ndtv | Lakhs of people from Maharashtra's most powerful caste group, the Marathas, held a muk or silent rally in Pune on Sunday to protest the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl from the community by three Dalit boys in the village of Kopardi in Ahmednagar district in July. Similar demonstrations have been held since the incident in almost every major town of the Marathwada region dominated by Marathas and are now spreading to the rest of the state under the banner of a newly floated non-political outfit, the Maratha Kranti Samiti.
The clout of the new agency is derived partly from its success in bringing on board older groups that have represented the upper caste Marathas - groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh, Sambhaji Brigade and the Maratha Seva Sangh. They want the death penalty for the accused Dalits. They are asking for the abolition of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) 1989 because they say this law, which is meant to prevent and punish violence against Dalits and Adivasis, is being misused by these groups to target the Marathas. "The Dalits receive financial compensation for any atrocity committed on them under the Act. To be able to get this money, they have started filing false cases against the Marathas," alleged a young boy at the Pune rally.
But official figures reveal just the opposite. That despite the Act, Maharashtra's weakest castes have little access to justice and continue to be victims of discrimination.
Dalits and Adivasis constitute 19% of the state's population, but last year, only 1% of all FIRs registered by the police were filed by members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Of these, the Atrocities Act was applied in less than 40% of the complaints. The conviction rate under the Act has been even more dismal, an average of 7% in the last five years. A staggering 87% of the cases are still pending trial.
Which leads many to believe that while Maratha anger may have justifiably been provoked by the Kopardi rape and killing, the demand to scrap the Atrocities Act and restore their honour is directly linked to the community's deep resentment of the government's reservation policy of guaranteeing jobs and seats in educational institutions to lower castes.