//Dalit unrest in Maharashtra upsets PM, Sonia

Dalit unrest in Maharashtra upsets PM, Sonia

6 Dec, 2006 IANS

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are "extremely upset" over the Dalit killings in Maharashtra and the violence last week in Mumbai and elsewhere, party sources say. But there are no plans to tell Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to step down.

Both the prime minister and Gandhi are also worried over the police failure to quickly respond to crisis situations and overcome violence in India's most industrialised state that is an engine of its economy.

According to party sources, Gandhi was moved to tears when Dalits from Khairlanji in the state met her here last week and narrated the story of attacks on them.

"She almost broke down when Bhaiyalal Bhotmange (whose family was murdered in September) said his slain daughter's name was Priyanka. Gandhi told him that her daughter's name was also Priyanka," a Congress leader said.

He said while Gandhi listened to his shocking story for more than an hour, Manmohan Singh met the relatives of the victims for half an hour immediately after returning from Manipur last week.

"Both leaders are extremely upset over what is happening in Maharashtra," said a high level Congress source.

The party sources, however, said the Congress leadership was not keen on replacing the chief minister although both Gandhi and Manmohan Singh felt that the police machinery in Maharashtra had virtually collapsed.

Dalits in the state have been protesting against the Maharashtra government's mishandling of the unrest among Dalits over the Khairlanji killings. Upper caste thugs raped and murdered four members of a Dalit peasant family Sep 29.

The simmering discontent sparked widespread violence last week in many parts of Maharashtra when thousands of Dalits went on a rampage to protest against the desecration in Kanpur of a statue of Dalit icon B R Ambedkar.

The protesters torched two trains and damaged more than 100 vehicles, leaving Mumbai in a state of shock.

The violence came after the July train bombings, which fortunately did not spark any major trouble. And there have been any number of suicides by farmers in the state.

"The leadership is aware the police have failed in Maharashtra. They failed miserably to sense last week's happenings," said a senior Congress leader from the state.

But many in the Congress believe the chief minister is not at fault.

"I think he is just being unlucky. It is a coalition government where your ally heads the home ministry," he said, adding that many Congressmen felt that Maharashtra Home Minister R R Patil did not handle the issue properly.

Patil is from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is in alliance with the Congress in the state.

Congress leaders worry that the deteriorating situation in Maharashtra could cost the party dearly.

"Farmers, minorities and Dalits have been a major source of support for the Congress. We are losing them all in Maharashtra. We have to plan a strategy to win them back," said the leader.

The party leaders also pointed out that a change in leadership would be difficult now as the state was going through local elections.

"You cannot change your chief minister in the midst of local elections," argued one source.

Moreover, Deshmukh is seen as one of the leading fund-raisers for the Congress whose services will be much sought after when assembly elections are due in four states early next year.