How a petty issue may blow into a full-fledged caste war in Maharashtra

A Brahmin scientist in Pune has lodged a police complaint against her Maratha cook for allegedly adopting a Brahmin surname while seeking work 

The Pune weather observatory seems to be in the news for all the wrong reasons. First, Sharad Pawar came down heavily on its scientists for failing to get their weather forecasts right and promised to send them a sackful of sugar, if they ever did. They, indeed, did. When they correctly predicted rains in Vidarbha and Marathwada last week, Pawar gamely came up with the quintal of sugar which, the last we heard, was still sitting at the gates of the Indian Meteorological Department because no one quite knew what to do with it.

The second instance, however, is not quite as funny. In fact, it carries serious import for social harmony in the state. It is less to do with the observatory per se but its deputy director general of forecasts. The incident raises serious questions about not just the non-scientific temperament of a scientist but also the violation of constitutional principles and vitiation of communal harmony by even government authorities, including the state police. Medha Vinayak Khole, the scientist in question, has lodged a complaint with the Pune police against a cook for hurting her religious sentiments by hiding the fact that she was not a Brahmin!

The incident is unprecedented anywhere in the state of Maharashtra. Firstly, there can be no official sanction to a “Brahmins only” job, even though such discrimination might be rampant in private practice. But the registration of Khole's complaint against her cook Nirmala Yadav now raises serious questions about an official stamp on something that is against Article 17 of the Constitution which bans untouchability. But the issue becomes even more worrisome when we consider that Yadav is not an untouchable. She is a Maratha, pretty high up on the caste hierarchy and from a community which considers itself the ruling class of Maharashtra. Which means the case is about Brahmin supremacy and not just about caste discrimination.

According to Khole's complaint, registered under sections 419 (cheating by personation), 352 (assault or use of criminal force) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace), Nirmala Yadav had introduced herself to Khole as Nirmala Kulkarni. Believing her to be Brahmin, Khole used her services on several occasions and now blames her for polluting the food offered to her gods.

“So did her gods die of food poisoning,” asks a furious Jeetendra Awhad, Nationalist Congress Party MLA and a close confidante of Sharad Pawar. But the other question that Awhad raises is more significant - how at all did the police register a complaint against Yadav? The complaints, however, are unsustainable on grounds of hurting of religious sentiments though Khole has made out a case that Yadav assaulted her when she went to her home to check out the truth of her caste. The irony of the fact that she herself was violating the law, by thus intimidating Yadav on the basis of her caste, seems to be quite lost on both Khole and the Pune police, who were unavailable for comment.

However, though Article 17 of the Constitution outlaws untouchability in any form and Yadav does not belong to a caste that can be considered as untouchable, this personal battle between a government officer and her personal cook now has the potential of exploding into a full-blown caste war between Brahmins and Marathas - the two upper castes always at war with each other in Maharashtra. Marathas have traditionally hated the Brahmins, who they see as descendants of the Peshwas, for usurping power from the later descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and had effectively kept them out of the power structure in government for decades since Independence. They have always been ruling the state one way or the other until recently when Devendra Fadnavis became Chief Minister and appointed barely a Maratha or two as minister in his cabinet.

In fact, in the run up to the Assembly elections in 2014, rather unusually for a man who believed in social equality, Pawar had warned the people that they stood in danger of returning to Brahmin domination of the state - and his worst fears came true after Fadnavis’s ascension to the office. The 58 silent morchas of Marathas across the state last year, ostensibly for reservations, was actually a protest against being kept out of the power structure for the first time since Independence and holds the potential of high social unrest (they are 38 per cent of Maharashtra's polity) if their demands are not met - and they cannot be met as providing reservations to Marathas would require constitutional amendments, which are out of the purview of the state government's authority. Karan Gaykar, the convenor of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, warns of violence against the state in case they continue to be discriminated against - and this latest incident of discrimination could only add more fuel to that fire.

For, anger is now building up again after the registration of these complaints against Yadav. Marathas see it not as a personal battle between an employer and her cook but an attempt by a Brahmin to show down a Maratha and put the community in its place.

“This is the beginning of the return to chaturvarnaya,” fumes Awhad who blames the Fadnavis government for creating the atmosphere and sending out a message to the people of the state that social equality is a thing of the past. “Before the BJP government came to power, this would have been a private dispute between two individuals. No one would have dared lodge a complaint on such a frivolous issue. But even if someone had attempted to lodge a complaint like this on the ground that her religious sentiments were hurt because a cook turned out to be non-Brahmin, the police would have laughed it off and turned the complainant away. The fact that they have registered the complaint is a clear indication that things have changed and such an action cannot take place unless the government is complicit in the act,” says Awhad.

The case, however, is unusual - the cook is said to have prepared delicious fare for the poojas in Khole's home on at least five occasions. She kept good hygiene, Khole and her family loved the food prepared by Yadav and they called her to cook for all their celebrations. There is no compulsion under the law for anyone to reveal their caste and Yadav strictly did not impersonate anyone, she merely worked under a pseudonym which cannot be an offence. According to reports, she was employed by Khole only after the latter visited her home to ascertain for herself Yadav's credentials, including her cleanliness and how she kept her home. So where is the question of being cheated?

However, as an upper caste Maratha, Yadav does not have the protection offered to Dalits and Adivasis under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) act, 1989. Marathas have also been demanding the dilution of that Act on the grounds that many false complaints are lodged against them by Dalits. Were action to be taken against Yadav in such a frivolous case, it would then leave the Marathas discriminated against from both ends - by Brahmins for not being high enough on the caste heirarchy and by Dalits for being too upper caste. Maratha passions could be ignited again and the fire from Khole's kitchen could then spread across Maharashtra.

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