In colonial India, people would place a cat inside a cage with pigeons and make bets on the number of birds it would bring down with one swipe of its paw. The game is said to have given birth to the phrase “to set the cat among the pigeons”.
Something of the sort happened in Maharashtra on September 1 when the police in Jalna district lathicharged supporters of a 40-year-old farmer who was on a hunger strike demanding reservation for Marathas. Videos of the police action went viral on social media, and the “fasting farmer” started pulling in huge crowds, making him, almost overnight, a force to reckon with.
Manoj Jarange-Patil’s arrival comes at a crucial juncture in the ongoing game of dice being played out in Maharashtra’s seemingly unending power struggles.
The proverbial sword of Damocles hangs over Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s head after the Supreme Court rebuked State Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar for delaying a decision on the cross-petitions filed by rival factions of the Shiv Sena seeking disqualification of each other’s legislators following a split in the party last year.
Shinde stands to lose the crown by the year end if he and his MLAs who formed a new ruling alliance with the BJP in June 2022 get disqualified. After Shinde who? This question is on everyone’s mind. Will it be Deputy Chief Ministers Devendra Fadnavis or Ajit Pawar, who have both been eyeing the post for a while now?
The upsurge of the Maratha quota issue has queered the pitch more for the troika than for anybody else. The opposition, with Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray at the forefront, seized the opportunity, and the blame fell on Fadnavis who holds the Home Affairs portfolio. The lathicharge could not have happened without his knowledge, they contended. Fadnavis apologised, and Shinde personally called on Jarange-Patil seeking 40 days to fulfil his demands, including the most important one: issuing Kunbi caste certificates to all Marathas so that they could partake in the quota meant for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
However, when Shinde failed to deliver on his promise, Jarange-Patil again went on a fast on October 25, turning the screws tighter a week later with the announcement that he would stop drinking water until the demand was met. It was as if all hell broke loose. Over a dozen Marathas ended their lives while angry mobs attacked the houses, offices, and vehicles of elected representatives.
Who is Manoj Jarange-Patil?
Looking lean and haggard after his repeated fasts, Jarange-Patil appealed to his supporters to remain calm while he met with a government delegation. He ended the fast on November 2 but not before warning the government to grant blanket reservation to all Marathas within two months. If not, the “Marathas would show their strength on the borders of Mumbai like farmers did on the borders of Delhi during the protest against farm laws”, he threatened.
The unassuming farmer who belongs to the drought-prone Marathwada region said he would soon undertake a tour of the State. Just two months ago, Jarange-Patil was an unknown entity from Antarwali Sarati village in Jalna district’s Ambad tehsil. He was known as the founder of the little-known Shivba Sanghatana and is said to have sold his land of around two acres to fund its activities, mainly protests, over the past 15 years.
His only apparent claim to social standing is the honorific “Patil”, which hints at past glory, of ancestors who were village heads and served as the original lynchpin of administration at the ground level before the arrival of democracy.
Mention his name and most people are quick to point out that he is a “fataka manus”, meaning flat broke, who has only a matriculation certificate. He is originally from a village in Beed district but settled in Jalna district many years ago. Married with four children, Jarange-Patil is not involved with any political party now, although he was district youth president for the Congress until 2004.
Over the years, he kept up a demand for financial compensation and jobs for the immediate kin of Maratha youths who died by suicide during reservation protests. But even at its peak in 2016, the Maratha quota agitation lacked a face. It is that void that Jarange-Patil now appears to have filled.
The majority of his community members still struggle to survive as marginal farmers, especially in drought-prone Marathwada. As one Maratha leader pointed out, only a few hundred Maratha families are politically powerful or successful in business or trade.
Migrating to cities actually meant a further disadvantage since they lacked education or essential skill sets, and they ended up at the lowest end of the socio-economic ladder. A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2014 found only 3 per cent of rich Marathas among the sampled families.
This was nothing new but clearly unacceptable to the Marathas even in the 1960s when Panjabrao Deshmukh, a prominent leader from the Vidarbha region who was Agriculture Minister in the first Cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru, suggested that “Marathas are firstly farmers, then warriors” and appealed to them to “forget the sword” and “embrace the Kunbi identity”. His proposal had few takers beyond Vidarbha, where the community accepted its primarily agrarian background.
There were those who held that the Marathas were a landed caste with an ancestral link to the Sisodia Rajputs—so they were warriors unlike the native Kunbi tillers. This hypothesis received widespread acceptance, particularly in western Maharashtra and Marathwada.
Cut to the 21st century. While many farmers in Vidarbha, Konkan, and north Maharashtra get the benefits of OBC reservation, their counterparts in west Maharashtra and Marathwada are in the lurch and struggling to prove their “backwardness”. The situation is particularly grim in Marathwada, which is often in the news for all the wrong reasons: frequent droughts, crop failures, and unrelieved poverty forcing people to migrate. Of course, there is the rare heartening news when a Suraj Yengde becomes a scholar at Harvard or an Avinash Sable gives the Kenyans a run for their money in the 3,000 metres steeplechase. But we are talking here of the ordinary Marathas who continue to live off the land.
