THERE are no leaders and there are no speeches. There are, however, lakhs of people walking together in a disciplined and almost silent manner, ensuring there is little disruption to public life. Women and students lead the march, while professionals, farmers and activists fill in the middle and bring up the rear. Politicians have been allowed to participate but not lead. The protesters have emphatically said that this is a non-political demonstration. At the end of the walk, five girls present a charter of demands to the District Collector. Since August 10, at least a dozen such rallies have been organised reportedly by a clutch of Maratha groups and many more are expected in the coming weeks. At a time when loud and violent protests seem to attract more attention, the Gandhian approach of these rallies is quite intriguing. The sheer size, scale and silence have not just made a national statement but have definitely shaken the political establishment in Maharashtra.
What triggered the protests was the rape and murder of a minor girl from the Maratha community in Kopardi in Ahmednagar district in early July. The three accused are Dalits. The protesters demand a quick verdict and the death sentence for the culprits. The incident has also played a catalysing role in bringing the dominant Maratha community together for their two main demands: reservation in education and employment; and amendment of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Political observers in Maharashtra say the rallies are not to be taken lightly. The strong outburst of the people indicates it could be a tinderbox that will explode any time. The demands have multiple layers and the authorities, even if they are unable to deliver on the demands, should probably take cognisance of the anger; otherwise there will be serious political repercussions, observers say. Furthermore, the anti-Dalit movement seems to be gaining momentum and could polarise the State in a way not seen before.
“We have been completely kept out of the protests. They have made it very clear they do not want to associate with any political party,” says Ramraje Nimbalkar, a senior leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and current Chairman of the Maharashtra Legislative Council. The community is closely associated with the NCP, which is led by Sharad Pawar. Pawar was present at one or two rallies, but he has kept a low profile. Informed sources say he is funding some of the organisations, but the support is covert.
Nimbalkar says the demand for reservation is not new and the anger against Dalits is age-old. Much of the discontentment within the community comes from the difficulties encountered in getting education and jobs. He says while the community members are historically landowners involved in agriculture, over the past few generations the land has been either divided or sold. The lack of options to generate an income while other communities move ahead is obviously causing the anger, says the veteran politician known for having an ear to the ground.
Frontline spoke to a cross section of the people associated with the rallies and found that the resentment in the community was deep-rooted. Most observers compare the Maratha protest to the Jat movement in Haryana and the Patidar movement in Gujarat, where the main demands are reservation in education and employment based on economic criteria. The three communities form the largest section in the population in their respective States and belong to agricultural classes that have been facing rough times for a host of reasons that came following the economic reforms of the 1990s.
“What they are showing in these rallies is that the Maratha community is in a crisis. They are feeling the loss of both political and economic power,” says Himanshu, an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University who is currently with the Centre de Sciences Humaines in New Delhi. “If you look at the demands, very little can be done. Owing to their numbers reservation is probably impossible and amending the Act will also not happen that easily. The real issue is the economy. It does not create jobs, and with the agrarian crisis the way it is, the resentment is coming to the surface,” he says.
The feeling among Jats, Patidars and Marathas is that their traditional leaders have failed them. Interestingly, all three communities, which have had a strong leadership tradition, are facing this crisis, says Himanshu, who has written extensively on the subject. Additionally, he says Marathas are seeing Dalits flexing their muscles and moving ahead. According to him, insecurity has set in which is causing resentment.
Harish Patne was one of the organisers of the rally in Satara city, the erstwhile capital of Chhatrapati Shivaji and one of the centres of Marathas. “The mobilisation was huge. People are frustrated. Every party has failed us. We have to rise up. These rallies will show we want our demands met,” he says.
Patne says because Marathas do not have reservation in education, many of their youngsters remain poorly educated. “If a Maratha student scores 90 per cent and a Dalit 70 per cent, in all likelihood the Dalit gets admission, as open category is extremely difficult. We are fighting these injustices. The Prevention of Atrocities Act is used freely on our community. This must be looked into seriously. Many of our youths are arrested because of vendetta issues or on flimsy grounds because of this Act.”
Ahmednagar district, where the Maratha girl’s rape occurred, is known for its deep caste fault lines. State crime records say that in 2015, as many as 116 cases were filed by Dalits under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. This is the highest among all districts in the State.
