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Silent Maratha Protests: A Simmering Calm Before a Political Storm

Lakhs of Maratha youngsters are quietly pouring into the streets of interior Maharashtra every week.

Updated
India
6 min read
Lakhs of angry people are coming out and protesting silently in the streets of interior Maharashtra. (Photo:<b> The Quint</b>)

Far away from the media glare in New Delhi and Mumbai, lakhs of angry people are coming out and protesting silently in the streets of interior Maharashtra. Yes, lakhs of them!

These are members of the Maratha community: The most populous and politically influential group in the state. They are united and protesting in a number of cities, against the brutal gang rape of a minor girl in Ahmednagar district in July this year.

The gang rape may have been the trigger, but the issue of reservation for the Marathas, which was scrapped within a year of its implementation, is the main reason behind the outpouring of displeasure, say experts.

After Ahmednagar, a silent march was carried out in neighbouring Aurangabad. Osmanabad and Jalgaon followed. A protest rally in Beed saw over three lakh participants, most of them youngsters and women.

Similar rallies have been planned in Latur, Parbhani, Solapur, Amravati and many other districts. The final rally will be held in Mumbai. Encouraged by the growing response in every rally, the ‘Maratha Kranti Morcha’ plans to get 20 lakh protesters on the roads of Mumbai this month!

The massive crowds have made everyone sit up and think. Why are the Maratha youth so angry? Is this an alarm bell for Fadnavis government, which is perceived as a non-Maratha regime? Does the NCP tacitly support these marches? Will these rallies widen existing caste fault lines in Maharashtra?

Angry Young Maratha

Lakhs gathered at the silent protest rallies in Beed, Osmanabad, Jalgaon and Aurangabad. (Images from Twitter)
Lakhs gathered at the silent protest rallies in Beed, Osmanabad, Jalgaon and Aurangabad. (Images from Twitter)

The term ‘Maratha’ is used for a group of warrior and agrarian clans, castes and sub-castes, which diversify further in different regions of the state. All of them put together constitute around 32 percent of the state’s population.

The creamy layer among them holds land, money, political power, educational institutions and industries, while the rest are poor. They are however, extremely conscious of their glorious and valourous history.

In 1980s, they began demanding reservation. The demand gathered steam in the last decade. With evident defeat in sight in 2014, the Congress-NCP government led by Prithviraj Chavan passed a law giving 16 percent seats in education and jobs to the Marathas without infringing on the OBC reservation. The Bombay High Court scrapped it saying the Marathas are “neither socially nor educationally backward”.

During this time, the government changed and the BJP decided to give reins of the state to a Brahmin leader — Devendra Fadnavis. Less than 50 percent of his council members were from the dominant Maratha caste, which generally saw more than 60 percent presence in the government. Leaders of Maratha organisations felt it was a Brahmin and OBC conspiracy to sideline the Marathas.

Against this politically-fraught backdrop, a minor girl from the Maratha community was brutally gang raped in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district.

“Flesh from all over her body, including her genitals, were torn. Her hair had been pulled out, hands were broken and dislocated from the shoulders, her teeth were broken and she had been strangled to death after rape,” reported local newspapers. 

The gang rape sent shock waves across Maharashtra. The fact that the rapists belonged to the Dalit community added fuel to the fire.

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Marathas vs Dalits

Marathas and Dalits share uneasy relations. When Dalits demanded that the name of Marathwada University be changed to ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University’, riots broke out between the two communities.

Recently, Ahmednagar district witnessed a series of horrible Dalit killings, where parts of dead bodies were mutilated, cut and thrown away. So, when the Maratha girl was gang raped and mutilated, many in the Maratha community thought it was an act of “revenge rape” by the Dalits.

Maratha organisations point out that the maximum number of people jailed under the stringent Dalit Atrocities Act are Marathas and claim that most of them have been falsely implicated to “settle scores”. So the protesters are demanding the repeal of the Atrocities Act, along with strict punishment for the rapists.

When it comes to Dalits, we are always defensive. Atrocity is used as a weapon. Dalits are overusing the act. Many members of the community feel suffocated. Yes, Maharashtra belongs to Shahu-Phule-Ambedkar, but does it not also belong to Shivaji? 
Venkatesh Patil, Author, Maratha Arakshan - Bhoomika Ani Vaastav

NCP chief Sharad Pawar is trying to ride on the success of these protest marches. “The demand to reconsider Atrocities Act should be considered seriously,” he reportedly said in Aurangabad. In his usual style, he gave an ambiguous clarification the next day to placate antagonised Dalits.

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Brahmin Regime vs Maratha Strongman?

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and NCP Chief Sharad Pawar. (Images altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and NCP Chief Sharad Pawar. (Images altered by The Quint)

There is a saying in Maharashtra that Sharad Pawar is behind anything — good or bad — that happens in the state. So, is he playing a part in mobilising people? The answer is no.

Local reporters say that Maratha leaders cutting across political lines are helping in mass mobilisation, although NCP leaders are comparatively more active. But will it help the NCP, which is known to be a party of the Marathas?

The leadership of these rallies is not political, but the intent is definitely political. NCP is discreetly helping some organisers because the party feels that these rallies will help it gain a new lease of life. It will be too early to predict if it’s a danger for the BJP, but the government should open a dialogue with protesters.
Ashish Jadhao, Political Editor, Maharashtra1 

The protesters say the government is not addressing their concerns and they don’t know whom to approach.

This government hasn’t done anything for Maratha reservation in 2 years. It gave Maharashtra Bhushan award to Babasaheb Purandare, despite strong opposition by all Maratha organisations. So, there is a feeling that this is a government of the RSS and the Brahmins. People wonder whom to approach in this government if they need any work done. 
Venkatesh Patil

The government says it is ready to talk, but no one has submitted a proposal yet. The Quint spoke with the Maratha face of the Fadnavis government.

We did whatever was needed in the Kopardi rape case. We immediately caught the accused; fast-tracked the case. We are trying from all sides to get reservation for Marathas. Meanwhile, we are carefully observing and analysing all the rallies. These seem to be apolitical, but some are trying to take political advantage out of it. Not a single leader of any Maratha organisation has approached us. If they want to talk, they should send a formal proposal and we will meet them.
Chandrakant Patil, Revenue & PWD Minister, Maharashtra
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Economic Issue, Political Effects

Young men and women are participating in huge numbers in the protest rallies. Social media, especially WhatsApp is a major tool to reach out to people. (Images collected from Twitter)
Young men and women are participating in huge numbers in the protest rallies. Social media, especially WhatsApp is a major tool to reach out to people. (Images collected from Twitter)

Intellectuals are of the opinion that it is the wider issue that needs long-term solutions. They feel that the Maratha youth has missed out on the advantages of education and liberalisation. While they chose to rest on the laurels of their ancestors and Shivaji, the Brahmins, the OBCs and the Dalits have moved to cities and got decent jobs.

The Maratha community has been affected the most by liberalisation. That’s because most Marathas still depend on agriculture and changes in economic policies haven’t helped the sector much. Land holding is getting divided and there are no jobs. The community may not be socially backward, but it is economically backward. That should be the criterion for reservation. The root cause behind these marches is economic.
Sadanand More, Writer and Historian

The tension in the largest community in Maharashtra is simmering. And in all likelihood, these protest rallies will begin the consolidation of Dalit and OBC communities on caste lines. If the fault lines continue to widen, it can cause social unrest and instigate changes in the political map of Maharashtra.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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