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Caste conflict in Maharashtra test for CM Fadnavis

Saturday, January 06, 2018
By Prakash Bal Joshi

Caste conflicts in Maharashtra are not recent but the Dalit outburst this week in Mumbai Pune and other parts of the state leading to paralyzing movements is unprecedented. The Koregaon Bhima incident related with historical event of 1818 led to violent disturbance.

Last time Dalits had protested was Khairlanji incident and had also come out on streets of Mumbai on the riddles issue related with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s book published by the state government. The riddles morcha to Hutatma Chowk was perhaps the last massive morcha Mumbai had seen but it had remained peaceful. The recent Maharashtra Bandh call given by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, was responded by several Dalit organisations with a hope that it would lead to unite warring factions within Ambedkarites.  

The failure of law and order was witnessed as the authorities must have given orders to remain soft on the demonstrators who brought down shutters during Bandh Day in areas where Dalits dominated in major cities in the state. The Youth who died in Koregaon Bhima incident turned out to be Maratha but it led to sporadic but spontaneous protests by Dalits in Pune and Mumbai but Bandh organised next day led to disruption of normal traffic and damage to public and private properties. According to organisers of Bandh, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, are the two right-wing activists who sparked trouble. Mumbai has not seen such Bandh in recent times.

Dalit violence can turn in to a poll issue
Presence of Jignesh Mevani and his provocative speech is also being processed by authorities with Shiv Sena mouth piece Samna accusing leaders from outside responsible for violence created in the state and asking Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to come out of “election mode” and take action to maintain law and order situation. This is going to be toughest challenge for Fadnavis as question mark is being raised against his ability to control law and order situation. There appears to be larger game plane behind the developments in Maharashtra which had seen relative peace. In Gujarat, Anandiben Patel was removed after failure of law and order and failure to handle caste conflicts in the state.

In Maharashtra also, caste conflicts and use of caste as major factor in elections is not new. In fact, during two last general elections issues like James Lane were raised and forgotten to garner votes.

Dalit unity has remained a mirage in Maharashtra as several attempts have been made to bring factions of Republican Party of India (RPI) and other Dalit organisations under one banner. RPI remains divided due to personality clashes of leaders leading factions by Union Minister Ramdas Athawale, Prakash Ambedkar, Gavai and Khobragade groups. Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayavati has also tried to enter Maharashtra and play major role in Dalit politics but failed.

It was Sharad Pawar who had done successful social engineering in 1990s to win over Dalits to face rising BJP-Shiv Sena combine in the state. As a part of his pact with RPI, he had won over Ramdas Athawale faction and made him a minister in his cabinet. Despite giving seats in the assembly elections to the RPI Athawale group, the party had failed to win a single seat as transfer of votes from other communities to Athawale candidate did not happen. Despite defat of RPI Athawale candidates, Pawar made Athawale social welfare minister in his cabinet as a part of the pact with RPI Athawale group. PrakashAmbedkar has been closer to left parties and non-BJP non-Congress parties right from beginning and was closer to former Prime Minister V P Singh. When Pawar left the Congress, and set up the NCP, Athawale decided to side with him rather than join hands with the Congress. He was upset when he was defeated from a constituency in Ahmednagar district which was under total influence of the Congress-NCP.  

Now that Athawale has preferred to align with the NDA led by Bhartiya Janata Party, the Congress as well as the Pawar led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are worried over Dalit support in the state.  They have seen how it affected their fortunes in elections held in 2014 for the Parliament as well as the state legislative assembly. Athawale who had forged an alliance with the Shiv Sena as a part of Shiv Shakti-Bhim Shakti programme of Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray later shifted his alliance with the BJP as the Sena refused to send him to the Rajya Sabha and ultimately, he reached the Rajya Sabha and later the union cabinet with the BJP support. During assembly elections held in 2014, Athawale remained with the BJP. Sena is now supported by RPI leader Arjun Dangle who left Athawale when he supported the BJP and set up his own party. Sena realised the importance of Dalit votes.  

Dalit leaders from the state have always been weary of Dalit leaders from other states. Though there are impact of what happened in Maharashtra in other states, the Dalit leaders in the state have made it clear that there is no scope or need for joining hands with leaders like Jignesh Mawani who had teamed up with Congress president Rahul Gandhi during the Gujarat assembly elections and got elected as an independent with the Congress leader.

Ambedkar can enhane Dalit unity
The Bandh call was given by Prakash Ambedkar who was feeling left out with Athawale stealing the lime light has once again come to centre stage of Dalit politics in Maharashtra. He has been trying to forge a larger alliance of backward classes and downtrodden caste groups in the state through his Bhartiya Republican Party and succeeded in Akola Yavatmal districts. With Dr Ambedkar’s legacy behind him and his balanced social view, he can play a major role provided the larger unity of Dalit factions is achieved first followed by bonding with other castes and groups in rural Maharashtra. The Dalit GenNext armed with aspirations and education wants peace and prosperity and would not be satisfied with mere emotional issues. They will prefer pragmatic leader, committed to Ambedkarites values, and would not depend only on emotional issues.

The issue reverberated in Parliament which was considering triple talaq bill and led to acrimonious debate. The BJP was on backfoot launching a frontal attack on the Congress for adopting cast politics to divide votes and seek selective support for electoral advantage. They pointed out how Congress president Rahul Gandhi had played caste politics by seeking support from Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore who were leading caste based agitations in Gujarat.

The Congress has hit back blaming the BJP for its policies leading to violence in most of the BJP ruled states which was dividing the country on communal grounds. They attacked the government for not taking action against the fringe saffron groups who were taking law into their own hands without any fear of government machinery.  The trouble in Maharashtra seems to have this background of fight between the Congress and the BJP over larger political game plan.

Apart from political angle to trouble in Maharashtra and emotional outpour by Dalit community, it is not in the interest of social harmony in the state which has been eluding it for quite long. The presence of so many social reformers and saints who have been advocating social harmony and balance, petty politics of vote bank has vitiated atmosphere in the state. Wounds will take time to heal, but it is duty of every party to ensure that power politics does not over ride interests of the state and people.

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