Maratha protests: What do they mean and who is behind it

Last Updated: Wed, Sep 07, 2016 09:41 hrs
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(Image: Twitter/@Patil10261968)

Much of the mainstream media has ignored the large protests of Marathas that have taken place in several smaller cities in Maharashtra. After the Jats and the Patels, they are now the newest group mobilising in a show of strength to demand reservations as well as amendments to SC -ST Atrocities Act.

One of the main incidents said to be fuelling the protests is the brutal rape of a 15 year old girl in a village in Ahmednagar district. The three men who have been arrested for the crime belong to the Mahar caste and though the brother of the victim claimed that there was no enmity between the communities, the incident led to several local protests and bandh calls by Maratha organisations claiming that double standards prevailed in law enforcement response as the victim is not a dalit.

A month and a half later large numbers of people gathered in silent rallies in Ahmednagar, Jalna, Jalgaon, Beed, Osmanabad and Parbhani. The DNA reported that Sakala Maratha was one of the prominent organisations behind the mobilisations and that leaders have claimed that these gatherings are spontaneous and not connected to any political party.

Sambhaji Brigade spokesperson and NCP leader Pradeep Solunkhe, who is also a part of the Sakala Maratha team, said they had decided to ensure that the protest was apolitical. He added no slogans were given out in morchas, with protests culminating in a reading of the charter of demands by girls and the subsequent handing over of the list to the district authorities.

This article in the LiveMint by Abhiram Ghadyapatil has insights from various participants in the rallies. While the rape was a trigger, there are larger economic reasons that many have claimed as reasons for the anger. Mansingh Pawar, one of the prominent leaders, has been quoted saying that the popular notion that Marathas have political clout is false.

A minuscule minority of Marathas is politically influential while more than 80% of them are confronted with severe livelihood concerns born out of their dependence on subsistence farming, lack of quality education and job opportunities, and misuse of the Atrocity Act. At the time of independence, 80% Indians were dependent on agriculture. This percentage has come down to 55-60% but in Maharashtra, 80% of Marathas are still surviving on subsistence agriculture. The resentment comes from these factors.

An RSS activist Kishore Shitole while towing the line of the organisation that there ought to be no divisions along caste lines justified the show of strength by the Marathas.

The anger comes from the persistent political refusal to talk to the larger groups about their concerns while pandering to the smaller groups. To raise the issue of caste is fundamentally wrong but large groups such as the Marathas have no other option but consolidate. To avoid this caste-based narrative we need the uniform civil code and reservations based on the economic criteria.

Many observers feel that the agitations are not spontaneous. Prakash Pawar, a political analyst and professor at the faculty of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University says that there is a certain degree of planning that must go into the way these rallies are carried out-

The way these rallies have followed a format and mobilised large turnouts defies the claim that they are spontaneous. Each rally ends with the national anthem, refreshments are arranged, girls make speeches and statements, and typically in every rally, careful attempts are made to keep the streets clean to give a kind of symbolic support to Swachh Bharat campaign and also to indicate that the protesters are not against the BJP.

This article by Ashish Dikshit in the Qunit delves deeper to examine the source of the anger. According to the writer, the Marathas who constitute almost a third of the state’s population have been demanding reservations from the 1980s and when it was finally granted by the State government under congress and NCP rule, the Bombay High Court ruled that 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

Another important reason that Diskshit points out is the tension brewing between the Dalit and Maratha communities. One of the demands of the protesters is that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act must be amended as it is being unfairly misused to target other communities. This has found a voice of support in Sharad Pawar who agreed that the law requires amendment.

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 Maratha.

However, this article in The Firstpost reminds us of Ahmednagar’s turbulent past as a site of many-a dalit-maratha conflicts.

The Ahmednagar district, where the girl was raped and killed, has also witnessed caste hostilities in the past.In 2014, a teenage Dalit boy Nitin Aghe was murdered over an affair with an upper caste girl in Kharda village. Last year, a Dalit youth Sagar Shejwal was hacked to death in Shirdi for playing a song on his mobile that praised BR Ambedkar. In January this year, three Dalits were killed and dumped in a septic tank in Sonai village, as one of them was in love with an upper caste girl. Elsewhere, a Dalit teenager Swapnil Sonawane was killed in Nerul, Navi Mumbai last year, for being in a relationship with an upper caste girl.

Former Chief Minister and Congress leader Narayan Rane has said that many BJP leaders too were behind the protests. He also said that the BJP government was also to blame for the unrest -

The Congress-NCP regime had extended the reservations. But after the court stayed the move, the present regime has done nothing to get the stay lifted

As more protests are being planned in the coming days, the state government has claimed that no formal proposal has been made to meet them. With the dalits threatening to hold a rail rokko and the Maratha protests to continue, one can only wait and watch what the BJP’s response will be.

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