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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

Kopardi, heart of Maratha stir, aches over unkept promises

cities Updated: Oct 16, 2019 00:13 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustantimes
         

Faster trial, better school facilities, safer commute for girls and good roads – these demands top the wish list of Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district, 286km from Mumbai, ahead of the state polls on October 21.

Kopardi made headlines three years ago, when the brutal rape and murder of a minor from this village sparked outrage, exposed caste faultlines and morphed into Maratha protests that took Maharashtra by storm. The schoolgoing girl was from the Maratha community; the three accused in her murder were young Dalit men from the same village.

The community undertook 58 silent rallies dubbed as the `muk morchas’ across the state, pressing for an array of demands – from death sentence to the accused to reservation for the community in education and government jobs. The agitation finally culminated with the Devendra Fadnavis-led government granting the community long-pending quota.

This reservation bill is being seen as one of the BJP-led government’s big wins to placate and win over the Maratha community, which traditionally supported the Congress-NCP. The Marathas make up nearly 32% of the state’s populace and can be a decisive vote bank in around one-third of the 288 constituencies in Maharashtra. The dominant, land-owning agrarian community, had been affected over the last decade by vagaries of agrarian incomes, which had pushed their demand for reservation.

But, in the village where the Maratha protests first took shape, there is a sense of disenchantment over promises not kept. And, the victim’s family still awaits justice.

WAITING FOR JUSTICE, BASIC AMENITIES

“I can grieve and move on only after the accused in the case are punished and served a death sentence. My daughter was so young, full of hope, life, promise and ambition. My only appeal to this government is to ensure a fast-track trial,” said the victim’s mother, sitting in her two-room home that is guarded 24x7 by a security guard appointed by the Maharashtra government to protect the family and avoid caste clashes.

A special court that heard the case found the accused guilty and sentenced them to death; the accused have appealed in the higher court against the order. “I see it as a heinous crime and not a caste crime. I would demand similar punishment for the accused of any caste,” said the victim’s mother.

The village had reacted by first organising a rasta roko in Karjat, taluka headquarters followed by first of the silent morchas in Aurangabad; after that the silent protests took on a life on their own, say villagers.

A contingent from the village of 10-15 people participated in every protest since then.

“It seems like we are where we started out. The chief minister visited our village as did most of his cabinet colleagues. We were promised several things, but nothing has changed on ground,” said Nitin Sudreek, a pomegrante farmer from the village.

For instance, he said the village was promised a bus service for girls, so they would have a safe commute to the higher secondary school, 5km away. While on paper a state transport undertaking bus service has been deputed foe the village, there is no guarantee of it making this trip regularly.

The villagers list out other promises that were made after the incident, but got laid on the wayside. First among these was 10km of good roads leading up to and from the village. The other was better facilities for the village school, including a functional toilet for girl students.

Nitin (most Kopardi villagers share the Sudreek surname) participated in each of the 58 silent protests of the community over the one year after the incident.

When asked if he was happy with the reservation, he said, “At least 42 of our youngsters died in this agitation. Lakhs of people came on the streets. We didn’t get the reservation on a platter from the government and even now who is to say we have got it. The apex court hearing is conveniently just after the elections on November 21.”

The final verdict on the caste based reservation for Marathas that takes quota in the state up to 75% (including ten per cent quota for economically poor) is still pending in the apex court.

This election, Kopardi looks poised to go against the grain and its tradition of last 20-odd years. Instead of a BJP candidate, the majority seems tilted in favour of a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) candidate, Rohit Pawar, also the grandnephew of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. The village falls in Karjat-Jamkhed constituency, which is likely to witness a close contest between Pawar and state minister and two-term MLA Ram Shinde, a Dhangar leader. In case of Kopardi, at least consolidation of Marathas is unlikely to favour the BJP. “It is not about caste. It about who we think can offer us development. During the Lok Sabha polls, we voted for Sujay Vikhe Patil, a BJP candidate because he seemed most promising and now we will vote for Rohit Pawar because we think he will deliver what the government did not,” said Shivaji Sudreek, another villager.

A MIXED BAG

ELSEWHERE

Leaders of the Marathi Kranti Morcha, the platform of the community that organised the protests, like the villagers of Kopardi, complain that despite the promises made, the delivery has been patchy. However, the community itself is split about the support to various political parties and a consolidation in favour of or against a particular party looks difficult.

“The recent Lok Sabha results showed that Marathas supported the saffron alliance and the way the government dealt with the reservation issue. In our post-poll survey, 65% voted for the BJP-Sena, but 30% also retained their preference for the NCP,” said political analyst Nitin Birmal of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The High Court order supporting the government’s reservation bill came after the Lok Sabha, so some of the good will is likely to go in support of the BJP.

But, not all Maratha leaders agree. “The government has granted reservation, but we have to work hard to get it implemented on ground. For instance to ensure recruitment of selected aspirants from the community under the quota for the Maharashtra Public Services Commission, we had to go to court. The same had to be done for MBBS students admissions and police recruitments more recently,” said Pooja Zole, a social worker and a law student, who participated in each of the marches.

“It is almost as if the government has grudgingly accepted our demands, but doesn’t want to implement them. A central demand was speedy justice and that has eluded the victim’s family for three years now,” Zole said.

Another Maratha leader, Virendra Pawar, pointed out how another demand of the community to build a memorial of Maratha king Shivaji had also been kept in the limbo by the government, without a single brick being laid. He said the more recent Enforcement Directorate case against NCP chief Sharad Pawar, seen as the tallest leader of the community, has also not gone down well with many in the community.

“When a 79-year-old leader is harassed in an ED case, just before the election, it sends a different message. There is sympathy towards the NCP, which may go against the ruling party in some constituencies.”

The ruling party hopes that it can walk the tightrope of being a party that is favoured by both the OBC, its traditional vote bank even as it woos the Marathas. A big part of wooing the community has also been by importing big Maratha opposition leaders in the party from the descendants of Bhosale clan of Maratha king Shivaji – Shivendra and Udyanraje Bhosale to former Leader of opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil. “Our government passed a reservation bill for Marathas that has not been stayed in court. We also ensured a fast track court for hearing of the Kopardi case. In both these cases, however, courts cannot be bypassed if there is an appeal. We have done as much as possible to meet demands of the Maratha community and they are aware of it,” said Madhav Bhandari, BJP spokesperson.

He added that not just, Marathas but all sections of the society were with the BJP today. “We are not targeting any one section.”