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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Behind the Ire of the Marathas Margin Speak Anand Teltumbde

Behind the Ire of the Marathas

Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
Maharashtra has seen strange developments over the last two months. Marathas, the most populous community, considered to be dominant in the state in every sphere, have come out on the streets in unprecedented numbers and with unusual calm to present their grievances. There is no face yet to these massive demonstrations carried out under the banner of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, which is repeating these demonstrations on increasingly grand scales at many places.
Maharashtra has seen strange developments over the last two months. Marathas, the most populous community, considered to be dominant in the state in every sphere, have come out on the streets in unprecedented numbers and with unusual calm to present their grievances. There is no face yet to these massive demonstrations carried out under the banner of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, which is repeating these demonstrations on increasingly grand scales at many places. Unknown youngsters, some in their teens—surprisingly girls in appreciably large numbers—are pushed forward as the spokespersons of the agitation. While the Marathas march without any slogan and disburse without any speeches being made, the placards and saffron flags they carry have no less of a menacing message. They reiterate their demand for reservations, similar to communities in other states, notably the Gujjars in Rajasthan, Jats in Uttar Pradesh, and Patels in Gujarat. But their other demand for the repeal of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PoA) smacks of something suspicious. Given the rout of many of the Maratha leaders in the last election, and with some of them facing charges of corruption, howsoever spontaneous these massive rallies may appear, the needle of suspicion points towards the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) being behind them.
A Spark and the Blaze
On 13 July, a 14-year-old schoolgirl belonging to the Maratha caste was brutally gang-raped and murdered by allegedly four drunkards who belong to a Dalit caste at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra, infamous otherwise for caste atrocities against Dalits. All the four culprits were arrested almost immediately. The incident evoked statewide condemnation as it deserved. But during the monsoon session of the assembly, leader of the opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who hails from Ahmednagar, stressed the caste angle and attributed the incident to the shield of protection provided to the Dalits by the PoA. This was ludicrous, to say the least, as it suggested that the Marathas were vulnerable to atrocities by Dalits, and it was mischievous because his own district has a shameful history of atrocities against Dalits perpetrated by the Marathas. A 17-year-old Dalit boy at Kharda in Jamkhed tehsil was brutally lynched 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 mention a few incidents. The Kopardi incident as such is an exception in terms of a Maratha being the victim.
Several protests and bandhs were observed across Ahmednagar district to demand speedy arrest of and death penalty to the culprits. 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 for the repeal of the PoA. New demands like the building of a Shiv Smarak (memorial for Chhatrapati Shivaji) in the Arabian Sea, and taking back the Maharashtra Bhushan award from the Brahmin bard Babasaheb Purandare for allegedly insulting Jijamata (Shivaji’s mother), were added in due course.
Politics of Silence
Several lakhs marched silently and there was no leader, no speeches, and no slogans. Many such silent rallies have taken place, each being larger than the previous one; the last being planned with 1 crore people at Mumbai. This novel show of strength sans leaders has stunned political observers.
These silent rallies are supposedly supported by individual professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc, and are executed by the faceless youth who would not allow the involvement of any established politician. But the sheer scale makes this assertion unconvincing. There is a mention of some NCP politicians admitting logistical support. 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 is using the spark of Kopardi to create a blaze out of the fragmented Marathas across parties. Its silence effectively communicates their anger and more importantly, it forges the consciousness of victimhood, which would be a lasting political asset in the days to come. The violent protests that the Marathas normally resort to—with pride in their warrior past—would not accomplish these objectives. Violent protests are not easy to scale up, replicate over large areas, or control, and are prone to be repressed by the government. This strategy, however, does not obviate the need for substantial finances, which is only possible with the support of political parties. The party that backs it is the one that expects to benefit the most.
