Mumbai: The rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Maharashtra on 13 July seems to have reopened the state’s caste fault-lines, inflaming political tensions and sparking social media battles.

The victim from Ahmednagar district’s Kopardi village belonged to Maratha caste, the state’s dominant political caste, and the three accused arrested so far are Dalits.

Several organisations representing Marathas, with obvious proximity to the opposition Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), staged demonstrations in Ahmednagar, Solapur, Osmanabad, Beed and Buldana districts to protest against the crime.

Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced that the government would request the judiciary to appoint a fast-track court to try the case. Celebrated special public prosecutor Ujwal Nikam would fight the victim’s case.

In the state legislature currently holding its monsoon session, the opposition Congress-Nationalist Congress Party on Monday demanded an adjournment of all other legislative business on agenda to discuss the issue. Speaker Haribhau Bagde rejected the demand, leading to the opposition threatening to file a breach of trust motion against the chair. The opposition raised the demand again on Tuesday and settled for a discussion after the question hour.

Leading the discussion, leader of the opposition in the legislative assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil brought out the caste angle, saying unlike Dalits, other castes do not have the protection of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

“Other castes do not have such a legal deterrent and there is no fear among those who target them. There should be legal protections available to others also like the Atrocity Act," said Vikhe-Patil who is a prominent Maratha Congress politician from Ahmednagar district. NCP leader Ajit Pawar said the brutality of the crime was such that girls in the village had stopped going to school. “The whole of Maharashtra is tense due to this brutal crime. I admit some people on social media may have been deliberately trying to create tensions. But there is a genuine public outcry across Maharashtra, because the government has been found wanting," Pawar said.

A BJP legislator, who did not wish to be named, said there was a “definite caste angle" to the issue as the victim was Maratha and the accused were Dalits. “What has also angered the Maratha organisations is the fact that no senior leader from a Dalit political party or the so-called human right organisation has visited the victim’s family. Contrast this with what has happened when the unfortunate victim has been a Dalit," the BJP legislator said.

The BJP legislator also claimed that the Maratha organisations and even the mainstream Congress and NCP leaders from Ahmednagar district were “deeply angry over the rise of BJP leader Ram Shinde from the district". Shinde, a Dhangar (shepherd) community leader, has risen in the BJP as part of the party’s social engineering politics focussing on OBCs. In the recent cabinet expansion in Maharashtra, Shinde, already a minister of state for home, was elevated to the cabinet rank and given the key water conservation portfolio. The BJP legislator said the Maratha lobby in Ahmednagar district had personally targeted Shinde on this issue also, because he was an OBC leader and guardian minister for the district.

Asked why he had not visited the village yet by Marathi news channel ABP Majha, leader of Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar said he was in Delhi for the last three days and would definitely visit the victim’s family in the next few days. Prakash Akolkar, senior journalist and political editor of Marathi newspaper Sakal, agreed that the crime and its aftermath definitely had overtones of “Maharashtra’s age-old Maratha versus Dalit conflict". “We do not yet know for sure if the crime itself had caste motives. But its aftermath definitely has caste aspects. The silence of Dalit politicians has led to amplification of anger among the Maratha organisations," Akolkar said.

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