Jarange-Patil may be hogging the media limelight at the moment and the State’s top politicians lining up for an audience with him, but will the focus last? There is a feeling of despair, especially since the Maratha Kranti Morchas came a cropper. The Supreme Court struck down the law providing reservation for Marathas as it exceeded the 50 per cent cap prescribed in the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment. “There is no case of extraordinary situation for exceeding the ceiling limit,” the court emphasised.
Game of brinkmanship
In all likelihood, this episode too might turn into a game of brinkmanship unless Fadnavis convinces his party’s leadership to bring in a constitutional amendment that allows the 50 per cent cap to be bypassed. The other option might be for the Shinde government to file a review petition in the case.
That seems unlikely at the moment, with the government’s future hanging by a thread. The Supreme Court has declined Narwekar’s proposal to extend the disqualifications case until the end of February 2024, asking him to decide on the Shinde side by December 31, and on the Ajit Pawar group by January 31.
Fadnavis did try to counter the sceptics by saying Shinde would not be disqualified. “Even if he gets disqualified, we will get him elected to the Legislative Council and he will retain the Chief Minister’s post. The next election is going to be contested under his leadership only,” the Deputy Chief Minister told a Marathi news channel on October 29.
Fadnavis himself has been at the receiving end of Maratha ire since the police lathicharge. To make matters worse, his party’s official website posted a video compilation of his select statements during the run-up to the 2019 Assembly election that included a clip of him repeatedly screaming, “Mi punha yein” (I will come back)—hinting at a comeback to the helm of the State. This evoked sharp reactions even from his allies as it came on a day after Shinde and Fadnavis visited Delhi on October 26 amid the uncertainties over the chief ministership and the Maratha agitation.
A piqued Fadnavis now alleged that his opponents were targeting him because of his caste. “Entire Maharashtra knows I am a Brahmin… and I cannot change my caste,” he said. Jarange-Patil retaliated: “If he cannot change his caste, we Marathas cannot change ours either. Fadnavis is committing mistakes and that is why he is being targeted. Fadnavis should refrain from discussing caste issues.” However, Jarange-Patil also said the community had forgiven Fadnavis after his apology for the police action, but he must now give quotas for Marathas.
The sharp exchange perhaps hints at Maharashtra’s politics touching a low point. A Marathi journalist said: “Even when Sharad Pawar came to meet Jarange-Patil, a mob raised provocative, insulting slogans, but he ignored them.” Curiously, but not surprisingly, the senior Pawar was among the first to rush to confabulate with the “fasting farmer” in the backyard of a former confidant, the late Ankushrao Tope. His son, Rajesh Tope, the MLA from Ghansawangi and a former Maharashtra Health Minister, continues be a key Pawar aide.
Missing in action
In the ongoing political upheaval, the only actor missing was Ajit Pawar. It was left to his faction leader Praful Patel to clarify that the Deputy Chief Minister was diagnosed with dengue and resting. The rebel nephew went quiet soon after the Shinde-Fadnavis visit to Delhi to confer with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Ajit Pawar claimed to have no knowledge of the meeting. “They did not ask me,” he said.
It was left to his mother, Ashatai Pawar, to spill the beans. “Ajit Pawar is not well and feeling weak. He is loved by the people but who can foretell the future? Everybody wants [Ajit] dada to be the Chief Minister. I am 86 years now. He should become the Chief Minister before my eyes…. Let’s see,” she told mediapersons on November 5 after voting in the gram panchayat elections at their native Katewadi village in Baramati tehsil.
Nishikant Bhalerao, a senior journalist from Marathwada, believes the genie is out of the bottle although it is difficult to say who uncorked it. And, more importantly, to say who will benefit from the shenanigans of the past few months. It could be Shinde perhaps. He has been in regular touch with Jarange-Patil, visiting him at least four times so far. “Ever since their parties split, there is public sympathy in favour of Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray here [in Marathwada]. But Shinde too is a Maratha,” Bhalerao said.
- In Maharashtra, a farmer named Manoj Jarange-Patil gained prominence through a hunger strike demanding reservation for Marathas, leading to a significant political upheaval.
- The police lathicharged Jarange-Patil’s supporters, triggering widespread protests. The incident has intensified power struggles within the State, potentially jeopardiszing Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s position.
- The Maratha quota issue, coupled with the political turmoil, has created a complex situation, with Jarange-Patil emerging as a significant player despite his humble background as a farmer with no political affiliation.
According to Bhalerao, a part of Jarange-Patil’s appeal stems from the “anger and discontentment” among ordinary Kunbis against the established Maratha families. “There is a feeling that this is the final battle. After this, nothing. There will be no future for our kids,” he said. But can Jarange-Patil pull it off? “He has an organisation, but it has neither a cadre nor a think tank. At the moment everybody is rushing to be on his side. But who knows what happens tomorrow.”
The game of dice is likely to go on until the parliamentary election next year. Maybe it is a game to fragment the formidable Marathas, who make up over 30 per cent of the State’s population. A split between Marathas and Kunbis could tilt the balance. “The 2024 Lok Sabha election will be the real test,” Bhalerao said. “Meanwhile, Marathwada will be the testing ground. A colony since the days of the Nizam, it has witnessed pitched caste battles in the past, over renaming Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar, appointment of the first Dalit Vice Chancellor, and so on.”
For Maharashtra’s largest but least developed region, there seems no break from bleak political struggles. In fact, they only seem to intensify with time.
Anosh Malekar is an independent journalist based in Pune.