As the brutal rape and murder of a minor girl in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district last week takes on a caste angle, the state government is on its toes trying to prevent clashes in the region, especially after the unrest in neighbouring Gujarat and anger among the Dalit community over the Ambedkar Bhavan demolition in the city.
The three accused in the case are Dalits, while the minor belonged to the dominant Maratha community in her village Kopardi. Sources in the government said this has sharpened the caste divide in a district that has seen several incidents of caste violence in the past few years.
Stopping political leaders from visiting the village is among the many steps the government has taken.
Ramdas Athawale, the Union minister of state for social justice, cancelled his Saturday visit to Kopardi following a request from chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Athawale said the victim’s parents too had declined to meet him. “The parents sent me a message saying they do not wish to see me, and hence I cancelled my visit. Even the chief minister requested me not to visit the place owing to some tension,” he said.
Earlier this week, the police stopped Dalit leaders Prakash Ambedkar and Jogendra Kawade from going to the village. Ambedkar said the police stopped him saying the villagers had planned to throw tomatoes and onions at him.
The incident has sparked protests by regional Maratha outfits, such as Chhawa and Shiv Prahar, while Dalit families in the village, who make up about one-fourths of the 3,000-strong population, have fled fearing a backlash.
The police, too, are not taking any chances. They have deployed a huge force to tackle the situation and have placed round-the-clock security near the houses of the accused.
The girl, a Class 8 student, was gang-raped, tortured and murdered by three Dalit labourers when she was on her way home from her grandfather’s house.
A few days after the incident, sources said there were protests in Kopardi, but the initial apathy from politicians resulted in it spreading to neighbouring villages, and later, to the adjoining Marathwada region, seen as a cauldron of caste politics in Maharashtra.
The area is part of south Ahmednagar, which shares borders with Marathwada region. It has a sizeable Dalit population and a history of conflict between the socially-backward castes and the upper castes, especially the politically powerful Maratha community.
The divide is so strong that Athawale, a prominent Dalit leader, lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket even though the area was known to be a Congress stronghold.
Athawale was defeated by Bhausaheb Wakchaure, a novice in politics, contesting on Shiv Sena ticket.
“We are being extra cautious because the slightest provocation could snowball into a major reaction as the locally dominant community is angry over what has happened. We would prefer if politicians and community leaders avoid coming here and fuelling any sentiments,” said a senior police officer who did not wish to be named.
Political commentator Tushar Jagtap said it was unfortunate that the incident has acquired caste angle. “The Marathas are angry over their losing clout and this incident of Dalits having committed the crime has ruffled them considerably,” said Jagtap. The state government, already facing heat over the Ambedkar Bhavan demolition, does not want to embroil itself in another controversy and hence is doing everything to maintain law and order situation.