The demand for reservation for Marathas was first made in the 1980s. However, political support came much later. Threatened by the rise of Hindu right-wing parties, then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar decided to support the call and made it a significant issue in the run-up to the 2009 elections. In 2008, the National Commission for Backward Classes heard the demand to include Marathas in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. However, its verdict was that the community was not politically or economically backward. Keeping its promise, the Congress-NCP combine in the State passed an ordinance in 2009 giving 16 per cent reservation to the community. This was challenged by a few public interest litigation (PIL) petitions filed in the Bombay High Court. The High Court stayed the ordinance.
Observers say it is highly unlikely that the demand will be conceded. The Constitution does not allow States to have reservation beyond 50 per cent except in exceptional situations. Maharashtra has already exceeded the limit by 2 per cent. If Marathas are included in the OBC category, they will cut into another community’s quota, which will naturally displease a massive vote bank.
It is estimated that Marathas along with a sub sect, Kunbis, constitute 34 per cent of the Marathi population in Maharashtra, demographically the largest community in the State. Explaining the community’s dynamics, Kumar Ketkar, Chief Editor of Dainik Divya Marathi, says: “The Mandal Commission recognised Kunbis for reservation but not Marathas. In reality, traditionally, Marathas look down upon Kunbis. When Kunbis rose with the help of Mandal Commission reservation, in the same class Marathas remained where they were. So the competitive spirit forced non-Kunbi Marathas to ask for reservation. As a result, suddenly there is this ‘unity’ among all Marathas, because all of them see the Dalit as a common [and lower class] competitor in an economic environment of stagnation and inflation, further compounded by droughts, inadequate irrigation and monsoon floods, with the government bureaucracy falling short to meet the growing demand.”
Ketkar adds: “It is a phenomenon, partly of the caste structure entering into the class phenomenon, while retaining most caste prejudices, hatreds and contempt towards the ‘other’. Clearly, the newly emerged caste-class arrangement is unable to accommodate all. As a result, instead of taking a straight forward class position, they take the identity route through caste, and the hyped Maratha sentiment goes viral.”
Although politicians were deliberately left out of the rallies, the issues are nevertheless political. In spite of the popular belief that most Marathas owe allegiance to the NCP, the community is spread across all parties, says Ketkar. In fact, when the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna published a cartoon on the rallies—which showed people kissing (it was a take on the silence and peace part of the rally)— Marathas within the Sena took offence and ensured that its leader, Uddhav Thackeray, apologised.
It is important, therefore, for all parties in the State to appease this community, says Ketkar. Barring two, every Chief Minister of Maharashtra in the past 56 years has been a Maratha. A few political theories have emerged after the rally. The most popular belief is that Marathas are feeling the absence of someone in their corner, hence the show of discontent. Current Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is a Brahmin, and it is believed the Marathas feel politically sidelined from the power structures in the establishment.
Another theory is that swayed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to improve its economic lot, the community helped the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) win the election. However, the Fadnavis government has not delivered on the party’s election promises. In fact, there has been a systematic attempt to break down the rural economy by targeting the sugar cooperatives and cooperative banks—both held by Marathas. “If Fadnavis doesn’t get a grip on the situation, especially if Dalits retaliate, he will go the Anandiben Patel way,” says a junior politician from the BJP.
“The Chief Minister says he wants dialogue, but there are no organisers of the protests. We have presented our demands through 10 charters during the past month. Our anger is against the government and politicians. We need to see some action from them or this protest can be damaging for them,” says Pradeep Salunkha, a leader of the Maratha Seva Sangh, a hard-line Maratha organisation involved in organising the rallies.Crisis in agriculture
One of the demands made in the rallies is for the implementation of M.S. Swaminathan’s recommendations on the State’s agrarian crisis. The report was submitted in 2002 and has been followed up by several more recommendations over the years by the agricultural scientist. Swaminathan has been emphasising that a “job-led economic growth strategy can be adopted in rural Maharashtra”. He has also suggested a holistic approach to fundamental issues to help Maharashtra’s farmers.
The staggering number of suicides arising from Maharashtra’s farming crisis is well known. The most affected group within the agricultural community has been Marathas, says Vijay Jawandhia, leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana in Wardha. In the aftermath of the economic reforms of the 1990s, Marathas, who are largely farmers, have suffered extensively. The younger generation has no interest in agriculture, and it is not well educated either. “The lack of options in income generation in the Vidarbha and Marathwada belts has led to this severe crisis,” says Jawandhia.
