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BJP’s challenge in Maharashtra: Keeping Dalits on its side

Party keen to avoid repeat of 1997 Ramabai Nagar firing, after which it lost support of community; burden now on CM Fadnavis’ shoulders

mumbai Updated: Jan 09, 2018 12:17 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad
Shailesh Gaikwad
Hindustan Times
Wednesday’s Maharashtra bandh saw Dalits protesting on Mumbai’s streets in large numbers.
Wednesday’s Maharashtra bandh saw Dalits protesting on Mumbai’s streets in large numbers.(Bachchan Kumar)
         

As Dalit groups staged protests in various parts of the city and state, there was a sense of déjà vu for some in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The immediate question on their mind was: Will the Bhima-Koregaon incident turn into another Ramabai Nagar case?

In 1997, 10 people were killed after the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) opened fire on Dalit groups protesting at Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Nagar following the desecration of a statue of Dr Ambedkar nearby. The incident put the then Shiv Sena-BJP government on the defensive. A judicial probe was ordered. The SRPF, in its defence, said they opened fire to control the violent mob. The episode, however, led to mistrust among the Dalits towards the saffron combine. As a result, the community drifted away from the alliance and rallied behind the Congress-NCP during the 1999 Assembly elections. This was regarded as one of the reasons why the Sena-BJP combine was voted out of power then.

As chief minister Devendra Fadnavis tries to control the political damage caused over the past two days, the party will expect him to convince the Dalit community — which forms 10% of the state’s population — that the Bhima-Koregaon case won’t be a repetition of the Ramabai Nagar incident.

In July 1997, 10 people were killed after the State Reserve Police Force opened fire on Dalit groups protesting at Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Nagar following the desecration of a statue of Dr Ambedkar nearby.
In July 1997, 10 people were killed after the State Reserve Police Force opened fire on Dalit groups protesting at Ghatkopar’s Ramabai Nagar following the desecration of a statue of Dr Ambedkar nearby.

This will be his second biggest challenge, after his handling of the massive Maratha protests last year. Compared to the Marathas, Dalits are fewer, but they form an important element of Maharashtra’s political arithmetic.

The incidents over the past three days — in which some Dalit outfits were seen venting their ire at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP — have come as a setback to the BJP’s plans to woo the Dalit community. During the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the party managed to get the attention of a community that was traditionally tilted towards Congress and socialist parties. With Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India (A) joining the BJP-led front, the party secured the community’s votes at several places.

On Wednesday, as Dalit youths took to the streets in large numbers, their common complaint was that the government responded to upper castes such as the Marathas immediately, but ignored the Dalits’ demands.

With Maratha outfits planning to revive the agitations for reservation in government jobs and education, the government can’t afford the Dalits targeting it.

“The BJP has been on the defensive. First they tried to paint it as a Maratha-versus-Dalit caste war. Then they blamed us. If you lose trust of a community it is difficult to get it back,” said a senior Congress leader.

Political analysts said the Fadnavis government will have to assure the Dalits no injustice will be meted out to them.

“The ruling BJP will have to handle the issue carefully. It will help the party politically if its approach is all-inclusive,” said political analyst B Venkatesh Kumar.

A senior BJP minister, however, ruled out the notion that the Dalit community would go against his party.

“The anger is more of a reaction to the Maratha community’s aggression seen throughout last year. Maharashtra has a history of Maratha-versus-Dalit tussle so we don’t think it will be aimed at us. As long as political calculations are concerned, things can change. We have Athawale on our side. He is still popular among Dalits in Mumbai, Pune, Nashik,”he added.

Significantly, the Opposition, Congress-NCP, are trying to ensure that the issues doesn’t take a Maratha-versus-Dalit angle. As such, its leaders are pointing out the involvement of right-wing fringe elements in the Pune clashes.

First Published: Jan 05, 2018 12:27 IST

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