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Why are the country’s farming castes furious?

Throw a stone in Maharashtra today, chances are you will hit an angry young Maratha. Over the last three months, they have poured into the streets in different parts of the state 24 times, in numbers between 10,000 and 100,000.

india Updated: Nov 02, 2016 11:31 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Marathas in Maharashtra participate in a stir in October 2016. At one-third of Maharashtra’s population, Marathas are estimated to be around 37 million.
Marathas in Maharashtra participate in a stir in October 2016. At one-third of Maharashtra’s population, Marathas are estimated to be around 37 million. (HT File Photo)

Throw a stone in Maharashtra today, chances are you will hit an angry young Maratha. Over the last three months, they have poured into the streets in different parts of the state 24 times, in numbers between 10,000 and 100,000. They keep their mouths shut as they march, but only until you ask them what makes them angry.

Anil Mane is angry because at 25 years of age he has no work and no wife. Mane is a graduate who has spent the last three years in Pune trying to make it into the Maharashtra Public Service Commission. He has hit the streets to protest four times in three months. “If I don’t get in, then back to village, back to fields,” he says.

Aarti Devre is angry as she expected life to be easier after she cleared the Joint Entrance Examinations and got into an engineering college, but it hasn’t been so. “My parents had to sell land in our village to pay my fees. I get a fee cut but it’s not enough. Every six months, I have to pay about one lakh rupees, but the OBC students pay Rs 56,000 and SC students, Rs 7,000. How is it fair?”

Jats in Haryana participate in a protest in February 2016. (HT File Photo)

Mane and Devre were among a multitude of Marathas who marched through Kolhapur on October 15. The crowd was angry for a range of reasons: non-profitable farming, lack of jobs and even diminishing marriage prospects, among others. “A Maratha man is supposed to be settled by 23 and have a family by 25,” explains Bhaiya Patil, a social media coordinator for the movement. Mane relates to this. “But who will marry a Maratha without a job or a future,” he asks.

At one-third of Maharashtra’s population, Marathas — a collection of middle caste groups who claim a common identity based on a tradition of military service — are estimated to be around 37 million.

Between August 2015 and August 2016, the youth of dominant farm communities across a large swathe of India took to the streets. In Andhra Pradesh, Kapus shut down road and rail networks. In Haryana, Jats cut off the flow of water to the country’s capital. In Gujarat, Patidars forced the fall of a chief minister.

“Various things are common between them,” says Himanshu, associate professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They are numerically the largest groups in their respectable states. These are among the richest states in India. These are states with the highest rates of urbanisation. These communities are victims of a social structure that has changed in the last 25 years,” adds Himanshu, who goes by his first name.

The average age of the marching Maratha is 25. These 25 years of their existence have marked an existential crisis for India’s farming communities. The slide started with the fragmentation of land. “My father has two brothers and both have two sons each. Even if I go back to the village, how much can I do with the little land I have left to me,” says a young man who distributed biryani packets to the marching protesters in Kolhapur.

Weather conditions are rarely conducive. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in Maharashtra were impacted by a severe drought last year. More than 3,000 took their lives. “I have seen people dying — neighbours, relatives,” says Patil.

Himanshu breaks down the farming crisis. “Internationally, the prices of agricultural commodities have been falling. So has the per capita income in agriculture. The average growth of the sector has slowed down over the last 15 years. It is 3 to 4 per cent, whereas the country’s growth is 7 to 8 per cent.”

The world no longer has any use for the battle-ready masculinity through which some communities such as Jats and Marathas have defined themselves for decades. Their socioeconomic certainties have been toppled by what these agrarian groups call the twin blow of “Mandal commission and LPG — liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation”.

Patidars in Gujarat participate in a protest in February 2016. (HT File Photo)

They loathe India’s new services-driven economy because they haven’t been able to carve within it space for themselves. “These are the same people who once saw government jobs as a kind of slavery,” says Himanshu. “The problem their youth is facing is one of educational unemployment.” But it is a problem most young Indians are facing, points out Dipankar Gupta, Director of Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University in Delhi. “The demand for quotas is more an expression of political power than economic backwardness.”

Used to a privileged existence due to their numbers and monopoly of political power, they find themselves lumped in with the eight million Indians who enter the job market every year.

Pravin Gaikwad, a Maratha leader, blames ‘LPG’. “After LPG, the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer,” he says. “Unemployment in our community,” he adds, looking at the roof, “is high, high, high.” Diminishing political clout is another source of anxiety. In all three states witnessing protests — Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat— the current CM is not from the dominant farming caste: Maratha, Jat and Patidar, respectively.

Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology at the Delhi University, says, “Only the rank and file can relate to demand for quotas. The rest are concerned with a realignment of political power. There is vacuum in most of these states. Maharashtra, for example, doesn’t have a settled polity. Neither does Gujarat.”

What the Patels, Marathas, Jats and Kapus find harder to face are the cumulative effects of quotas for lower castes. It means their fall has coincided with the rise of people they are hardly willing to register as equal, explains Gupta. “The protests are more an expression of caste entitlement.” The erstwhile dominant communities — Deshpande terms them “forward backwards” — see reservations as their right. But not everyone sees it that way. “We are a backward country. You can’t have backwardness as an eligibility criteria for reservations,” points out Anand Teltumbde, a civil rights activist based in Maharashtra.

Gupta cites the system of points under Mandal-led reservations. “The Mandal commission has three points for economic backwardness. It has no legroom for poverty as a criterion for reservation. A community needs at least 11 points to qualify. There are 12 points for social backwardness. There is no way those currently agitating for quotas can show themselves as being discriminated against.”

For Prabhakar Sonwane, a Pune-based Dalit rights activist, the gulf is clear. “You want to know the difference between a poor Maratha and a poor Dalit? It’s mainly that the first still owns the second.”

But that’s no consolation for the angry Marathas. According to Dalit entrepreneur, Chandra Bhan Prasad, the Marathas take pride in the past but seek a place in the future. “That’s how they enter the conflict zone.”

(This story is the first in a three-part series)