Maharashtra politics never fails to amuse and intrigue onlookers. For the latest developments, reading the “true lies” and contextual clues served up by the protagonists and their publicists may never set us on the path to truth, so there is little choice but to take recourse to history.
In keeping with the current flavours of nationalism, the real source of political troubles in the State can easily be traced back to about 1300 AD, when Alauddin Khilji’s armies raided the Deccan.
But before proceeding, there must be a rider that puts the onus of responsibility on the past chroniclers who recorded these events in their time without giving much thought to the way they may impact present-day shindigs.
So, this early looting expedition by the rebel nephew (of the Delhi sultan, not the one from Baramati) led to a period of intense conflict followed by 350 years of rule by Muslim dynasties in the Deccan. More importantly, it defined the path of social mobility, military and civilian bureaucracy, governance, and patronage, which left a lasting impact on the modern state or province of the Marathi-speaking people.
Over the centuries, the ones who prospered were the Brahmins and select families termed the “Marathas”. From early on, various groups of Brahmins served the Muslim rulers and became crucial to their functioning in the Deccan. They virtually ran the whole administration and were familiar with revenue and other “deep state” affairs, thus being well positioned to form the bureaucratic backbone of the modern state when it came into being in 1960.
The story of modern Maratha elites
It is at this same time that the story of the modern Maratha political elites begins. The term “Maratha” is an old one, but there is little in early historical references to indicate it meant anything other than a resident of a land, south of the river Narmada, where Marathi was the dominant language.
What distinguished the Maratha elites from fellow Marathi-speaking peoples of different castes—Kunbi (tiller), Lohar (ironsmith), Sutar (carpenter), Mali (gardener), Dhangar (shepherd), and so on—was the martial tradition and the rights and privileges (watans and inams) they gained for the military service they provided the Bahamani and its five successor states.
Early references to these troops in the Mirat-i-Ahmadi and other sources is as bargirs, a generic term for cavalry who did not furnish their own horse and military equipment. Gradually, they became independent Maratha units, with their own horses and equipment, operating under fellow Maratha chieftains. The rest is history.
The classification of the Maratha elites as a new caste category continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, setting these families apart from the cultivator, farm labourer or factory worker of the day. The other important factor that set them apart was the internecine factional feuds they engaged in over the centuries, which may have gone a long way towards developing the factional politics that came to dominate the Maharashtra polity.
It can thus be concluded that the latest rebellion by the nephew and his band of bargirs—which incidentally means “burden carriers” in Persian—against the uncle is yet another episode in a centuries-old saga.
To fully understand the latest episode, it may help to look back at the nature of the elite Maratha families who established themselves solidly in their respective territories (watans and inams), backed by their military and/or political might.
There is the famous Maratha trait of clinging, at all costs, to local rights to land revenue and military-cum-political might as heads of a village or province, which many historians have described as the refusal of the (then) new landed elite to return to the status of a serf who is at the beck and call of the polity. In essence, they got used to being “owners” of villages or provinces and exploiting the land and people.
In the best of times, when peace, stability, and prosperity prevailed, the Maratha elites would ensconce themselves in their fortified mansions and focus on improving their revenue collections and preparing for future battles. Whenever the state descended into chaos due to a factional conflict or foreign invasion, it presented both opportunities and risks. The Maratha elites would be forced to or willingly take sides in the ensuing battle for succession or annexation. Troubled times were like a high-risk, high-return investment—they either became kingmakers or lost everything.
As Ramchandra Nilkanth, a high official in the Maratha polity and an astute 17th century observer of statecraft, wrote: “When a foreign invasion comes, they make peace with the invader with a desire of gaining or protecting a watan,… allow the enemy to enter the kingdom by divulging secrets of both sides, and then become harmful to the kingdom [and] get difficult to control. For this reason the control of these people has to be cleverly devised.”
- Politics in Maharashtra, much like in the past, is dominated by the Maratha elites and their kinship networks. The community accounts for around 30 per cent of the State’s population but enjoys much higher political representation.
- What distinguished the Maratha elites from fellow Marathi-speaking peoples of different castes was the martial tradition and the rights and privileges they gained for the military service they provided the Bahamani and its five successor states.
- The recent political developments in Maharashtra is another episode in a centuries-old saga in which the elite Maratha families have established themselves solidly in their respective territories, backed by their military and/or political might.
The current political crisis can be seen from this perspective. Politics in Maharashtra, much like in the past, continues to be dominated by the Maratha elites and their kinship networks, since solidified by the electoral process. The community accounts for around 30 per cent of the State’s population but enjoys much higher political representation.
As the political scientist Suhas Palshikar’s study reveals, the Marathas “have been getting around 45 per cent of seats in the Assembly”, and “except in the 1980s, their share in the Council of Ministers has never gone below 52 per cent”. Eleven of the State’s 20 Chief Ministers have been Marathas, including the first, Yashwantrao Chavan, and the present occupant, Eknath Shinde.
“Marathas control nearly 54 per cent of educational institutions, 70 per cent of cooperative institutions, and well above 70 per cent of the agricultural land in Maharashtra.”
What makes the contest worthwhile for a true-blue Maratha in the 21st century? It certainly is not a piece of land. Palshikar’s study shows that Marathas control nearly 54 per cent of educational institutions, 70 per cent of cooperative institutions, and well above 70 per cent of the agricultural land in Maharashtra.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was bang on when, speaking in Madhya Pradesh, he referred to the “allegations of scams of nearly Rs.70,000 crore” against the party of the Maratha elites. It is well known that the party chief’s nephew stands accused of involvement in the Maharashtra Cooperative Bank scam, the Maharashtra irrigation scam, and more. As the Prime Minister said: “The list is too long.”
The events unfolding in Maharashtra can hardly be described as a rebellion in the true “Maratha style” of the bygone era. The so-called rebels, who are now being referred to by their friends-turned-foes as the “ED [Enforcement Directorate] faction”, remind one of a contemptuous description by early British officials of “a beggarly mob of claimants”, who stand in contrast to their former position as administrative lynchpins of a village.
Be that as it may, there is something intrinsically solid about the character of the Deccan and its people that has remained virtually unaltered for centuries despite the tiresome contrivances of history. The land witnessed many invasions and devastations, with endless wars turning it into a graveyard of ambitious monarchs and battle-hardened generals.
The hardy peasants may bend but will not break, and as soon as the enemy weakens or retires, they are known to spring back in revolt. Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis should know this. After all, “Fadnavis” is a Persian hereditary title for a Brahmin minister who handles finance and administration.
At the moment, it may look like the rulers in Delhi have hit the bull’s eye. But they should read what Nilkanth wrote about the Marathas: “They are no doubt small but independent territories…. But they are not to be considered as ordinary persons… [they] are really sharers in the kingdom. They are not inclined to live on whatever watan they possess, or act loyally towards the king…. All the time they want to acquire new possessions bit by bit and become strong....”
Anosh Malekar is an independent journalist based in Pune.