Maharashtra protests: Why have Dalit outfits become aggressive?
For two days, Mumbai was held to ransom by Dalit protestors. Other parts of the state of Maharashtra, including Pune, were affected too, with law enforcement officials and administrators completely under-estimating the number of Dalits who would participate in the protests. It’s to the credit of the police that they avoided the use of force to prevent an already volatile situation from flaring up.
But what explains the magnitude and intensity of the protests?
The immediate provocation was the attack on the people who participated in the January 1 function at Bhima-Koregaon in Pune district to mark 200 years of a battle between the British Army’s Mahar regiment and the Peshwa’s army (Mahar is a Hindu caste name of Dalits). The function was seen as an assertion of Dalit identity by some groups and the attack on it as a challenge to the same.
The Pune incident evoked a strong reaction from the community, although it turned out later that the one person killed during it was actually from the Maratha community.
In some way, the reaction of the Dalit groups should be seen as a reaction to the agitation staged by the politically and socially powerful Maratha community last year, demanding reservation in government jobs and education, and the scrapping of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. That protest did not go down well with the Dalits since the act works as a deterrent against atrocities by locally dominant castes, especially the Marathas, in several parts of the state.
There is yet another angle to the protests: established Dalit leaders in Maharashtra are also insecure about their hold on the community. They aren’t too keen on Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit leader, getting a toehold in Maharashtra. Mevani may become popular among the young Dalits in Maharashtra, many of whom are not happy with their current leaders. As such, established leaders became aggressive in their show of strength on the roads during the agitation on Tuesday and Wednesday. Even Union minister Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India (A) — a constituent of the ruling NDA — participated in the protest.
The incident would have turned into a Maratha versus Dalit caste war but for the allegations against two right-wing leaders, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote. The police have filed cases against them for instigating villagers against the Bhima-Koregaon event. Both of them are known to be close to BJP leaders. If the allegations against them are found to be true, it may lead to mistrust for the BJP among the Dalits.
It is not clear whether the protests will fizzle out or linger. However, if the resentment that was evident on the streets of Mumbai and other areas is any indication, things are likely to have an impact on state politics.
If the episode leads to a Maratha-versus-Dalit conflict in the state, the ruling BJP stands to gain as it can forge a partnership with Dalits and Other Backward Classes, which are already locked in a power tussle with Marathas in Maharashtra. That was seen in the aftermath of the Maratha protests, with the BJP sweeping municipal-district council polls. The Maratha-Kunbi communities account for around 30% of the state’s population, while OBCs account for more than a third. Dalits make up less than 10%.
“There has been confusion among the Dalits over choosing a political side, especially since Athawale went with the BJP in 2014. However, this week’s incidents have revived memories of the vicious caste struggles during the Peshwa era. This may lead to mistrust towards the ruling side. The BJP will have to do a balancing act if it wants to keep the Dalit community on its side,” said Pratap Asbe, a political analyst. “The protests may even lead to a new chapter in the Dalit identity politics.”