Maharashtra Government Asks Villages and Localities To Drop Caste-Based Names

Social justice minister Dhananjay Munde said the step was taken towards “annihilating caste” in society.

Mumbai: Naming and identifying colonies, areas and villages by caste names is a common phenomenon in Maharashtra. To do away with this, the Maharashtra cabinet on December 2 unanimously decided to drop caste-based names of areas, colonies and villages in the state and replace it with more “equitable names”. The decision, social justice minister Dhananjay Munde said, was a step towards “annihilating caste” in the society. “We aim at creating social harmony and a sense of kinship among different communities,” he said.

The cabinet decision came after Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar flagged the issue to Munde and called it an “inappropriate practice”. “Why should any locality be known after a particular caste? Pawar saheb had discussed the issue with me and felt we should do away with the practice as soon as we can. This decision was an outcome of the discussions with the party head,” Munde said.

Particularly in villages, settlements are segregated as per castes. While the upper castes live separately in their own chosen spaces, those from the lower castes are forced to the periphery of the village setting. Each of these settlements is known by the caste identity of their inhabitants. It is a common sight to find a basti identified, if not officially named, as a “Maharwada” or a “Mangwada” in the villages. While these names, in most cases, are a manifestation of the casteist mindsets and rather used scornfully while addressing the lower castes settlements, the upper castes identify themselves by their caste names with a sense of pride. A Brahmanwadi or a Maratha gully is just as common a thing in a village setup.

This practice also spills over into urban settlements, where colonies and cooperative societies are again named after castes, usually upper and dominant castes. There are also several cooperative societies in cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur that are exclusively built for the Jain community. These housing societies practice extreme exclusivity and do not allow people from other castes or religion to move in. But the recent order does not cover the societies or settlements that are named after a religion. “These are settlements named not after a certain caste but a religion. We have not taken any decision about them yet,” said a senior official from Munde’s office. Similarly, many housing complexes also disallow the consumption of meat. Though this practice is illegal, the cabinet decision has remained silent about it.

‘Can  expect little change’

Ashok Tangade, a social activist and an anti-caste leader from Beed district says on the face of it, the state’s decision might seem progressive. But, he said there is very little that one can expect to change on the ground. “This is like changing a package but the product inside remains the same,” he says, adding that in most instances, the names are not officially given but are imposed by the caste Hindus of a village.

“Dalit colonies that have officially been named after anti-caste leaders still get identified by the caste of their inhabitants. How does the state plan to change this attitude?” asks Tangade. Very rarely, he says, would one find villages named officially after the lower caste names. And if they are, the savarnas don’t call it by the official name, he adds. “For example, take the Mahar Takli village in Georai taluka of Beed district. While the Bahujans call it by its official name, the dominant upper castes have long since changed the name to “Maha Takli” in their usage. This was not done with an anti-caste intention, but because they want to disassociate from the lower caste name,” he explains.

Tangade says, instead, the state should focus more on ensuring justice for victims of caste violence or incentivise inter-caste marriages in the state. “What stops the state from ensuring protection and social security for couples falling in love or marrying outside their castes and religion?” he asks. Several instances of caste violence have been reported in the state over the past few years because of inter-caste relationships.

Regardless of its “superficiality”, Ganpat Bhise, an anti-caste leader from Parbhani and president of the Lal Sena party, says the step should be welcomed. “I don’t believe that this step would annihilate caste, nonetheless, it is a good starting point for further discussions,” he says.

Bhise – who has for the past two decades advocated for the right of the Dalits and marginalised communities to access crematoriums in the village – says, “The true test of such decisions is to see if the government can ensure equality at every level. We are still fighting for access to common drinking water, crematoriums and grazing land in most villages. The state should also consider them on priority,” he added.