Mumbai: Ten days ago, two Dalit women and a Muslim man, all in their mid-40s and associated with one of the factions of Republic Party of India called ‘RPI-Kharat’, travelled from Aurangabad in Maharashtra to the Jaipur bench of the Rajasthan high court to hand over a request letter to the court’s registrar to take down the statue of Manu that sits in the garden in front of the court.
However, at the last moment, the trio changed their minds and allegedly walked straight to the court’s garden area and smeared black paint on the Manu statue.
The statue, built in 1989 by the Rajasthan Judicial Officers Association and funded by the Lions Club, has been a major cause of discontent for years. The incident of October 8, which took place nearly 30 years since the installation of the statue, is a direct attack on the idol which is seen as being representative of casteism and gender discrimination in Hinduism.
After the three – Kantabai Ahire, Sheela Pawar and Mohammad Abdul Shaikh Dawood – allegedly smeared the black paint on the statue, they were immediately taken into custody and booked under non-bailable sections of the Indian Penal Code for destroying public property and hurting religious sentiments. The complainant in the case is Bharat Bhushan Gupta, the high court’s registrar.
But despite the fact that there have been several petitions for nearly 30 years to have the statue torn down and a clear undercurrent working towards the same, the Jaipur police is looking at this incident as an isolated crime. More so, the presence of the one Muslim man has become the central focus of their investigation.
While seeking custody, the police claimed Dawood, the Dhule district president of the RPI-Kharat faction, could possibly have some “criminal links” and it was essential to find out if the act was done with the intention of flaring “communal disharmony”. They also termed the act was “politically motivated and planned just a month before the Rajasthan state assembly elections to cause tension in the state”. Presently, all three have been sent to jail after two days of police custody. Their bail application will be heard only next week.
But right from the time of the arrest, the women have remained unfazed and have said that they are committed to fight Manuwad (the laws of Manu) and that this act was a symbol of their resistance against the practice of caste sanctioned in Manusmriti.
Ahire and Pawar are landless daily wage labourers from Aurangabad. They have earlier been associated with RPI, which is led by Union minister Ramdas Athawale, and in 2013 had joined Sachin Kharat’s ‘RPI-Kharat’ – a faction formed after Kharat had differences in opinion with Athawale. Although the party has not jumped into electoral fray, they have been at the forefront of agitating against caste atrocities and questioning the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government on issues such as farmer suicide, unemployment and most recently, the violence against Dalits at Bhima Koregaon.
Kharat’s faction is considered to be adventurous and it has launched several aggressive agitations, leading to criminal cases being filed against some of its activists. Kharat and his followers shot to fame in 2012 after they stormed into the office of Suhas Phalshikar in the Savitribai Phule Pune University campus, over an offensive cartoon of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar which was included in the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbook. Phalshikar was the chief adviser of the textbook development, and eventually resigned from his post.
Even though the Rajasthan incident was “impromptu”, as Kharat’s party office bearer claim, the discontent is not new. Both the Rajasthan state government and the judiciary have been criticised for being “Brahminical” by allowing the anti-Bahujan idol to continue to exist the court premises.
There is no evidence to back the claim that Manu ever existed. But as the legend goes, Manu had authored Manusmriti, also known as ‘laws of Manu’, which laid down regressive laws for the shudras and the ati- shudras and women. These smritis – believed to have composed somewhere between 200 BC and 1000 AD— sanctioned different rules and punishments on the basis of caste. And to have a symbol of something so inherently unequal in the high court’s premises has been considered against the principle of justice and equality.
The lawyers representing the three who have been arrested told The Wire that fighting this case amidst “severe caste hatred” among the legal fraternity has been a challenge. “The arrested persons were heckled and threatened at the time of their arrest. Even when they were produced for extension of their custody two days later, several male lawyers in their uniform surrounded the women and verbally abused them. They asked the women if they would dare do the same thing with the Brahmin lawyers,” said advocate Tarachand Verma.
In a video making rounds on the social media, Ahire and Pawar are seen being harassed by a mob of men surrounding them. One man, whose face is not seen since the camera is facing the women, is heard challenging the women and forcibly announcing his brahmin caste identity.
The ongoing agitation
Verma further adds that the general atmosphere among the legal fraternity in the state is caustic and the presence of Manu’s statue in the high court’s premise has only further divided lawyers on the basis of caste.
As soon as the idol was set up in 1989, a huge agitation was sparked in the state and following the objections, a full court resolution had directed that the idol be relocated. But this order was challenged by Jaipur-based VHP leader Acharya Dharmendra.
The case has time and again been brought before the court’s bar association and in August 13, 2015, the matter was again taken up in the high court after a period of 25 years. A division bench of chief justice Sunil Ambwani, Ajit Singh and V.S. Siradhana issued notices to the Centre and state government, impleading them as respondents to the petition.
Back in 2001, a delegation of social activists led by a veteran social worker Baba Adhav had travelled from across Maharashtra to Rajasthan seeking demolition of the statue. “Courts are looked at as place of equality and where justice is ought to be done. We had staged protest at the court seeking the demolition of a fictitious man’s statue who has been a symbol of great inequality and caste- hatred. Since then the agitation has continued in spurts every now and then,” recalled Nitin Pawar, one of the senior members of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule Samata Pratisthan, a congregate working with labourers from organised and unorganised sector in the state.
Pawar also hopes that the state drops the criminal case against the women and recognises their courageous act as a “wake- up call” and finally dismantles the statue. “They have reignited the fire now. The agitation will only intensify from here on,” he said.