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Maharashtra protests: Why a split in Hindu vote is likely in 2019 elections

The widespread Dalit protests and sporadic violence in the state over the Bhima Koregaon flashpoint in Pune district are an indication that the run-up to the 2019 general elections won’t be the same.

analysis Updated: Jan 04, 2018 13:07 IST
Abhay Vaidya
Abhay Vaidya
Mumbai, Hindustan Times
Maharashtra bandh,Lok Sabha elections,Bhima Koregaon
Dalit protesters gather in Pune on Wednesday as a state-wide bandh disrupts life in Maharashtra. (Shankar Narayan/HT PHOTO)

Unlike the uni-directional, pro-development political wave that was seen in the run-up to the 2014 general elections in the country, the first signs of a tectonic shift in Maharashtra’s political terrain are now visible.

The widespread Dalit protests and sporadic violence in the state over the Bhima Koregaon flashpoint in Pune district are an indication that the run-up to the 2019 general elections won’t be the same. These are very clear signs of a sharp fragmentation of the Hindu voting population in Maharashtra.

Inspired by then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s campaign promise of the Gujarat Model of Development for the nation, Maharashtra voted for the BJP, rejecting incumbents Congress-NCP. Even the Shiv Sena was forced to play second fiddle to the BJP. The Dalits were nowhere in the reckoning because they too were swept by the promise of development: “sabka saath, sabka vikas”. Gripped by anxiety and panic that it would virtually lose its identity by being a model alliance partner to the BJP, the Shiv Sena preferred to taunt and criticise the Prime Minister at every given opportunity.

While the Congress in Maharashtra remained rudderless, the biggest political leader of the state, Sharad Pawar, increasingly dabbled in Maratha caste politics. However, as was seen from the massive silent protests (Muk Morchas) of the Marathas in Mumbai, Pune and other prominent cities of Maharashtra, the Maratha Kranti Morcha organisers made it known that they were disillusioned by politicians and political parties and therefore, kept them at more than an arm’s length.

Centered around the slogan ‘Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha’ (One Maratha is equivalent to one lakh Marathas), these morchas helped unite the community across the state. The disciplined and well-organised silent protests put up an impressive show of Maratha pride and solidarity with the participation of entire families. Even some NRI Marathas flew down from the USA and UK to take part in these morchas and express solidarity with members of their caste.

The demands were straightforward: swift justice in the Kopardi rape-and-murder case of a Maratha minor girl by Dalit youths (In November, three accused were convicted and sentenced to death), and reservations in jobs and educational institutions for the Maratha youth.

The Marathas constitute 33 per cent of Maharashtra’s population and have a decisive influence on 75 of the 288 assembly seats. While the politics of Maharashtra is largely controlled by the Marathas, the Dalits are poor, heavily fragmented and constitute 10% of the population.

While the Maratha community was satisfied that the Maharashtra police and government prosecutors did a fine job which led to the conviction and sentencing of the Dalit youths involved, the demand for reservations remains to be fulfilled in spite of assurances from the Maharashtra government as the matter is sub-judice.

The Dalits remained dormant for most of the last three-and-half years, although they were not unaffected by what was happening.

The assertiveness of the Marathas who were now competing for reservations in jobs and education — and a pliant BJP government — was unmistakable. Added to this was a deep sense of injustice among Dalits as alleged Maratha criminals went scot free in a heinous crime against Dalits unlike the Kopardi case in which Dalit perpetrators were sentenced to death for a similar crime against Marathas.

For a number of decades now, the Dalit masses in Maharashtra have been disillusioned by the fragmented leadership that has befallen their lot. Among their most prominent leaders, Ramdas Athawale (RPI-A) is a BJP union minister and his rival Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of Babasaheb Ambedkar, leads the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (RPI) which lacks political influence.

The 200th anniversary of the British victory against the Peshwas in the Battle of Koregaon has special significance for Dalits because of the decisive role played by the untouchable Mahars in defeating the Peshwas. The celebrations this year on January 1 were all the more special because of the bicentenary of that battle.

Given the backdrop of the Dalit-Maratha tension in Maharashtra, especially over the last two years, the state government and the district administration should have been better prepared to diffuse tensions and maintain law and order.

Violence erupted at the nearby village of Vadu Budruk on December 29 where some Dalits put up a board in front of a memorial to one Govind Gopal Mahar, claiming that he had courageously performed the last rites of Sambhaji Maharaj, son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, in defiance of an imperial order from the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. This provoked the Maratha community in the village who protested that this was not a fact of history. Soon clashes broke out amidst allegations that the samadhis of Mahar and Sambhaji were damaged by miscreants, resulting in the death of one youth and sparking state-wide unrest.

In Pune, the bicentenary celebrations were organised notably at Shaniwarwada itself — the seat of the Peshwa empire. Speakers included Prakash Ambedkar, Dalit performers of the Kabir Kala Manch (who had spent time in prison on allegations of being Maoist sympathizers), former Bombay high court judge BG Kolse Patil, JNU student leader Umar Khalid facing sedition charges and branded anti-national by the BJP and the ABVP, and the newly-elected Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani. Dalit politics in Maharashtra is likely to become more dynamic from here on.

The state-wide protests are an indication that the Dalits of Maharashtra have found vent to their suppressed emotions and are trying to become assertive. There is a cry for new leadership. Politics in Maharashtra is unlikely to be the same again as the heat builds in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

First Published: Jan 04, 2018 13:06 IST