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The new wave of caste wars: Marathas feel their social order is under threat

india Updated: Nov 03, 2016 09:46 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Protestors participate in the ‘Maratha Kranti Morcha’ in Thane, Maharashtra on October 16. (PTI)

“Ek samaaj lavish zindagi jee raha hai, ek samaaj badtar zindagi jee raha hai (One community is living the good life, while another community is living the hard life),” says social media coordinator Bhaiya Patil, surveying the Maratha war room in Kohlapur.

Patil’s words echo the angst shared by tens of thousands of Marathas hitting the streets across Maharashtra over the last few months. Though considered a dominant cluster of castes, a majority of the Marathas have come to believe their place is being usurped by other communities.

Read | Part one of our series: Why are the country’s farming castes furious?

Many such as Patil, 27, want to reverse this trend through a Maratha reawakening. “Marathas were blamed for everything that was wrong in Maharashtra. But that’s not the case on the ground,” he says, in between sending out tweets and WhatsApp messages to get more and more participation in protests seeking quotas for Marathas in jobs and education.

The messages he and his team send out are finding a ready audience. The silent Maratha marches have registered sizeable turnouts: nearly 50,000 protesters packed the narrow streets of Kohlapur in mid-October.

Binding the protesters is a litany of grievances: from lack of jobs and education to rise in status of Dalits.

“Every one of these protesters is the child of a farmer,” says Patil. Many of them, he adds, come from the same family background as he. Dependent on cotton and sugarcane farming, his parents have suffered losses for three consecutive years. The years were hard on them for another reason too. “My brother couldn’t get into an IIT, but he had enough marks in JEE to go to Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information Technology in Gujarat. The first year, they charged 60,000 rupees. For next year, it jumped to Rs 1,20,000. We were forced to take a loan.”

Read | Maratha stir: Dalits fear return to ‘old days’

In this file photo from October 16, protestors hold a silent protest in Rajwada, demanding reservation for their community and justice for Kopardi rape victim. (Shankar Mourya/ Hindustan Times)

According to Pravin Gaikwad, the state president of Maratha Seva Sangh, “The basic problem of the Maratha community is we are not getting education. Private colleges charge too much fee, our people can’t afford: Rs 12 lakh for engineering, Rs 50 lakh for medical. Government controls 15% share of professional colleges. But total number of seats available are 7,500 in engineering and 1,500 in medical. They have to first consider SCs and STs. And then OBCs, 32% of the state. No space for Maratha youth here. They have to work with their hands.”

It is something most are not prepared for. “These are not people who want to get into manual labour. They want ‘respectable’ jobs. But there is a demand for labour in the new economy — so, that’s where the Dalits are coming in, whether in building construction or brick kilns,” says Himanshu, an associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

ANATOMY OF THE MARCH
On August 9, Maratha organisations held their first silent protest march in Aurangabad
1,000
is the approximate number of volunteers who constitute logistical backbone of the movement

38 lakh
people are engaged on the Facebook page of the movement

50,000
WhatsApp groups, a website and several Twitter handles and mobile apps

  • The volunteers are divided at the district, tehsil and village level as well as a range of smaller sub-groups

  • The protest is kept leaderless to avoid what organisers say are lessons from the Lokpal movement ("personalities hijack movement") and Patidar agitation ("the Maharashtra government canft possibly arrest one lakh Marathas").

  • The protests are speculated to have the support of nearly every major player in Maharashtra, whether openly or not . from NCP to MNS.

  • The poster designs are created by Marathas employed in advertisement agencies in their free time, claim the organisers. They start being plastered across the city chosen for a rally nearly a month in advance. A variety of local groups pitch in, from ’Stationery salesmen federation’ to ‘Jain Samaj’.

  • Every aspect of a rally is tightly controlled by a group of senior volunteers: from entry and exit plans . to and from the city . to parking guidelines and strategies for crowd control.

Read | The Maratha movement is driven by historical memory

According to Himanshu, who goes by his first name, the Dalits are leveraging the new working-class jobs towards upward mobility. They begin by making the most of the transport linkages between villages and cities. Urban economy allows the Dalits both anonymity and autonomy; it also helps them transition to the middle class. A sizeable section of Marathas, therefore, find themselves under siege in Maharashtra’s cities.

Marathas like Patils are seeking education and jobs to fortify their pre-eminence in a social order currently in flux. They also want other castes to be put back in their place, as observers put it.

Read | Only employment opportunities can quell Maratha protests

According to civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde, the protests sweeping the state have more to do with restoration of Maratha dominance. Marathas, he says, have a lot of pride and would not be ready to give up their superior caste status. For that matter, only a section of the Kunbis identified themselves under the OBC category during the Mandal commission survey, Teltumbde points out.

Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology at the Delhi University, explains, “Doing business for yourself is the cultural ideal for these landed communities.”

A closer look at the set of demands put forth by the agitating Marathas reveals that their movement has restoration of their caste status at its core. On top of the list is an amendment to the SC and the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, put in place in 1989 to ensure punishment for culprits and compensation to victims through special courts.

(HT Photo)

WHAT SPARKED PROTESTS

The rape and murder of a minor Maratha girl in Marathwada’s Kopardi village — the accused in the case are three Dalit men — is widely seen as a spark for the Maratha frustration with their gradual loss of power over the upwardly mobile Dalits.

The Marathas have long blamed the constitutional intervention for tilting the caste dynamics in the favour of Dalits. Among their seven demands, two pertain to installation of a statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea and the withdrawal of state honour bestowed on a historian, Babasaheb Purandare, who they accuse of showing Shivaji in a bad light.

The Marathas are following the battlefield formula to defeat the new enemies: closing ranks. “If 10,000 Jats can shut down Delhi, imagine what will happen if one crore Marathas spill out on the streets of the capital?” asks Patil. Gaikwad says, “There will be problem if the government doesn’t pay attention.”

The posters plastered across the state echo their intent.

“Our fathers, forefathers fought for this country. What we must fight for is our community,” says one set. “If our silence can create so much terror, imagine what our voice can do,” states another.

The mood at the protest in Kolhapur on October 15 was xenophobic, according to observers. The first speaker at the rally was an 11-year-old girl dressed in all black. Her size did not matter to her audience. Most of them couldn’t even see her on the stage, but what they could was a huge statue of Chhatrapati Shahu ji Maharaj, the fourth commander-in-chief of the Maratha empire.

The little girl swung her arms in sword-like motions as she thundered into the mic. “How can we allow ourselves to be suppressed in this land where Shivaji ruled?” The crowd nodded in silent approval.

Read | All you need to know about the Maratha silent protests

This is Part 2 of our series on the Maratha caste agitation. Look out for the third and final instalment tomorrow which explores the Dalit reaction to the Maratha protest.