The silent protests by Marathas were triggered after the brutal rape and murder of a minor girl from the community in Kopardi of western Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district in July this year.
The girl, a Class 8 student, was gang raped, tortured and murdered by three Dalit labourers when she was on her way home from her grandfather’s house.
Sources said a few days after the incident there were protests in Kopardi but brewing angst among the Maratha community erupted and the initial apathy from politicians resulted in it spreading to neighbouring villages, and later, to the adjoining Marathwada region, seen as a cauldron of caste politics in Maharashtra.
The first call for a big rally was held in Aurangabad by a group called Sakal Maratha Samaj – an umbrella group of around 9 organisations -- on August 10. It saw an unexpected turnout. In the last month and a half, nearly 100-odd organisations have joined and many have sprung in districts in the short span.
The first rally, which was not taken seriously by either the administration or the Maratha politicians, set a pattern for the rallies to come. It included non-violence, a marked shift from the community’s history, young women protesters, the absence of leaders and remarkable discipline.
While the movement has been portrayed as faceless and leaderless, it has moorings in 100-odd community organisations and importantly a core of hardline organisations like the Maratha Mahasangh, Maratha Seva Sangh, Sambhaji Brigade, Chaava and Jijau Brigade that have been working in the state for more than two decades.
These Shivaji cult organisations, that are also distinctly anti-Brahmin, are said to be close to the Nationalist Congress Party, dubbed as the party of the Marathas. They have been spearheading the community’s demands including reservations for several years. And, have successfully galvanised the unrest among the youth in the past over issues centring around a sense of injustice, honour and victimisation.
Sambhaji Brigade’s vandalism of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune to protest the controversial book on Shivaji by American author James Laine in 2003-04 is just one example of the group’s extremism. But all those protests were seen as political and they stayed in the margins.
“We had held a round table conference at Satara two years ago and envisaged massive protests across the state over reservation but a majority of the participants had political links. The community is fed up with the established leadership of the community as it has been equally exploitative and promises haven’t been kept,” a leader active in organising the marches said.
“This led to the idea of the leaderless, silent protests even though all our organisations have been active since day one,” he added.
Leaders and mentors were kept out of the picture. But after the success of the first few rallies, leaders representing the organisations and political parties tried to hijack the show but were shown the door.
“Spiritual leader Bhaiyyuji Maharaj, Shivaji descendants Udayanraje Bhosale and Sambhaji Raje tried to intervene at various levels, but they had to bear the brunt over social media. Even political leaders across the party lines have been kept at bay and they have been asked to join the marches from the rear rows. They have now been prohibited from giving any reaction to the media,’’ one of the organisers of the protests said.
“Recently, even the leaders of the opposition were told to stay away from the government offer to join them for the dialogue with the community,” he added.
According to insiders, political leaders, industrialists and bureaucrats belonging to the community have been chipping in to fund the protests.
“It takes but an hour to collect the funds. In the majority of the districts here, local politicians across party lines have contributed for fundraising in our personal capacities as just regular participants,” a Congress politician from Marathwada told Hindustan Times.
“The established leadership has been kept away from the organisation as the community is disillusioned with its established leaders. I would not be surprised to see if the handful Maratha ‘empires’ in politics biting the dust in near future,” socio-political analyst Kumar Saptarshi said.
Pradip Salukhe of Maratha Seva Sangh said that the silent protests across the state are the result of the movement run by various Maratha organisations for last few years.
“Though none of the organisations is the driving force behind the protests and we have been putting a united show, we have been working on the issue for more than 15 years. Today smaller groups and organisations have been formed at district and taluka levels with different names to gather people under one flag,” Salukhe said.
“It is nothing but the outcome of the thought process and brainstorming put in place by us for years,” he added.
Besides Kopardi, the Devendra Fadnavis government’s attempt in targeting the cooperative sector controlled by Marathas has also proved to be a crucial reason for the uproar, according to observers.
The state’s history shows that the Maratha-led organisations have played active roles in venting the unrest against the government whenever the community realised to have loosened its grip on the power.
Some of this was felt way back in the 1980s over the appointment of AR Antulay, a Muslim Congressman, as the chief minister and the establishment of the Shiv Sena-BJP government headed by a Brahmin CM in 1995.
These organisations have played an active role in the keeping the unrest burning.