What Lies Behind the Ire of the Marathas

Strange developments have been seen in Maharashtra over the last two month. The Marathas, the most populous and also dominant community, which is understood to have been ruling the state in every sphere, has come out on streets in unprecedented numbers and with unlikely quietude to present its grievances. There is no face yet to these massive demonstrations being carried out under the banner of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, which has been multiplying them on increasingly grander scales at many places in the state. Unknown youngsters, some in their teens, with a preponderance (surprisingly) of girls, have been the face or spokespersons of the agitation. While they march without any slogan and disburse without any speech(es), the placards and saffron flags they carry have, nonetheless, a menacing message. They reiterate their demand for reservations, which is on par with the trend of the demands of the Gujjars in Rajasthan, the Jats in Uttar Pradesh, and the Patels in Gujarat, their counterpart in other states. But their other demand for the repeal of the Prevention of Atrocity Act (PoA) smacked of something fishy. Given the rout of Marathas in the last election, and many of their big wigs facing exposure due to allegations of corruption, howsoever spontaneous the massive rallies may appear, the needle of suspicion flutters towards the National Congress Party (NCP) being behind it.

A Spark and the Blaze
On July 13, a 14-year old school girl belonging to the Maratha caste was brutally gang raped and murdered by allegedly four drunkards who belonged to a Dalit caste at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, infamous otherwise for caste atrocities on the Dalits. All the four culprits were arrested almost immediately. The incident evoked the state wide condemnation as it deserved. But during the monsoon session of the assembly, leader of the opposition RadhakrishnaVikhe-Patil who comes from Ahmednagar stressed the caste angle and attributed the incident to the lack of protection (for Marathas) such as provided to the Dalits under the PoA Act. It was ludicrous, to say the least, as it suggested that the Marathas were vulnerable to atrocities by Dalits, and mischievous because his own district has had a shameful history of most infamous atrocities on the Dalits by the Marathas.

In recent years, a 17-year-old Dalit boy at Kharda in Jamkhed tehsil was brutally lynched to death in April 2014; in January 2013, three men of a family in Sonai village were murdered; in October 2014, three members of a Dalit family were killed at Javkheda; just to name a few of them. The Kopardi incident as such is an exception in terms of Maratha being a victim. 
Several protests and bandhs were observed across Ahmednagar district to demand the speedy arrest of and death penalty to the culprits. Several social and political organisations also staged protests. But after a month, the protests assumed a very different form and content under the banner of Maratha Kranti Morcha. The demand for speedy justice for the victim was overtaken by the demand for reservation for Marathas in education and jobs and repeal of the PoA Act. New demands like implementation of the Shiv Smarak in the Arabian Sea and taking back the Maharashtra Bhushan award from a Brahmin bard Babasaheb Purandare for allegedly insulting Jijamata, were added as demands. The people collected in hundreds of thousands and marched silently. No leader, no speeches and no slogans. Several such silent rallies have taken place, each being larger than the previous one; the last being planned with 100 lakh people at Mumbai. This novel way of the show of strength sans leader and sans organization has stunned political observers.

Politics of Silence

These silent rallies are supposedly supported by individual professionals like doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc., and are executed by the faceless youth who would not allow any established politician. But the sheer scale of them makes this theory unconvincing. News of some NCP politicians admitting logistical support has already been leaked. The people who conceived this form of struggle and maintain its integrity may not show up but they do exist. It is a very creative strategy that used the spark of Kopardi to create a blaze among the fragmented Marathas across parties. Its silence effectively communicated their anger and more importantly, it forged the consciousness of victimhood, which would be lasting political asset for the coming days. The violent protests that the Marathas normally resort to, priding on their warrior pedigree, could not have accomplished these objectives. Violent protests are not scaleable, replicable over the large areas, controllable and are prone to be repressed by the inimical government. This strategy, however, does not obviate the need for huge finance which is not possible without support of political parties.The party that backs it is the one that expects to benefit most.

The Marathas who are almost one third of Maharastrta’s population, are not a homogenous community. Historically they evolved from the farming caste of Kunbis who took to military service in medieval times and started assuming a separate identity for themselves. Even then they claimed a hierarchy of 96 clans. But the real differentiation has come from the post-independence development process, creating classes within the caste.

