Nothing new with caste-wars; castes have always been part of Maharashtra politics

Maharashtra is described as a socially progressive state but the fact is that castes are an integral part of life in the state as is the case across India.

mumbai Updated: Jan 09, 2018 00:24 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad
Shailesh Gaikwad
Hindustan Times
Mumbai news,Maharashtra politcis,shailesh Gaikwad
Caste-based clashes like the one at Bhima-Koregaon have always been a part of Maharashtra politics.(HT File)

The recent violent protests following attacks on visitors from Dalit community to a memorial of Mahar regiment soldiers in British army at Bhima-Koregaon in Pune district rattled many. This was not the first time the state saw tension between castes.

In fact, this time it was more of a localised tussle than a caste war over any particular issue. There were frowns over the caste-war being rekindled and how Maharashtra was going backwards. Similar sentiments were expressed when massive Maratha protest marches were taken out last year. Well, the fact is that the tussle between castes or show of strength by a caste or group of castes is not new. It has been happening in Maharashtra for decades.

Maharashtra is described as a socially progressive state but the fact is that castes are an integral part of life in the state as is the case across India. It is an integral part of individual life especially when it comes to decisions such as marriages. More importantly, they play a significant role in politics which has an impact on our lives. It is an open secret how almost all political parties take into account caste-calculations while planning their strategies and deciding candidates for elections.

Further, while forming a government after winning elections, caste becomes an important factor followed by region while forming the state council of ministers. In the run-up to the elections, ruling parties take a series of decisions aimed at appeasing various castes. Maharashtra has politically dominant Maratha-Kunbi communities a little over 30%. They face challenge from the Other Backward Classes (OBC) that are collectively more than one-third but are hardly together. Vanjari (a trading community that settled in farming), Mali (gardeners) and Dhangar (shepherds) are three major OBC castes. The Scheduled Castes (SC) are a little over 10%, Scheduled Tribes (ST) are 8%, Muslims 12% and remaining chunk includes smaller communities.

Traditionally, Marathas support the Congress and lately, also its clone the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The OBCs are divided in their support to four prominent parties in the state. Among Dalits, Hindu Dailts are divided between Congress, BJP and Shiv Sena while Neo-Buddhists (those who belonged to Mahar caste before they converted to Buddhism) are largely with the Congress and factions of Republican Party of India.

These calculations changed to a significant extent in 2014 elections as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign was focused on development and used corruption as a plank. Both these factors appealed several voters beyond the caste lines. This doesn’t mean the BJP didn’t use the caste calculations. In fact, late Vasantrao Bhagwat, a key leader of the party came up with the `Madhavam’ formula which meant combining Mali, Dhangar, Vanjari and Maratha communities to build party’s base in Maharashtra. Accordingly, leaders from these communities were identified and brought forward.

The most popular among them was late Gopinath Munde who came from Vanjari community. In fact, top politicians in recent decades such as NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde and Vilasrao Deshmukh knew caste calculations in the state very well and planned their strategies accordingly.

Maratha community looked at late Y B Chavan (the first chief minister of the state) and later Pawar as their towering leaders. When Pawar floated NCP after breaking away from the Congress, he chose Chhagan Bhujbal, an OBC leader, as the face of his party which was being described as a pro-Maratha party.

Though the caste-calculations in theory could be an interesting subject to study state’s politics, in reality it is far from being progressive. In the past five decades, since Maharashtra was formed, caste-wars have shown their ugly face. Several cases of injustice were not probed and the guilty probably went scot-free because of the influence their castes wielded.

Latest is the Bhima-Koregaon episode. It is yet not clear who was responsible for the trouble but thousands of people had to face inconvenience. And it may not be over yet. The political parties and politicians will continue to use castes for their benefit.

First Published: Jan 09, 2018 00:24 IST