For the past one month, the Marathas have been holding silent protests across the state, demanding reservation for their community and justice for the death of a teen who was allegedly raped by Dalit men in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district on July 13. The agitation by the Maratha Kranti Muk Morcha, which also seeks amendments to the “misused” Prevention of Atrocities on Dalits Act, threatens to redraw the political dynamics in Maharashtra. Last Sunday, the rallyists, holding saffron flags with the image of 17th-century warrior-king Shivaji, marched down Pune, drawing huge crowds—much like they earlier did in Akola, Nanded, Beed, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Jalgaon and Jalna, Navi Mumbai and Latur.
Here’s a look at the three central theories—doing rounds in the corridors of power—that explain the reasons and powers behind the faceless mass protests being coordinated through social media, particularly WhatsApp:
1. A bid to mobilise caste for reservation
The demand for Maratha reservation dates back to the 1980s, but it was resurrected in the last decade during the tenure of the Congress-NCP government in the state. The reservation demand coincided with consolidation and spread of hardline Maratha groups like the Maratha Seva Sangh, Sambhaji Brigade and the Jijau Brigade. The ruling Maratha politicians indirectly supported it.
Political observers view the Maratha politicians’ support to such groups and instigation for reservation to the community, also, in the light of them losing a consolidated support of this community in favour of the saffron opposition including in Marathwada and central Maharashtra, considered as the state’s caste cauldron.
Even though no political party in the state is now opposed to reservation to the community, the demand is unlikely to make a breakthrough in the courts as it will take overall reservation in the state over 50% to nearly 74%. The other reasons why the reservation demand stands on thin ice is that the Backward Class Commission, while considering the demand in 2008, had opined that the community is politically and economically not backward. The High Court echoed the opinion in November 2014 when it stayed the Congress-NCP ordinance to give 16% reservation to the community. Further, ‘Maratha-Kunbis’, the peasant class among the Marathas, already has reservation within the OBC block. If the community is given reservation within the OBC block, the move will alienate the OBCs.
This is the reason why many view the ongoing silent protests as a bid to mobilise caste to put pressure on the Centre and the judiciary.
2. Political reaction by sidelined Maratha politicians
Even though the protests have been faceless, they have got backing from Maratha political heavyweights from the Congress and NCP and even community leaders from within the BJP.
There is serious speculation that even if NCP chief Sharad Pawar may not have designed the protests, he and his party have supported it financially, with party leaders contributing to the local protests whether it is indirectly by organizing transport, hoardings or strategy.
In many ways, the protests are also an expression of political sidelining of Marathas from decision-making and power structures in Maharashtra. On the rural economy front, this is a reaction to the BJP government’s systematic attempt at breaking down existing structures of cooperative banks and sugar cooperatives. At the state level, this is a reaction to the state having its only second Brahmin Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis. While he has nearly 16 Maratha ministers, it’s Fadnavis and the CMO that wields all decision-making powers.
The internal rivalry within the BJP means that Maratha politicians, including ministers in Fadnavis cabinet, are not unhappy about the protests.
Everyone—from former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan to BJP president Raosaheb Danve and sitting ministers of the Fadnavis government—has participated and walked in these protests.
3. Opposition ‘conspiracy’
If there’s anyone who the Maratha silent protests will damage politically, it’s Fadnavis. As the state’s non-Maratha CM, the protests and community anger at the end of the day are a referendum on him and his government. The state’s political circles have been rife with speculation that Fadnavis may go the Anandiben Patel way (in neighbouring Gujarat) if the protests are not controlled. At the crux of such a speculation is the theory that the protests have been guided and fanned by the Opposition, with a little help from Fadnavis’ rivals within the party. Fingers have been pointed at Maratha strongman Pawar by none other than Fadnavis himself, only to get a rejoinder back from the NCP chief. Pawar has clarified that he has nothing to do with the protests, but he said they reflect the increasing angst of a farming community for being ignored in the last year’s drought.