Each year thousands of farmers commit suicide because of crop failure and debt. Maharashtra has recorded 20,504 farmer suicides since 2001. Successive years of drought have dealt a cruel blow to farmers, and there has been little relief from the government.
While the Chief Minister announced a Rs.10,512 crore package for farmers in December 2015, he refrained from announcing any loan waivers, says Jawandhia. “There have been attempts to help farmers in the form of special packages, but nothing at the holistic level that will take care of employment. If you think of it, an entire generation has come up during the period of the crisis and suicides. It has absolutely no opportunities available. Naturally, there is deep resentment.”
According to Jawandhia, it has been so with all large agricultural communities: Jats in Haryana, Gujjars in Rajasthan, and Patidars in Gujarat. Even if agriculture were in a better position, the new generation would not want to be involved in this sector. But it has few other options, says Jawandhia.
Equitable development does not seem to have happened. Jawandhia cites an example to illustrate this. The Fifth Pay Commission recommended a minimum wage of Rs.2,550. It was increased to Rs.7,000 by the Sixth and Rs.18,000 by the Seventh Pay Commissions. Agricultural profits have shown marginal increases or none at all. Therefore, those who are eligible for service jobs have scaled the income ladder, while those who do not qualify have remained where they were 25 years ago, he says.Warriors and farmers
An academic at the Babasaheb Ambedkar Technical Institute in Maharashtra, who writes on the issue, says “Marathas are skilled in either fighting or farming. As they are kshatriyas [warrior class in the four Hindu social orders], this is the traditional form of employment. Of the population, about 20 per cent go into the forces. Unfortunately, the community has slipped through the cracks between trying to find equality with Brahmins and seeing Dalits progress.” The creamy layer of Dalits, he clarifies.
Ketkar says the community can be broadly divided into four categories. On top is the traditional, large-landholding Maratha. Add to this old “aristocracy” of 96 kul [clan] Maratha, the neo-rich Maratha, who rose to be the “ruling class” thanks to the Green Revolution, the political power base and cash crops such as sugarcane, grapes and cotton. The second layer is the relatively well-off middle farmer with power linkages and cash crops, and with aspirations for power. About 50 years ago, this class was known as the “motorbike farmers” because of the penchant of the youth of this class to flaunt his newfound wealth. This youth was the “dada”-cum-local thug, who would use his money/muscle power to terrorise the hapless Dalit or even the poorer Maratha.
The third level is the lower peasant, who owns patches of uneconomic dry land or very small holding, which is just enough for subsistence. The fourth layer is the landless, agricultural labour, who often works in the rich farmers’ land or for his family. The third and fourth layers are the most vulnerable and get devastated by droughts and floods.
Ketkar says the feudal system is what Marathas follow. However, in the top two categories, education among girls is quite widespread. The aspiration and modernity levels in this class, particularly among girls, are remarkably high.
Ironically, a chunk of Maharashtra’s private higher educational establishments and the cooperative sector are owned by powerful Maratha families. There is a direct link in this State between politics, cooperatives and colleges. Yet the community itself does not seem to have gained much in spite of its creamy layer being at the helm of critical sectors.Retaliation
As the rallies began taking a life of their own, Prakash Ambedkar, the leader of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh and son of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, appealed to Dalits not to retaliate. He defused what could have become a volatile situation by constantly saying that there would be “no counter-agitation”. Speaking to Frontline, he says Fadnavis has a tough task ahead. For Public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam arguing for the death sentence, the rape case will be a true test of his skills. In the Khairlanji massacre of Dalits by members of the Kunbi Maratha community in 2006, the public prosecutor had only demanded punishment for the culprits. As for reservation, if the State does give in, the OBCs will be antagonised and that will involve heavy political costs.
Following the first few Maratha rallies, the OBCs took out a demonstration in Nashik as a form of retaliation. However, Prakash Ambedkar says the media portrayed it as a show of support for former Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who is under arrest on corruption charges. “In any case the OBCs feel there are so many more corrupt people, but only Bhujbal, an OBC, is under fire.”
Meanwhile, the Maratha groups have been using social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to mobilise support. The Patidars used the same method to drum up support for their movement. If nothing else, the mobile revolution has been extremely successful for the beleaguered community.