The brutal gang rape and murder of a girl has led to protests across Maharashtra and a demand for reservations and abolishing of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. This will culminate in Mumbai by October-end
By Neeta Kolhatkar in Mumbai
The heinous gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar on July 13 has spurred a silent revolution in Maharashtra and revealed caste and social fault lines, making political parties restless. Never before have so many Marathas come out in silent protests demanding change.
On July 13, the girl was returning from her grandparents’ house when the crime was perpetrated. Three men allegedly inflicted injuries all over her body and broke her limbs before throttling her. According to the police, the post-mortem report said her “hair had been pulled out, her hands had dislocated from the shoulders and her teeth smashed”. Her body was found a few yards from the house. While the girl’s family has named these three as the accused, the police have arrested only one person.
But what has given caste and political overtones to this crime is that she was a Maratha and the three accused were Dalits. After the murder, Dalit families along with other villagers wrote a letter to the sarpanch and demanded that the accused be hanged to death.
Since the incident, leaders of all parties have tried to politicize the issue. Firstly, Dalit leaders such as Ramdas Athawale, a Union minister, Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr BR Ambedkar, and Jogendra Kawade, an MLA, were prevented from going to the village. However, Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar, Rajya Sabha MP and a Dalit leader, threatened to go on fast if he was prevented. “The police tried to prevent me. I said either provide security to me, arrest me or I will sit on a fast,” Mungekar told India Legal. He finally visited the village and thanked both communities in the village for dealing with this situation well.
<q]“Despite Marathas being in the majority in Kopardi, they did not blame the entire Dalit community for this shocking incident.”
—Dr Bhalchandra Mungekar, Rajya Sabha MP and Dalit leader</q]
“I was shocked by this incident. But I would like to point out that in the Tanta Mukti Samiti (village dispute committee) in Kopardi, Dalit families signed on a stamp paper saying they want the accused hanged. Their unity is exemplary,” said Mungekar. He added: “Despite Marathas being in the majority in Kopardi, they did not blame the entire Dalit community for this shocking incident.”
Maratha leaders say that due to the Atrocities Act under which Marathas are often booked as culprits, and due to reservation, the Marathas have got completely isolated in society today.
This issue was soon politicized. Opposition parties like the Congress and the NCP initially demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. In the monsoon session of the assembly, Fadnavis told the house that the government had appointed Ujjwal Nikam as the public prosecutor. The government also announced that Rs 5 lakh would be given to the victim’s family. Later, NCP president Sharad Pawar demanded abolition of the Prevention of Atrocities Act for various reasons.
As per the state records, cases under the Prevention of Atrocities Act have fallen in the last five years—from 319 in 2010 to 290 in 2015. In 2005, nearly 30 percent of all crimes committed against Dalits were booked under the Atrocities Act. Maratha leaders say that due to the Atrocities Act under which Marathas are often booked as culprits, and due to reservation, the Marathas have got completely isolated in society today.
Marathas today comprise 32 percent of the population of the state and are a strong vote bank. But 35 percent of these Marathas are laborers and workers. Unfortunately, Marathas have always been accused of inflicting abuse on Dalits, a stereotype casting that was recently projected on the silver screen in the Maratha film, Sairat. Sairat shows a fisherman’s son and a local politician’s daughter falling in love against caste norms. The boy is killed and the Marathas are shown as villains.
Another allegation against the Marathas is that most of the chief ministers of Maharashtra belonged to this caste. Pravin Gaikwad, a Maratha leader, said: “Our leaders have let us down. Pawar renamed Aurangabad Maratha University as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Mandal Commission also ignored us despite 35 percent of our people being uneducated and poor.”
Six chief ministers from this community and many ministers are known to have started educational institutions and these have become commercial enterprises which are unaffordable to the poor of this community. “They set up educational empires but deny admissions to the poor caste fellows and vulgarize their power,” asserted Mungekar. “This has created frustration, anger and disappointment.”
However, Dalit leaders have held the fabric of their society mostly due to devotion to Dr Ambedkar. Maratha leaders, on the other hand, have misappropriated power and are indifferent to their community.
“Marathas are isolated today and we blame our own leaders for our condition. The leaders of OBCs and Schedule Castes like Gopinath Munde and Chhagan Bhujbal made their communities cohesive and ensured they got protection. Our leaders promoted dynasty rule and the community could not reap any benefits,” said Gaikwad.
When the Kopardi incident occurred, the Marathas circulated a message on WhatsApp asking their community: “Do you want an opportunity to study, do you want to work and do you want protection? If you are a Maratha then join the morcha.” The result was a social revolution with lakhs joining in every day.
Gaikwad said that social media had been the true connector in spreading their message. They have three demands: Death sentence to the accused in the Kopardi incident, reservation for Marathas and amending or abolishing the Atrocities Act. “The social fabric has been destroyed due to this Act with false cases registered. In most cases, there is no evidence and the accused are released. By then, the system has destroyed the individual and their families. Now in this case, why are the accused not being tried under the Atrocities Act?” asked Gaikwad.
As these silent protests spread across Maharashtra, no one is prepared for the social aftermath. Many leaders like Sambhaji Raje, Udayan Raje Bhosale, Purshottam Khedekar and Vinayak Mete and leaders of the Sambhaji Brigade (a strong Maratha outfit) tried to take over the leadership but were shown the door.
The politicians are in a quandary as to what step to take now. “These rallies are being organized without leaders and are silent. This is a new turning in Maharashtra politics and it has taken all politicians by surprise. More so, prominent leaders are being publicly humiliated by being made to sit on the floor while novices have taken the stage,” said Pratap Asbe, a political analyst.
These rallies, he explained, were successful because of the intense feeling of isolation among Marathas. “Even Dalit thinkers and leaders need to understand that they have to maintain a dialogue. The fact is that if they participate, they too will be included in these protests,” said Asbe.
However, the absence of a dialogue between Marathas and other castes or counter rallies will only widen the social gap. The fact is that the government has failed to assess the situation. The new Maratha leaders are clear that their protests will continue across the state and finally culminate in Mumbai by October-end. “This is the lull before the storm. We will get justice for our community,” said Gaikwad.
This uprising of the Marathas is akin to that of the Patels in Gujarat as they demand more reservations. While that agitation has spiralled out of control for the BJP, this one is yet to be nipped in the bud.
Lead picture: Silent protests in Maharashtra over the killing of a 14-year-old girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar