While noting that Maharashtra has always been the trendsetter in Dalit politics for the nation, Mrudul Nile, professor of politics at University of Mumbai and columnist, says going forward the south will take the lead in Dalit politics. Below is a Q&A with him

Maharashtra Dalit politics has always been a trendsetter in the rest of the country. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, the VCK name is inspired by Dalit Panthers. What are the current trends in Maharashtra? 

Maharashtra Dalit politics has always stood as an ideal for the rest of the country primarily because of the strong roots of social reform movements in the state. I can say that after West Bengal, Maharashtra has a great history of social reforms in the country. Moreover, the contributions of Kranti Jyoti Mahatma Phule and Savitri Bai Phule laid the foundations of this movement and later Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s all-out fight for equality of the then shudras and untouchables makes Maharashtra even more important in the emancipation of the dalits and the untouchables in the country. All other states followed the path of Maharashtra to emancipate the last strata.

As regards the Dalit Panthers, though it was a very short lived movement, its relevance always remains in Maharashtra.

However, in the current times I feel the southern states are more vociferous on dalit issues. Panthers were dissolved after the infighting among those who were at the helm of affairs. Some panthers today are with the ruling dispensation, and some have compromised their stands on dalit issues. Today, the dalit movement in Maharashtra needs new life. Dalit leaders have accepted secondary positions in party affairs (to whichever party they belong to). I think in a few years, south will lead the dalit movement of this country. The Dravidian-Dalit combination will lead the movement.

As regards Dalit Panthers, though it was a very short lived movement, its relevance always remains in Maharashtra

In Tamil Nadu, dalit politics is limited by the fact of three separate dalit castes living in different regions. They don’t work together politically. How is it now in Maharashtra?

Unfortunately, the dalit communities and parties do not come together as a united force in Maharashtra too. The case is no different in Maharashtra, the mahars, matangs and charmakars are on different pages. The mahars, being the dominant and most prosperous among the three castes in Maharashtra, always lead the movement both in terms of numerical strength as well as intellectual leadership. The other two communities’ contribution to the dalit movements in Maharashtra has always remained limited.

Mrudul Nile, associate professor of politics at University of Mumbai and columnist

In fact, one can even say that just because the movements were lead by the mahars, the other communities did not participate. One of the major reasons for the same could be attributed to the idea of conversion of Hindu mahars to Buddhism under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1956. The other two communities preferred to remain in the Hindu fold.

Matang community today is largely with the ruling dispensation (BJP), whereas the charmakars claim their Hindu superiority and do not identify as dalits. The socialisation and sanskritisation process in both these communities help retain and reinforce their Hindu identity.

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In Tamil Nadu, many paraiyar activists are refusing the dalit tag seeing it as demeaning. Can you comment?

The same trend is seen in Maharashtra too. They feel that dalit tag is demeaning and reinforces the old stratification phenomenon. However, I am of the opinion that the term ‘dalit’ gives a stronger identity and can mean many more things than just a caste group. In a more imaginative sense, it can also mean dark, strong men. To me, it reinforces identity and elements of assertion.

How are dalits voting this time in Maharashtra? What’s going to be the impact of VBA? Last time, the votes VBA and Owaisi polled were often higher than the margins of victory. 

I recently interacted with the community in their ghettos especially in the BDD Chawl and Matunga Labour Camp which are the bastions of the dalit movement. BDD chawl has a special place in the dalit movement as it is a witness to the famous Worli riots and the peak of the Dalit Panther Movement. Matunga Labour Camp still remains the most important pocket of dalit votes in Mumbai. From my interactions there, VBA does not enjoy the same popularity as in 2019 in these dalit dominated locales. The dalit voter is an ardent believer of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideas of staying away from brahminical parties. For a long time the dalits rejected the Indian National Congress due to a number of reasons like that of  the defeat of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1952,  when the Congress fielded a candidate against him from Bombay. The case of RPI(A) with Ramdas Athawale going with BJP left no choice to the dalit voters than to go with the MVA

The prime aim of the dalit voter was to oust the ruling dispensation. Any indirect help coming from the VBA to the BJP was rejected by the people at large

Has the BJP politics made any inroads among Dalits in Maharashtra? Has the argument about Muslims taking away reservation from Hindus got any favour in the state? In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has tried a lot to bring the pallar dalit caste in its fold. They have tried a strategy that includes pallars, though not paraiyars.

In the case of Maharashtra, the matangs are very much with the BJP. BJP has favoured the matang community with some important positions in the government and autonomous institutions. The inauguration of the statue of Lokshahir Annabhau Sathe in Russia or the awarding of some important positions in public institutions in the state have been well received among the matang community. This community always felt that most of the benefits of reservations and affirmative action are taken away by the dominant mahars, and the Matangs were rendered nothing significant both in the state apparatus or in the case of some other positions in the state. This sense of deprivation has given rise to competition between the matangs and the mahars in Maharashtra. The affluent from the community have turned towards the BJP in the last few years thus increasing the voting percentage in favour of the BJP. The charmakars too, due to their manifest Hindu identity, prefer to vote for the BJP.

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