Punishing Dalit Assertiveness

Maharashtra’s shamefullist of atrocities against dalits is growing.
In the past couple of months, four dalits including a 17-year-old boy have been murdered in Maharashtra and a 50-year-old man set aflame because their actions displeased the dominant upper castes in their respective villages. Had these crimes not occurred either in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections or the forthcoming state assembly elections, they would have got even less attention. As for example, the social boycott that the dalits in Buldhana district’s Belad village had been facing since last year until a few weeks ago. The murder of teenager Nitin Aage on 28 April galvanised the dalit minister in the state cabinet, Nitin Raut, to tour all the “trouble spots” with the chairperson of the Maharashtra Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Commission. The Dalit Atyachar Virodhi Kruti Samiti has claimed that Ahmednagar district alone accounts for 102 atrocities against dalits in the last five years. The minister too presented a long list of crimes against them and asked for a special cabinet meeting that resulted in the usual declarations of monetary compensation and assurance of action. Despite all this, media coverage of even the brutal murders has been poor and sporadic, and the protests by dalit and human rights’ groups muted, to put it mildly. The misery suffered by the dalit villagers, especially children, due to the boycott has also got scant coverage in the media.
Aage’s murder in Khardaa village of Ahmednagar district has all the hallmarks of a “textbook” dalit atrocity. His parents are poor wage labourers; the accused, belonging to the dominant Maratha caste, are rich and politically very well connected; the police are less than enthusiastic about giving out information and Aage was punished for committing a cardinal sin: he dared to speak to a girl of a higher caste from an influential family despite being warned not to. On 25 April, a Matang youth, Umesh Aagle, was waylaid and murdered by men of the dominant caste in Deopur, Aurangabad district, on suspicion of having a relationship with a girl from their family. These deaths simply add to a growing trend wherein dalit youth, particularly those who are educated and ignore “their place” in the social hierarchy by attempting to interact with women from the so-called higher castes, are targeted with incredible cruelty.
On 3 April, Manoj Kasab, the dalit sarpanch of Nanegaon in Jalna district, was beaten up by upper-caste men, reportedly because of work-related rivalry, and died of the wounds almost a month later. On 1 May, 22-year-old Manik Udaage was stoned to death by upper-caste men allegedly unhappy at the fact that he had set up an organisation called Samvidhan Pratishthan and had celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti in Chikhali village in Pune district. More recently, 50-year-old Sanjay Khobragade was set aflame by five persons of the dominant caste in Kawalewada village in Gondia district and is battling 90% burns as we write these lines. His assailants and Khobragade had a dispute over land for a Buddha Vihar in the village. In the case of the Buldhana boycott, the dalit villagers had earned the anger of the dominant castes for attempting to place Babasaheb Ambedkar’s picture among those of other national leaders at the Republic Day parade in 2013. From then on, the skirmishes kept growing – interestingly all related to symbols like the panchshil flag or praying before a statue of Ambedkar – ultimately leading to the boycott.
Atrocities against dalits are hardly a phenomenon special to Maharashtra. However, the state that Ambedkar hailed from has seen some powerful dalit movements and groups, apart from casting itself proudly in the “progressive” mould. That such horrific atrocities should occur here is an indictment of successive governments in the state. Much more than that, the lack of widespread protests and agitations is perhaps a far greater indictment, not just of these dalit groups but of all political parties and civil society. Incidentally, almost all the dalit leaders who contested on non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) platforms in the recent Lok Sabha elections, lost, indicating the weakness of dalit political mobilisation. The Mahars among the dalits having done much better by way of education and employment than their counterparts from the other jatis, yet the dalit movements dominated by them have failed to generate the requisite momentum to ensure safety and justice. Instead, a number of cultural and literary groups which have many dalit youth members have formed in recent years and have taken to fearlessly speaking about atrocities against the dalits and other marginalised sections. Of late, members of these groups have faced a lot of police repression and imprisonment, being accused of “Maoist” links. Police officers have given “anonymous” interviews to the media about how the Maoists are tapping dalit youth to join their ranks. How the faction-ridden traditional dalit political parties in the state deal with this statement (whatever its veracity) has to be seen.
A number of less well-known dalit organisations have demanded that police and government officials who neglect investigations into dalit atrocities should face punitive action. The government administration must be seen to be proactive on crimes against dalits, even when simple assertions of dalit rights are violently attacked by the dominant castes. But for that to happen the political ruling class needs to rid itself of casteist prejudices and beliefs.
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