The Marathas who are almost one-third of Maharashtra’s population are not a homogeneous 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 hierarchy of 96 clans. But the real differentiation has come through the post-independence development process, creating classes within the caste. A tiny but powerful section of elites that came to have control over cooperatives of sugar, banks, educational institutions, factories and politics, called gadhivarcha (topmost strata) Maratha, has its own political outfit in NCP. The next section comprising owners of land, distribution agencies, transporters, contracting firms, and those controlling secondary cooperative societies, is the wadyavarcha (well-off strata) Maratha, who is with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The rest of the population of Marathas comprising small farmers is the wadivarcha (lower strata) Maratha, who is with Shiv Sena, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), etc.
Enthused by the Patidar agitation forcing the removal of Anandiben Patel from the post of chief minister of Gujarat, the NCP, after its humiliating defeat in the last election, sees an opportunity to use Maratha anger over the Kopardi incident to mobilise them through seemingly apolitical protests. The consolidation of the Marathas across strata is bound to benefit the NCP the most, which is seen as an exclusively Maratha party. But the other parties are also looking towards increasing their popularity with this community. Only the BJP has reason to worry about the likely erosion of its Maratha vote share because of the incumbency factor, and on account of its chief minister being a Brahmin, particularly in the short term as civic polls are round the corner. It would hope to recover ground partly through coalition partners like the 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 choice and hence may not be a significant factor. The BJP has Ramdas Athawale as its agent and the Congress is complacent that Dalits would not see the Hindutva forces as friends.
Toxic Logic
The demand for reservation for the Marathas has been around since 1997. The government-appointed committee under a retired judge R M Bapat, had rejected granting them inclusion in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in its July 2008 report. The government instead of rejecting or accepting the report appointed a new committee under the retired judge B P Saraf. Whatever the current status of that committee, the Congress–NCP government set up another special committee in the run-up to the last elections headed by Industry, Port, Employment and Self-employment Minister Narayan Rane, himself a Maratha. Rane expectedly recommended 16% reservation. The eager government got it accepted by the cabinet and hurriedly issued an ordinance. To its misfortune, the Bombay High Court stayed it in a matter of a public interest litigation (PIL) objecting to the OBC status for the Marathas. This was simply because total reservations in the state would go up to 73%, exceeding the limit set by the Supreme Court.
These technicalities apart, the main argument of the Marathas is that a majority of them are backward. This argument is axiomatic, applicable to any caste or community including Brahmins, and pricks the logic of backwardness as the basis for reservations. It is true that the majority of the Marathas are small landholders, and they took pride in their sociopolitical dominance, neglected education as well as the changing environment. Over the years, with mounting agrarian crisis, mainly due to neo-liberal policies of the government, accentuated by the crop failures in Maharashtra in the previous three seasons, they experienced severe erosion of their status. In contrast, Dalits who had little or no land got educated following Babasaheb Ambedkar, got jobs and live relatively secured lives. The Marathas begrudge this as their suppression of the Dalits would no more remain unchallenged. They do not seem to hold their elites—who dominated state power (12 out of 18 chief ministers of Maharashtra were Marathas), the economy and educational sectors—responsible for their misery. As a community, they still own most land (32% of Marathas own 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 in the OBC list. If done, the other OBCs will be up in arms against them; some already are. Therefore, they are subtly demanding scrapping of the entire reservation system itself; that seems to be their real agenda.
The other demand asking for the repeal of the PoA is directly against the Dalits and is not at all sustainable. The oft-repeated argument of its misuse based on acquittals is rather self-refuting. The fact is that the entire state apparatus is directly dominated by Marathas, which has rendered this act toothless, as case after case has revealed. The conviction rate still hovers around single digits in Maharashtra, and there is proof enough. The very fact that the Dalit victim of atrocity, unless backed by their community, finds it impossible to get his/her complaint registered, shows the argument of misuse to be mischievous. There are, in fact, a few cases where the Maratha bigwigs have resorted to misusing this PoA by positioning some Dalit as a proxy to settle a score against caste rivals.
When the dominant community develops a sense of grievance it could lead to systemic change, provided it transcends its community identity. If not, it portends societal strife. One hopes, the Maratha youth would avoid the latter.
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