaji University in Kolhapur, it was visible during both the elections in 2014 that the Marathas had been isolated by other groups. But the upper-caste domination in government continues and the lack of progressive policies disappoint them. Given this, I believe Fadnavis is on track with his anti-social boycott Bill. But will he be allowed to become the liberal face of the BJP?
The answer, I guess, is already blowing in the wind.