Marathas march for one-upmanship

No one can deny that the ghastly rape and murder of a Maratha girl by three Dalit men that has given rise to spontaneous and unbelievably large ‘Maratha’ protest marches, must be strongly condemned. Dalits have denounced the incident and helped the police arrest the accused.

The vulnerability of women to sexual and other violence in the context of caste has been a sorry feature of our national life, the prerogative of men, particularly those hallowed with ‘higher’ and ‘pure’ caste status. Condemnably, in the case of the Maratha girl, the Dalit men who felt ‘empowered’, de-shackled from their traditional untouchable caste label, probably upheld abusing women of the higher caste as their prerogative.

Whether the menace of caste, the greatest challenge to the Indian Constitution and an enemy of India can be annihilated through a law is a question that remains unanswered nearly 70 years after India attained independence.

In one of the meetings in Uttar Pradesh way back in 2001, I witnessed one after another, Dalit men on the microphone advocating revenge on the dominant castes abusing Dalit women by sexually abusing non-Dalit women. There was silence in the room only when I sought to know the difference between the Dalit and the non-Dalit men, both bound by the common belief that there was nothing wrong in sexually abusing women.  If it is caste, then women appear to be condemned to the lowest status. This is shameful and brings to light yet again that caste is a means of power, force, violence and subjugation of the worst kind directed at the weakest.

In the case of the ongoing Maratha protests, the abolition of the ‘Atrocities on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention) Act’, the so-called ‘Atrocity Act’, has been one of the two major demands of the Maratha protest. At the time of introduction by the then Congress(I) government, the Act was termed in Gujarat as “worse than the Rowlatt Act” of the British era.

True, the demand for abolition stands modified advocating changes in the Atrocity Act to ensure that it is not misused. Factually, the law has been tightened by the present government in 2015 to ensure that justice is not denied to SCs, STs in the light of numerous complaints that the law had failed to achieve its objectives due to its spirited non-implementation. This is corroborated with national data showing a steady increase of caste atrocities and non-convictions under the Act.

Whether the menace of caste, the greatest challenge to the Indian Constitution and an enemy of India can be annihilated through a law is a question that remains unanswered nearly 70 years after India attained independence. Is there the slightest possibility that caste violence can be a thing of the past in the absence of a stringent law against caste-based atrocities?

The perception that it is the success of reservations rather than our model of growth and development that has changed the lives of dalits, tribals and OBCs, has given rise to the demand for reservation by other castes, even those who have so far enjoyed the ‘most-favoured’ status.

During the Poona pact, Mahatma Gandhi had advocated in relation to the prohibition on Dalits from entering temples, that a change in ‘conscience’ of the dominant castes rather than a mere law could soften Hindu prejudice. The nation, post-independence, however chose the legal option to curb caste discrimination over the moral option of ‘change in conscience and heart’.

True, the change in Dalit lives for the better to the limited extent that this has happened is due to the presence of laws and the reservations. The BJP suffered a heavy political loss in Bihar after it failed to convince dalits, tribals and OBC voters that it truly did not share the RSS view that sought a re-think on caste-based reservations.

The perception that it is the success of reservations rather than our model of growth and development that has changed the lives of dalits, tribals and OBCs, has given rise to the demand for reservation by other castes, even those who have so far enjoyed the ‘most-favoured’ status. The majority among the Marathas, conscious of the fact that the largest number of farmers committing suicide are from their Maratha community, have realised with pain (just as the Patidars have in Gujarat) that their caste status is a less than effective insulation  against the disastrous consequences of the lopsided growth and development model of India. 

They realise now that their caste has provided them neither equal social nor economic status. This realisation has ignited a psychological process among the Marathas that their growing economic and educational backwardness is due to the irrational and emotional attachment to their ‘caste’ having the status of an ‘upper caste’. An uneasy discontent is also attributed to the fact that the ‘Kunbis’ who are Marathas, although shackled with a socially inferior status among Marathas, are beneficiaries of reservations.

The Dalit model of community development, inspired by Phule-Sahu-Ambedkar’s social awakening has strengthened itself as a force over the past seven decades both helped by anti-caste laws and economic- educational-political reservation.

‘Maratha’ has not been a caste identity due to its inability to uphold equal social status for all its members, unlike Dalits bound together equally with the historical ‘untouchable’ caste status.  Rather, ‘Maratha’ has been upheld as a class identity strengthened over time to gain perception as the ‘32 percent population-class’ in Maharashtra, a powerful lobby that has traditionally ruled the State.

The Dalit model of community development, inspired by Phule-Sahu-Ambedkar’s social awakening has strengthened itself as a force over the past seven decades both helped by anti-caste laws and economic- educational-political reservation. Hence, the Dalit model has been an inspiration to follow both for the Patidars in Gujarat and the Marathas in Maharashtra.

‘Dalit’ which is neither a caste identity or legal-constitutional term has become a ‘claste’, the marriage between the caste and the class, where all thus far perceived as ‘untouchable castes and sub-castes’ have united as ‘Dalits’. Post the Una atrocity, Dalits in Gujarat constituting seven percent of the population, became a national model for Dalits in India as they consciously did away with sub-caste identities, which have been continuously harbored by all political parties without distinction to ensure Dalits do not rise as an un-divided 16.5% voter class in India. 

The reason for both the Maratha and Patidar agitations and the demand for reservations being claimed as ‘not-against-Dalits’ is in essence the acceptance of the fact that progress has followed the Dalit way and has failed through our modern day economic models.

(The author is an activist and the founder of Navsarjan, a grassroots Dalit organsiation fighting for human rights since the 1970s)

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