- A dominant and politically powerful community, the Marathas now want quotas
- Anti-atrocity laws, they say, should be changed or repealed because Dalits file false cases
- The farm crisis has hit Marathas badly. Without education, their youth are unable to get jobs.
Less than a month after Nashik held one of the many record-breaking Maratha morchas, the city and neighbouring villages witnessed a tense week after a minor was allegedly sexually assaulted by another minor. The incident acquired caste overtones in no time because the accused is a Dalit, the victim a Maratha. Huge crowds took to the streets torching buses and police vehicles. At least seven to eight Dalit houses in the nearby villages were also burnt down. The state administration controlled the situation by disabling internet and transport services. The internet was restored after a week and the area continues to be on alert.
Outwardly this may have no connection with the Maratha Kranti Mook Morcha, or the community’s silent marches, but the simmering tensions, increasing disregard for and disapproval of the other castes—Dalits, in this case— and a feeling of being left out in the race for progress is clearly palpable in the statewide demonstrations. Any trigger—minor or major—can cause widespread unrest, especially with the help of social media, say political pundits.
The Nashik incident is an example. These incidents indicate that the so-called spontaneous and non-violent protest marches have the potential of going out of control. Meanwhile, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has announced financial help to Maratha students. The government has also declared its support for reservations for Marathas. The matter is being heard by the Bombay High Court.
Meanwhile, Marathas continue to take to the streets to protest the rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi, to demand a repeal of or amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and also to highlight the plight of farmers. They have been in the news for massive mobilisation, the overwhelming presence of women, absence of a political leadership and for garnering support across party lines. More morchas are planned, including one at Nagpur during the winter session of the assembly, but some voices of doubt seem to be getting louder within the community.
“At the organising committee meeting in Kolhapur, there were questions about whether the demonstrations can actually result in the fulfillment of demands because either they are pending before the court or require parliamentary intervention,” says Dilip Kolhe, a farmer from Kolhapur district. “Farmers need real help. Soon sugarcane cutting season will start and the struggle for competitive prices will happen yet again. But no one is talking about those issues anymore. This is turning into something else now.”
That something else is a rather worrying development for activists and sociologists. While making the demand for reservations, the girls who make the speeches at the end of every morcha, speak on these lines: “We need justice for our sister who was killed brutally. Hang the culprits in public. We do not get admissions or jobs despite getting 70 to 80 per cent in exams, whereas Dalits get government jobs easily.”
The previous government’s attempt at giving them 16 per cent reservations has not succeeded so far, considering Maharashtra already has 52 per cent reservations. Then there are complicated issues about sub-castes within Maratha community who may already have reservations like the Kunbis or who may be uncomfortable with the idea of being labelled “backward”. Nonetheless, they unequivocally demand an assured share in government jobs and education.
The Shiv Sena has also made its pitch, saying it supports reservation for Marathas
“The understanding is that of disenfranchisement. It dates from 2004 to 2011-12, when a major transformation occurred—the rise of the middle class,” says Neeraj Hatekar, a professor of economics at the University of Mumbai. “During this period, when India registered a growth rate of six to seven per cent, before the downturn, rural poverty fell rapidly. Rural wages increased, and the economic status of Dalits improved, causing conflict. This has resulted in Marathas feeling isolated. They feel the others have gone ahead and so now they demand reservation.”
The farming community, once well-off and hence averse to education and jobs, has been in jeopardy for long. Erratic monsoons, unfair crop pricing policies, lack of irrigation or insurance coupled with rising costs of labourers, fertilisers, pesticides and seeds have deepened the agrarian crisis. For years, the state has had an alarming numbers of farmers’ suicides, especially in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions. The children of Marathas, who may not have higher education, are staring at a loss-making future on the farm while Dalits and OBCs with quotas get government jobs.
Whether it is in Ahmednagar or Kolhapur—wherever Marathas are not only predominant but also powerful—youth often speak of misuse of the Atrocity Act by Dalit groups. At another demonstration, a Maratha family narrated incidents of Dalits filing false cases and threatening the upper caste villagers. Ironic as it may sound, the feeling of victimhood is on the rise among Marathas, who once opposed quotas.
Women’s activists, however, are anxious about the turn of events. “One needs to understand whether violence is gender-based or caste-based, whether the perpetrator comes from a position of power or not. While Khairlanji incident was about caste, the circumstances indicate that Kopardi may have been gender-based,” says Anagha Sarpotdar, a PhD scholar working on sexual violence. “I do not see them understanding or talking about the Kopardi incident from a feminist or women’s rights perspective. The danger is that of women from both communities being at the receiving end in the case of a conflict.”
Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar says no political leader is in a position to control the situation now. “There are three sections of Marathas. One is the economically stressed-out section, which deserves attention and help. Second is the corrupt Maratha leadership across all political parties. And third is the section which is with the RSS. The common goal of the last two sections is unrest. Not to forget that the OBCs and Marathas are also divided.”
A spokesperson for the Shiv Sena told Outlook that the party supported Maratha reservations and that Uddhav Thackeray had already made a demand for it since “reservation for economically backward classes is the need of the hour”.
Even as more morchas are planned through social media, the need for a representative delegation to discuss these issues on a formal platform is voiced by many. However, as of now the community is insistent on remaining faceless, so to say, resulting in ‘diffused demands’.
Hatekar says, “Because the demands are not clear it can go either way. A clear cut agenda needs to be given by the leaders to channelise the crowds positively.”