A heinous gang-rape and murder of a girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district has created ripples in Maharashtra. Several Maratha groups are taking out morchas (marches), demanding amendments to the law against atrocities against Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), commonly called the Anti-Atrocities Act. The state government is handling the situation adroitly, neither refusing to take cognizance of these morchas, nor giving them undue importance.
In Maharashtra, it has become customary for any politician to start public speeches by paying tributes to social reformers Mahatma Phule, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Sadly, these politicians are seen doing precious little to spread their message of social equality, justice and harmony in their own respective communities. This has created a huge backlog on the front of genuine mindset changing.
Before Independence, the Brahmin-non-Brahmin divide had dominated politics in the state. This divide was accentuated after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, as many Brahmin families faced violent reactions from sections of the society. Today, Brahmins are no more a political force to reckon with. But with the rise of other backward classes (OBCs) as a sizeable bloc, at least in certain pockets, Maratha groups feel threatened that their domination may come to an end. Of late, several Maratha groups have become restive, leading to community mobilization demanding job quotas, an issue under active consideration of the state government. In this backdrop, such a legitimate movement, conducted peacefully so far, need not cause paranoia. Most parties have so far—at least overtly—avoided the lure of vote-bank politics too. Notably, most morchas have been conducted either as an all-party activity or a non-partisan community initiative.
Restraint from established political parties is remarkable as most municipal corporations in this highly urbanized state are going for local elections in another six months. The morchas are noteworthy also because the state, and especially Marathwada, had witnessed caste conflicts in the late 1980s during the movement for renaming Marathwada University after Ambedkar. But then, it is equally true that renaming was widely supported in the thinking circles. Similarly, in early 1980s when Shiv Sena led a movement for a ban on Ambedkar’s Riddles of Rama, most Hindutva organizations took a reasoned, accommodative approach, steadfastly opposing a ban.
What is more noteworthy is the approach of SC leaders, mainly those belonging to the Ambedkarite or Dalit movement. So far, there is no knee-jerk reaction from them. In fact, except for a statement by Prakash Ambedkar, no leader has held any political group responsible for mobilization against the Anti-Atrocities Act. All these groups deserve to be congratulated for their mature and balanced approach. Besides, this provides us with reason to hope that social harmony—rightly considered as extremely fragile—will remain intact and the society will respond to every situation with reason and restraint, refusing to take to any kind of violence even in the face of provocations from some groups.
Those clamouring for changes in the existing Anti-Atrocities Act and those who believe that the current Act is their saviour deserve compliments for two reasons.
Firstly, organizers of these morchas need to be complimented for not allowing their movement to be hijacked by any politician. Secondly, the Dalit or SC/ST leaders deserve commendation for restraining their followers from taking to the streets with counter-morchas. However, for real meeting of minds and genuine harmony leading to enduring peace, more needs to be done. There could be some short-term measures mainly for not allowing the situation to take any ugly turn. Social harmony gatherings for all major communities involving saner community leaders who would take a conciliatory approach could be conducted to give voice to the integrationist sections, who are in majority.
Insofar as long-term measures are concerned, all irritants in the path of greater social harmony need to be weeded out. One such would be concerted and result-oriented campaigns to ensure that all quota seats are filled in from people of the respective social group. Filling vacant quota seats temporarily with people from other groups through ad hoc appointments causes further divide. To the marginal sections for whom the seat is reserved, these appointments become a cause of consolidating a feeling of deprivation. On the other hand, since the occupant of the positions continues to be an ad hoc appointee, the group to which he/she belongs to also carries a sense of pseudo-deprivation. Eventually, harmony eludes and justice is seen by both as inaccessible.
In a situation like this, what is required for leaders of all sections of the society is to pursue the path of what Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had called Maharashtra dharma. Shivaji’s rule was an embodiment of social harmony, justice and development for all. Sensitivity to the most deprived sections was the hallmark of his governance. Terms like empathy, compassion, social responsibility and sharing of agonies as well as aspirations may not be around at Shivaji’s time, but his Maharashtra dharma was essentially comprising all these. Not allowing any section to forget this, perhaps alone will guarantee inter-community harmony.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe is the national vice-president of the BJP and a member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.