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To counter Maratha agitation, Dalits gird up to fight for hard-earned perks

In Part 3 of our Caste Chaos series exploring the Maratha agitation, we take a look at how Dalits have responded to the resurgent Maratha assertion.

india Updated: Nov 07, 2016 13:47 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times
Maharashtra’s estimated 14.8 million Dalits are in the line of fire more now, as tens of thousands of Marathas march in cities across the state. Dalit and OBC groups took out their first combined rally in Ahmednagar since the Maratha agitations began and they have followed up with four more rallies across the state.(HT Photo)

Shailesh Sawant of Pune has fought his way up. The doctoral student slept on a mesh covering an open drain in the slum of Mumbai’s Dharavi before a friend secured an admission for him in one of the best colleges for mass communication.

“But getting admission was the easier part,” says Sawant, 26. What followed was more difficult for him to confront. “In my first week in the classroom in Mumbai, a teacher walked in and asked how many of us were caste Hindus and how many were Muslims and Dalits. Your classmates keep telling you — ‘You people have been getting in through reservation and will be doing that forever. Our future lies ruined,’” he adds.

Battling constant barbs and deep-rooted stereotypes is a part of life for the likes of Sawant, members of Maharashtra’s estimated 14.8 million Dalits. They are in the line of fire more now, as tens of thousands of Marathas march in cities across the state, agitated over their increasing marginalisation by reserved communities such as the Dalits.

Part I: Why are the country’s farming castes furious?


From Sawant’s view point, the tables have turned. “I have seen students from general categories beg SC and ST students to not apply in entrance exams under the open category and further cut into their chances.” The Dalits no longer feel obliged to carry out the orders of Marathas and Brahmins, he says. “In Maharashtra, the Dalits do not fear the Marathas anymore.”

This, according to Partha Polke, a Dalit rights activist based in Satara, is the reason Marathas are marching in the streets. “One section of Maharashtra’s Dalits has become dashing. And they are leading the rest of the community towards emancipation. This is the biggest threat to Maratha dominance in the state.” Polke refers to Ambedkarite Buddhists who have been most active in Maharashtra’s Dalit movement. Young people like Sawant, with a sharp sense of their rights, are the face of this movement. For 25 years now, they have been using new opportunities in education and employment to carve their niche in the state’s fast expanding urban landscape. Their ranks are spread out across the state: in colleges, universities, corporations, and courts.


Prabhakar Sonwane has been a lawyer at a court in Pune for five years. It has been 12 years since he left his village in Latur. His parents tended the livestock of landowners in the village. It is not what he wanted to do when he grew up.

“I used to walk 7km to the nearest school till I finished high school,” he says. Then he moved to the city of Latur and enrolled himself in a college for a BA in Education. A bachelor’s degree was a big deal for someone in his position. But Sonwane was in for a longer game. He took a train to Pune with a bag on his shoulder and not a rupee in his pocket. “For the first two weeks, I slept on Senapati Bapat Road.”

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

Over the next five years, Sonawane worked his way up through city’s working class ladder, from watchman to salesperson. He also added a degree in journalism and two in law to his CV. Over the years, he has coaxed at least 25 young men from his village to move out and move up. Not every young Dalit who moves to a city finds a job, as numbers show, but it’s a chance many are willing to take.

Now, Sonwane also volunteers legal support for Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan group, where a bunch of young people like him fight for a higher rate of prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Maharashtra has among the highest incidence of atrocities reported against Dalits in the country and one of the lowest rates of prosecution.

The impact of quota echoes through universities and rural governance networks. However, the path is fraught with challenges

3,647 cases
of crime against Dalits were reported in Maharashtra between January 2015 and June 2016. Nearly 90 per cent are still pending

cases have been reported in 2016 under atrocities against SCs and STs in Ahmednagar district, where a Maratha teenager was raped and killed by Dalit men in August

is the rate of conviction in Maharashtra under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act

A Dalit’s journey to the middle class begins with leaving the village, says Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and entrepreneur. “They move to cities and join the working class — as security guards, delivery men, truck drivers, cab drivers. Then they notice that a few members of their community are in senior positions, whether in public sector or private sector. That’s when they turn their attention to affirmative action, in colleges and in jobs.”


The pain of reservation is not felt by caste Hindus in universities alone. It echoes through the network of rural governance, where Dalits and other minorities are increasingly hired and elected to posts in zila parishads, panchayat samitis and municipal corporations where Marathas once held a monopoly.

This caste conflict mainly plays out between Maratha youth and Dalit youth, says Prasad. “The Marathas depend on the past for their strength — their victories, their bravery, their language. The Dalits on their present achievements — jobs, city life, English.” The first camp boasts wide-ranging political support, most recently from the Hindutva brigade, according to observers. Polke says, “The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has appropriated the figure of Shivaji.” Prasad’s observation on this point is, “Their (Marathas) numbers help the RSS in its war cry against Dalits.”

Polke says, “The morchas are a show of strength. They seem to be saying: fear us because of our numbers. They are managing to scare some. Muslims are distributing biryani at their rallies. Not everyone. The more Marathas unite among themselves, the more others will consolidate against them.” An undercurrent of solidarity is sweeping through the other side as well, he says. “SCs, STs, OBCs are coming together to decide they will not vote for Marathas in elections. Have you seen the numbers at the rallies the Dalits and OBCs are taking out?”

Watch | What are demands behind what the Marathas want?


On October 10, Dalit and OBC groups took out their first combined rally in Ahmednagar. They have followed up with four more rallies across the state. The numbers are estimated to be in the same range as those recorded in Maratha protests — between 10,000 and 100,000. One of their slogans is: “The time calls for Dalits to be one.”

No one knows who will win, but many fear it will end in a disaster for all.

Read | Answer to Maratha protests: Dalits hold a rally in Latur

“I am really worried about the Maratha morchas,” says Dalit writer Raosaheb Kasbe. “Civil wars of this kind generally lead to anarchy and end up in fascism.” On October 16, when Kasbe spoke to a young audience in Satara — the erstwhile seat of Maratha power — at a literary event meant to honour BR Ambedkar, he advised them to marry for love. “I said ‘choose your life partner yourself.’ Unless young people marry outside of caste, we can’t dismantle the caste system. I asked them to read the book, The Art of Loving.”

Inter-caste love is a point of tension between Marathas and Dalits. It’s also the premise of Marathi cinema’s most-watched film in many years. Released earlier this year, Sairat was written and directed by a Dalit, Nagaraj Manjule, and provoked protests by Maratha groups.

Incidentally, on the second day of the literary event in Satara, a mob of Maratha youth demanded its boycott. They complained Kasbe had insulted Shivaji in his speech the previous day. Kasbe says, “I had only said what every Marathi historian has written about — the fact that Shivaji was in theory a shudra.”

A thousand people joined a rally Polke took out the next day to protest the boycott. The rally moved through the town, weaving its way around the palace of Shivaji’s descendant, Udayanraje Bhosale, the member of parliament from the city. “I told him ‘you are king, remain within your palace’. We used to be afraid of the king of Satara. We no longer are,” says Polke.

Read | OBCs, Muslims look to counter Maratha push for quota

This is the concluding part of our series, Caste Chaos, which looks at the Maratha agitation.

First Published: Nov 04, 2016 07:41 IST