A tiny but very powerful section of elites that came to have control over cooperatives of sugar, banks; educational institutes, owning factories and politics, called gadhivarcha (topmost strata) Maratha, has its own political outfit in the NCP. The next section comprising relatively populous section of owners of land, distribution agencies, transporters, contracting firms, and controlling secondary cooperative societies, are the wadyavarcha (well-off strata) Maratha, is with the Congress and the BJP. And the third, comprising the balance of the population of small farmers, are the wadivarcha (lower strata) Maratha who is with Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), etc.

Enthused with the Patidar agitation that forced the removal of Anandiben Patel, the NCP that faced its worst humiliating defeat in the last election saw an opportunity to use Maratha anger over the Kopardi incident for mobilizing them through seemingly apolitical protests. The consolidation of the Marathas across strata is bound to benefit the NCP the most, which is seen as exclusively Maratha party. But other parties too, would imagine an enhancement in their vote share. Only the BJP has a big reason to worry, about likely erosion of its Maratha vote base and share because of the incumbency factor, and the fact of its chief minister being Brahmin, particularly in the short term: the impact on the forthcoming civic polls. It would hope to recover grounds partly through coalition partners like Shiv Sena and partly through the vote of Dalits due to their increased sense of insecurity.

Dalits themselves are a fragmented lot left with little political choice and hence may not be a significant factor. BJP has Athawale as its agent; Congress is complacent that Dalits would not see the Hindutva forces as their friends politically, and the other bunch, the rest  do not care a damn about Ambedkarite Dalits as it thinks that ‘other’ Dalits are with them.

Toxic Logic
The demand for reservation for the Marathas has been around since 1997. The government-first appointed committee under the retired judge R M Bapat, who had rejected granting them OBC status in its July 2008 report. The state government instead of rejecting or accepting that report appointed a new committee under the retired judge B P Saraf. Whatever happened to that committee is not known but the state government set up another special committee in the run up to the last elections headed by then minister for industry, Narayan Rane, himself a Maratha. Rane predictably recommended 16% reservation for the Marathas. The eager Congress-NCP government got it accepted by the cabinet and hurriedly issued an ordinance to ensure swift implementation. To its misfortune, the Bombay high Court stayed this decision when a public interest litigation (PIL),  objecting to the grant of OBC status to the Marathas, simply because total reservations in the state would go up to 73%, exceeding the limit set by the Supreme Court.     

The technicalities apart, the main argument of the Marathas is that the majority of them are backward. This argument is axiomatic, applicable to any caste or community including Brahmins and pricks at the logic of backwardness as the basis of reservations. It is true that majority of the Marathas are small land holders, and while taking pride in their socio-political dominance, have been neglected in access to education within the changing environment.

Over the years, with the mounting agrarian crisis, mainly due to neoliberal policies of the government, accentuated by the crop failures in Maharashtra in previous three seasons, they have experienced severe erosion of their status. In contrast, the Dalits who had little or no land, got educated following the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar and his sharp and repeated emphasis on getting educated before getting organized (shiksha, sanghatan aur sangharsh) got jobs and live a relatively secure life. The Marathas grudge this as their suppression of the Dalits no more remains unchallenged. They do not see that their elite (Marathas) who dominated the state power (12 out of 18 chief ministers of the state were Marathas), and the economy and educational sectors under their leadership is now responsible for their misery. As a community, they still own most lands (32% of Marathas owning in excess of 75% of land) and dominate all spheres of public life. They do know that it is not easy to establish themselves as a socially and educationally backward community to be included into the OBC. If they do, the OBCs who are already up in arms against them will agitate further. Therefore, they are subtly demanding scrapping of the entire reservation system itself.  And that seems to be their real agenda.

The other demand asking for the repeal of the PoA Act is a demand directly pitted against the Dalits and is not at all sustainable. The oft-repeated argument of its misuse based on acquittal(s) is self defeating. The fact is that the entire state apparatus is directly dominated by them, which has rendered this Act toothless in implementation as case after case reveals. The rest of the damage has been inflicted by the judiciary. The conviction still hovers around single digits within Maharashtra. These abysmal figures are testimony enough to see the impact (or lack of) this law. The very fact that the Dalit victim of atrocity, unless backed by their community, finds it impossible to get his/her complaint registered, shows up the argument of its misuse to be mischievous. There are, on the contrary, few cases where Marathas bigwigs have resorted to misusing this Act using some Dalit as a proxy to settle scores against their/his caste rival.
When the dominating community develops a grievance it could lead to systemic change provided it transcends its narrow community identity. If not, it could signal a civil war. One hopes that Maratha youth would avoid the latter.

(The article first appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly and is being reproduced here, with some editing, with the permission of the author)



Related Articles