The near-anarchy and violence that hit several urban centres in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, on Thursday would have been cause for greater alarm had they continued on Friday. Thankfully, calm has been restored in most places. In that sense, the violence has not followed the path that was taken by the upheaval of November 2005 that hit the suburbs of Paris and other French cities. Through history, Dalits have faced terrible social oppression. Despite great ameliorative measures since Independence, they continue to battle social inequity. But the nearly century-old history of the modern Dalit movement against caste oppression — whether led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar or Kanshi Ram and Mayawati — has never taken recourse to violence. Dalits have worked within the bounds of the Constitution to demand their rights. They have achieved a great deal, even if we have a long way to go before all traces of social discrimination are wiped out. Considering the sheer scale of injustice that the Dalits have faced, and continue to face, this is a remarkable record.
There are several explanations for Thursday’s violence. The simplest is that they reflect an upsurge of unemployed and underemployed young people, perhaps overwhelmingly Dalit. The desecration of Babasaheb’s statue in Kanpur, the recent Khairlanji incident and other reported incidents of violence against Dalits were a trigger to set off an inflammable mixture of emotions. Another explanation is that the Dalits who enjoy better education and status than their counterparts elsewhere, are more ready to take to violence as a means of expressing their rage. This is compounded by the fact that, in Maharashtra, the Dalit movement is divided into more than a dozen factions which may have given rise to competitive militancy, and detracted from effective leadership of political protest. There is another possibility. Given the quick return to normalcy, it is also possible that the torching of trains was carried out by elements of the Mumbai underworld, always ready to fish in troubled waters.
Whatever the cause of the explosion, one thing is apparent — the failure of the administration to anticipate and deal with the event. Politicians who run the state government have been shown up for their inability to cope with either the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha, or events like the Mumbai cloudburst of 2005. They lack the skills to govern a state with complex needs, especially in its multi-layered urban conglomerations. This message has been coming across loud and clear, though one is not sure whether anyone is listening.