Home >Politics >Policy >Maharashtra govt in tough balancing act after Dalit, Maratha clashes

Mumbai: The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Maharashtra is under pressure to strike a balance between two formidable constituencies of state power—Marathas and Dalits—following the Bhima-Koregaon violence and its aftermath.

Upper caste Marathas, who make up around 32-35% of the state’s population, and Dalits, comprising 13%, clashed during Dalit celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle on 1 January in Pune, resulting in the death of a man and injuries to several others.

A senior BJP leader and member of Parliament (MP) from Maharashtra, who did not want to be named, said chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had handled the Maratha mobilization in 2016-17 “unexpectedly well" but this only adds to his problems, now that Dalits have taken to the streets.

The Maratha campaign was seen as anti-Dalit, for its appeal to amend the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act.

“Dalits showed commendable patience all through the 50-odd Maratha marches despite provocations to organise counter-marches because the BJP government never made any statement that indicated that we were in favour of amendments to the Atrocity Act. But now since the Bhima-Koregaon violence and Dalit response majorly involves Marathas and Dalits, we are in a tight spot," said the MP.

What makes this balancing act even more difficult for the Fadnavis government is the diametrically opposite socio-legal trajectory taken by two murder cases, highlighting the caste problem.

In one case, the rape and murder of a teenaged Maratha girl by Dalits in July 2016 had sparked off a wave of silent Maratha protests across the state.

On 29 November, 2016, a sessions court in Ahmednagar awarded the death penalty to all the three convicts.

In the other case, in April 2014, when the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance was in power, a 17-year-old Dalit boy Nitin Aage was killed in broad daylight in Kharda village of the same Ahmednagar district allegedly by Maratha men who suspected Aage of having an affair with a Maratha girl.

On 23 November 2016, a court in Ahmednagar acquitted all nine men charged with the murder. Although Fadnavis said the government would challenge the acquittal in the Bombay high court, a BJP Dalit legislator in Maharashtra contrasted the “indifferent" manner in which the Nitin Aage case was handled with the alacrity demonstrated in the Kopardi case. This had “further alienated Dalits from the Marathas and the mainstream political parties including the BJP," he said.

“The Congress-NCP government under whose watch Aage was killed never asked for a fast track court to hear the case nor did it consider appointing... a special public prosecutor in the Aage case unlike the Kopardi case. When our government came, it did not have the legal option to appoint a fast track court and with all witnesses turning hostile, the case was always going to meet the fate it did in the lower court. But Dalits have noticed how this government virtually saw to it that the culprits in the Kopardi case are brought to book. We are not against the Kopardi convicts being punished. But Dalits, especially our voters, ask us if Nitin Aage did not matter," said the BJP legislator, requesting anonymity.

Suhas Palshikar, political commentator and former head of the department of political science at the Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, said Dalit anger across Maharashtra now “is mostly about the Maratha mobilisation and the way the Nitin Aage case has evolved as compared to the Kopardi case".

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