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Dalits, Patidars & Marathas Rise: The Political Sands Are Shifting

A new kind of caste politics is challenging the status quo of Indian politics.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
New leaders like Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani are challenging the status quo in Indian politics. (Photo: <b>The Quint</b>)

For over six weeks now, Marathas in Maharashtra have been out on the streets in force. Their demands are that the SC-ST law be abolished, and that their community gets reservation.

Nobody had anticipated their ‘Muk Morcha’ to become as big as it has now. When the community announced their rally, few took them seriously even though Marathas are traditionally considered strong in Maharashtra.

Marathas make up 33 percent of Maharashtra’s population. Out of 288 electoral assemblies, Marathas can influence who wins or loses at least 75 seats.

Eminent politicians Sharad Pawar, Ashok Chavan, and Prithviraj Chavan all belong to this community, and have all held the Chief Minister’s chair in Maharashtra.

A Movement Without a Political Party

What is significant is that the Maratha movement has been launched without the support or guidance of any political party, and it plans to carry forward for two more months. Several parties and leaders have now come forward to lend their name to the movement, but haven’t made much headway.

In the neighbouring state of Gujarat, 22-year-old Hardik Patel, who has been in prison for the last 11 months, came forward to become the face of the Patidar movement.

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Hardik Patel, leader of the Patidar agitation. (Photo: PTI)
Hardik Patel, leader of the Patidar agitation. (Photo: PTI)
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The movement led by Patel too began without any political godfather. The same Patidar community that has been the BJP’s backbone in the state for 25 years, now has bones to pick with the party.

Politically, Patidars and Marathas are both strong and influential communities. Why, then, have they taken to the streets in protest?

In Gujarat, another protest was triggered when four Dalits in Una were flogged in full public view by gau rakshaks. Dalits rallied first in Ahmedabad and then marched up till Una.

The community forms only seven percent of the state’s population, but the voice of their movement rippled across the nation. It’s important to note that this movement too was not orchestrated by any political party.

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New Leaders and BJP’s Dwindling Power

Other than the Patidar and Dalit protests, Gujarat is witnessing the rise of yet another movement. This is the movement of kshatriyas against the issues of prohibition in the state. In the month of November, the community, led by 40-year-old social worker Alpesh Thakur, will go up to the state assembly.

The impact of these movements has the BJP breaking into a sweat, so much so that the party has had to change the Chief Minister in their bastion of Gujarat.

All these movements are inherently political, but go far beyond the hands of even key political parties or players.

The political fabric of the country is witnessing the emergence of new faces. Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel have already made a mark at a young age. Similarly, JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar became a hero overnight and Rohit Vemula, in his death, became the new symbol of the Dalit movement.

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Where Do These Movements Stem From?

We need to ask: Is the rise of these pertinent movements the failure of politics as we have practised? Have political parties failed to protect the interests of these communities? Has one society begun to consider the other a threat? And is the political status quo changing?

Jignesh Mevani addressing supporters at Una on 15 August 2016 (Photo: Facebook/<a href="http://v/">Jignesh Mevani</a>)
Jignesh Mevani addressing supporters at Una on 15 August 2016 (Photo: Facebook/Jignesh Mevani)
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Finally, have social media and sensational television headlines conceived a new social thought that demands a different political framework to realise its ambitions?

There’s no dispute that the liberalisation of 1991 shook the Indian society and transformed it forever. New economic ambitions emerged and a new middle class was born.

India’s growing economic prosperity led to the inception of a new confidence in society. This confidence is now asking for its place in the Indian democracy and polity, and for a specific kind of transformation of society as we know it.

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Traditional politics can no longer keep up with the rapid transformations in society.

In 2011, this phenomenon manifested for the first time. Anna Hazare’s Anti-Corruption Movement shook up the stronghold of traditional politics.

When this movement graduated into a political party and fought elections, parties as old as 50 years were put on the back foot. Despite Narendra Modi’s 2014 political wave, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly elections. This miracle was not the work of any one party, but of the new ambition born within the average citizen. The same miracle will be repeated in Punjab too.

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Why Is the Patidar Agitated?

It is the flight of ambition that leaves Marathas and Patidars unsatisfied with their political share. Not unlike any other society, the elite have managed to succeed by virtue of the privilege and entitlement of their birth.

The community of Marathas and Patidars, therefore, find themselves to be neglected in society.

They feel that they make for a convenient votebank, but their welfare and interests are compromised.

A large section of Patidars have migrated abroad for better opportunities. Patels, not unlike Sikhs, have become a significant economic group in the United States and other countries.

In Gujarat too, a section of Patels have had a stronghold on the political seat. But when the members of the community underneath the creamy layer find themselves without economic and financial amenities, resentment naturally arises.

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Former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. (Photo: Reuters)
Former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. (Photo: Reuters)

Patidars and Marathas are therefore fighting for reservations because those below the creamy layer no longer want to forego their ambitions. When they find themselves paid far less than their capabilities and educational qualifications demand, they have no other way to express their anger.

The Patidars no longer have faith in their leaders, and so the movement was born outside of that political space.

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Dalit Agitation Without a Political Party

The Dalits too have little faith in their leaders. Gandhi, during the freedom movement, decided that the movement would be incomplete without the support and voice of the Dalits.

On 30 March 1938, he said that unless untouchability ended, Hindutva would be destroyed. Jawaharlal Nehru often worried that Gandhi would lose sight of the larger movement in trying to walk with the Dalits.

Gandhi never gave up his fight for Dalits, but after his death and independence, the movement got diluted. Dalit leaders and parties got consumed in filling up their pockets.

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A New Social Media Movement

Social media has provided Dalits with a platform to come together. Rohit Vemula has become the face of the Dalit agitation. The community wants a political share as well as its adequate share in society.

In light of the renewed agitation, Dalits chose not to go to the old jaded leaders who had let them down, but found a new leader in 32-year-old Mevani.

But we need to understand that it would be wrong to see these movements as a conflict between different societies and communities.

This is not the story of one community pitted against another. Though Patidars and Marathas are asking for Dalit reservations to be revoked, and reservations for their own communities, it’s still the story of one community asking for its rights.

This story will write a new a script for India and will give birth to a new political atmosphere.

(The views in this article are the author’s own, The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(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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