But Education Creates Social Mobility

Peace between Ansarwada’s Dalits and Marathas rests on two flagpoles. One is painted blue, the other saffron, but for the last three years no flag has flown from either staff. And as long as that doesn’t change, this village in Latur district with a population of 2,853 is likely to remain peaceful.

In 2015, a few youngsters in Ansarwada raised the blue flag of the Dalit Buddhist movement, opposite a saffron flag in a chowk named after Sambhaji Bhosale. Both sides agree that this angered the Marathas and resulted in a stone-pelting skirmish that left many injured including the village’s female, Dalit sarpanch, who needed stitches for a gash on her face. It also forced the police to remove both flags and restrict large gatherings for a fortnight. Both poles have remained ‘flagless’ ever since.

The Bhima-Koregaon riot, that left one person dead and brought Maharashtra to a standstill, wasn’t a stray incident. Every day, in villages across Maharashtra, small caste skirmishes have the ability to snowball into larger conflagrations if not for the timely intervention of police, village elders or local politicians keen to avoid the bad publicity of a caste conflict. And even after it’s resolved, tensions continue to simmer with upper castes resenting Dalits’ political clout and lower castes resenting the daily indignation of being barred from the village temple or well.

Last year, another village in Latur district, Mogarga, was also the site of caste violence when an Ambedkar Jayanti procession in April irked upper caste residents. The next day, the Dalits were invited to a gram sabha where they were accused of rowdy behavior during the parade and a fight ensued. This resulted in the excommunication of the Mahar community—villagers were prohibited from hiring them as field labourers, allowing them to buy food from the kirana store or use the flour mill for about six months—forcing elderly residents like 70-year-old Rajabai Langde to walk 3km each day to get supplies from a neighbouring village.

The situation was exacerbated in September when a Dalit visitor greeted a Maratha man with the traditional Ambedkarite greeting ‘Jai Bhim’. Many Dalit women claimed they had been beaten in the ensuing violence and police cases were filed against both sides. The Mahars insist that before this conflagration, there was no bad blood between the two communities. Their theory is that they were attacked because last year’s Ambedkar Jayanti celebration was grander than usual, fuelling upper caste resentment. TOI was unable to confirm this theory with upper caste residents. For now, the boycott has been called off as Dalit labourers are needed to sow the winter crop.

In a village with no overt conflict, exploring caste relations is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Initially, wary Mahars and Matangs, who always live in a basti set apart from the village, insist there is no discrimination. In Latur’s Mahalangra village, they claimed that they didn’t use the village well because it ran dry in the summer. “Instead, the upper castes use our well,” they said. It took 66-yearold Shivajirao Dhondiram Kale, a Matang who was chased out of Mahalangra for daring to ask for a fair wage, to explain the nuances. “They use the water from the Dalit well only for washing their animals not for drinking.”

Some Dalits claim that everyone sits together during weddings but others admit that upper caste wedding guests are usually restricted to elected panchayat officials, hungry for votes. According to Kale, if upper caste guests are invited, an upper caste cook is hired to prepare their meals. As for temple access, Dalits avoid going because they are Buddhists, while Matangs pay their respects from the doorway. Ansarwada’s village meeting was moved from inside the temple to outside, the year a female, Dalit sarpanch was elected.

In Mahalangra, the deputy sarpanch and other upper caste villagers denied the existence of caste discrimination, insisting that Mahars and Matangs can enter temples and drink water from any well. According to the scheduled castes, this liberal attitude is donned for outsiders because they fear the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.

What’s true is that the most horrific aspects of ‘untouchability’ have largely vanished. Kale, for instance, grew up at a time when the scheduled castes ventured out only at noon to prevent their shadow from falling on an upper caste villager and Matangs ate mashed animal fodder or upper caste leftovers. Today, he cultivates 8.5 acres and lives comfortably on the profits.

He says the upper castes’ attitude has morphed from revulsion to anger that Mahars and Matangs are now educated and earning well enough to spurn jobs like the disposal of animal carcasses. In Mahalangra, already 10-20% of scheduled caste youth no longer work as field labourers. If this trend continues, Maratha landlords will soon be grappling with a labour crunch.

Education and job opportunities have also enhanced the social mobility of young Dalits. Vinesh Mane, a 27-year-old Dalit from Mahalangra, who works in a mall, has many upper caste friends. “When we go to restaurants outside the village, all the youngsters eat together,” he says. “And unlike my parents, I don’t talk to my upper caste peers using respectful pronouns.”

GOD FORBID: (Above) Matangs claim they can’t enter the Mahlangra village temple and can only pay their respects from the doorway; Yogita Bhagwan Satpute was beaten up during a caste conflict in Mogarga