In the beginning it all seemed like a simple water dispute in a severely drought prone district of Maharashtra. But then the water burst into flames, shaking the entire political establishment in the state and waking them to the reality of a possible Dalit uprising in various parts of Maharasthra.
· On May 13, 2003 a Maratha family in Bhutegaon village of Jalna district burnt alive a Dalit youth, Dilip Shende, after a fracas over filling up buckets with water at a public water tap. Shende's mother and sister also sustained severe injuries in the incident.
· Bhutegaon was soon followed by Anvi Bangala in Banaour tehsil and Gunjmurthi in Ghansavanagi tehsil in Jalna district.
· Then came the beating up of some Dalits in Beed last Sunday.
· On Monday the police in Aurangabad recovered the body of a 11 year old Dalit girl earlier reported missing.
Dalit activists went on a rampage in the district and no one could ignore the atrocities on one section of society anymore. The state's first Dalit Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is at pains to state that he is considering applying the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) and Prevention of Terrorists Act (POTA) to the perpetrators of atrocities against Dalits. This is a dead giveaway of the extent of the problem facing the Chief Minister, considering these offences are already punishable under an equally draconian Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes act.
But the Chief Minister knows more than he is publicly letting on. He has been quite disturbed to notice the pattern in the attacks, which have so far not invited much protest from the otherwise pro-active Dalit leaders in the State. That is because every one of the Dalits attacked in the past few weeks comes from the Matang community who are not untouchables. Their traditional function in society has been that of water carriers and they have held themselves aloof from the "republican'' Dalits - followers of Dr Babsaheb Ambedkar - considering themselves a notch above the untouchables on the social ladder.
But now they are interested in a little bit of social engineering and have been increasingly raising their voice for an exclusive share of the reservation pie ? they abhor being clubbed and included with all other Dalits.
It is also not a coincidence that the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has recently launched a fight for the Dalit vote which is a substantial 15 per cent in Marathwada, around 25 per cent in Vidarbha and between ten and 15 per cent in the rest of the State. The Sena has been disturbed by the ascent of Shinde to office in Maharashtra. The Chief Minister is a Hindu Dalit and Bal Thackeray has always claimed Hindu Dalits for his own. Now he is no longer certain which way the pendulum will swing and is afraid of a split in the Hindu Dalit vote. The substantial neo-Buddhist Dalit vote is with the Congress-NCP combine but it is the Congress which stands to lose the most if Dalits were to swing away from the party ? the NCP can compensate itself with the Maratha vote. And in all of the recent atrocities, Dalits have been pitted against the Maratha supporters of the NCP.
Not surprisingly the three major Dalit factions in the State (Ramdas Athawale, MP and ally of the NCP, Dr Prakash Ambedkar, MP and ally of the Congress and Gangadhar Gade, once minister in the Vilasrao Deshmukh cabinet and most recent friend of the Shiv Sena) are all blaming each other and doing little for the victimised matangs.
Noted Dalit intellectual Dr R Pantavane sees the Sena's latest Shiv Shakti-Bhimshakti experiment behind the unrest among Dalits in the state. But their attempt at social engineering might all come to nought, he says. "While in power it was the Sena which withdrew over 1000 cases of atrocities against Dalits and stalled an equal number of investigations under the prevention of atrocities law. They also bitterly and fiercely opposed the renaming of the Marathwada university after Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar." He thinks the atrocities law has failed in letter and spirit and is all out for the CM's move to bring a POTA like law to fight the problem.
But according to Gade violence against Dalits has been largely reported in areas where the earlier cases of atrocities were not properly investigated or tried. Gade believes there is no need for a POTA like act as the prevention law has enough teeth. "But before any of that, we have to try to establish social equality."
A tall order? But at least he is trying. Unlike other Dalit leaders he does not want a share of power just at the top, he wants it filtering down to the grass roots at the zilla parishad level so that Dalits can be universally empowered. But none of the major political parties is prepared to pay the price. A Dalit uprising might yet happen.