Calm before the Storm: Silent Maratha Protests Across Maharashtra Lead the State Towards Political Turmoil

Marathas protest in Baramati on 29 September. The community has carried out more than 30 such rallies so far, resulting in intense pressure on Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to address their demands. Press Trust of India
06 October, 2016

For the better part of its existence, historically and since its formation as a linguistic state in 1960, Maharashtra has been ruled by Marathas. The community has a long martial tradition, of which it is proud, and, from the mid-fourteenth century, began to gain rights over large tracts of land in return for military service to the ruling Deccan sultanates. This accretion of power continued over the centuries, and, today, Marathas wield considerable power in the state, starting from the village level to the highest political circles—of the 18 chief ministers who have led the state so far, 11 have been from the Maratha community.

It came as a surprise then, if not an outright shock, to the average Maharashtrian, when a sea of Marathas waving saffron flags (a traditional flag dating back centuries, which was later adopted as a Hindutva symbol by groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Shiv Sena) gathered and marched in silent protest at Aurangabad on 9 August. The agitations, called “Maratha Kranti Morchas,” have since spread widely, to the streets of villages, towns and cities across the state.

Typically, a rally is led from the front by a group of young girls and women, followed by a stream of silent agitators, including college students, schoolteachers, university professors, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and farmers. The crowds have been unprecedented. So far, there have been more than 30 such rallies across Maharashtra, each one boasting several lakh participants. A recent gathering, on 25 September, brought Pune to a virtual halt, and triggered wild speculations about its turnout. The figures cited ranged from eight lakh to 40 lakh.

Most of the rallies end at the door of a government official, to whom a group of young women clad in black T-shirts and jeans hand over a memorandum. They then read aloud their demands from a makeshift podium adorned with a bust or statue of Shivaji. The crowd, mostly silent until then, raises a few slogans, such as “Ek Maratha, lakh Maratha,” or one Maratha is equivalent to a lakh Marathas, before dispersing. After this, a band of young volunteers clears the streets of litter—this part of the rallies, in particular, has won the protesters much admiration.

The protesters have three main demands. First, that the government grant reservations to Marathas in education and employment. Second, that the government scrap or amend the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 to—the protesters say—prevent its misuse through the registration of false complaints, and the alleged blackmail of upper castes. Third, that the three Dalits who are accused of raping and killing a 14-year-old Maratha girl at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district on 13 July be hanged. The protesters made other demands too: such as that the government take concrete steps to end the state’s agrarian crisis and prevent suicides by farmers, a majority of whom are rural Marathas; and expedite the planned installation of a statue of Shivaji in the Arabian sea, off the coast of Mumbai.

Pravin Gaikwad, a former president of the Sambhaji Brigade, the Maratha organisation behind the 2004 attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, said the community had originally wanted to hold a protest rally against the Kopardi incident in Mumbai on 3 August. But the Devendra Fadnavis government denied the organisers permission, claiming that the protests would cause law and order problems since the state assembly was in session. “We decided to hold a rally in Aurangabad instead, expecting 5,000 protestors,” Pravin said. “But thanks to social media, more than five lakh Marathas turned up. The rest, as they say, was history.”

The organisers of the rallies, who are drawn locally from the districts and cities at which the agitations are held, have taken pains to distance themselves from established local, state or national Maratha leaders. “There are only a few landed Marathas, who are also politically powerful, or successful in business or trade,” Pravin said. “The majority of our community members are struggling to survive as marginal farmers. Why can’t they stand up and demand their rights in a democratic setup?” Pravin was alluding to the fact that the Maratha community as it is known today consists of both the descendants of former elites as well as cultivators from the Kunbi community—the combined cluster comprises over 30 percent of the state’s population. In a similar vein, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, a Maratha, rejected the idea that Maratha leaders who had fallen from power were behind the large numbers at the rallies. “If you are talking about people like me,” he said, “then can you see any role of the NCP in these rallies?”

The Kopardi incident may have served as a trigger that released pent-up anger among the Marathas, many of whom felt slighted after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) installed Fadnavis, a Brahmin, as the state’s chief minister after it won the 2014 assembly election. The Maratha angst over losing political power in the state was best captured by Pawar’s pot shot at Fadnavis in June 2016, after the BJP nominated Sambhaji Raje (a descendent of Shivaji, who heads an umbrella group of 23 Maratha organisations that demand reservation for the community) of Kolhapur to the Rajya Sabha. Referring to the fact that it was historically the Chhatrapati (a royal title held by Maratha rulers)who appointed a Peshwa(the ruler’s Brahmin prime minister), Pawar quipped that now, “the Peshwa had appointed a Chhatrapati.”

The chief minister was slow to assuage the community’s sense of injury over the killing in Kopardi. Hevisited the village nearly a fortnight after the incident, after much criticism from the opposition.Fadvanis kept the visit a well-guarded secret, and did not allow the media to be present when he met the victim’s family. And though the government appointed the high-profile lawyer Ujjwal Nikam as the special public prosecutor in the case, Marathas are piqued by the fact that the police has still not filed a charge sheet against the accused, nearly three months after the incident—despite an assurance from the police commissioner of Pune on 20 July that it would be filed within 30 days.

The issue of Maratha reservation, meanwhile, has a long history in the state. In June 2014, ahead of the assembly polls, and nearly 25 years after the community first raised the demand, the ruling Congress-NCP government approved 16 percent reservation for Marathas—along with five percent for Muslims—in government jobs and educational institutions. But in November 2014,  these quotas were struck down by the Bombay High Court in response to a public interest litigation filed by the former journalist Ketan Tirodkar. Tirodkar argued that the decision violated a Supreme Court ruling that limited reservations to 50 percent of available positions. (The quotas would have increased total reservation in the state to 73 percent.)

Now, politicians have rallied around the issue again. On 16 September 2016, in a television interview, Fadnavis asserted that Marathas should be accorded reservation. The powerful elite in the Maratha community had enjoyed the fruits of power, he said, but had over the years neglected the demands of the economically-backward members of the community. The next day, in a television interview, Pawar said, “It is time to act decisively. What is the need for discussion?” In Mumbai, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray demanded that a special session of the state legislature be convened to discuss reservation and changes to the Atrocities Act.

The question of Maratha dominance is fraught with complexities. According to the Pune-based political scientist Suhas Palshikar, Marathas have always enjoyed political representation disproportionate to their numbers. “Traditionally, Maratha-Kunbis have been getting around forty-five percent seats in the assembly,” he wrote in a 2003 academic paper. They have also held a high share of ministerial posts—Palshikar noted that, except for a period during the 1980s, the community’s share in the state cabinet has never fallen below 52 percent. Even in the current ruling dispensation, more than half of the BJP’s legislators are Marathas. Palshikar also wrote in a 2007 book that Marathas control nearly 54 percent of the state’s educational institutions, 70 percent of all its cooperative institutions, and well above 70 percent of its agriculture landholdings.

Pravin Gaikwad admitted that “it is true that some elite Marathas came to dominate Maharashtra because no other caste could numerically compete with the strength of the Maratha-Kunbi castes cluster in the state.” But, he added, “there is no denying the fact that the majority of them have suffered, too.” He recounted that on the day Maharashtra was formed, a journalist asked the state’s first chief minister, Yashwantrao Chavan, if the state would belong to Marathas or to all Marathi speakers. “Yashwantrao said the state belonged to all Marathi speakers,” Pravin said. “Since that day, Maratha politicians have been conscious about serving the entire population, often ignoring their own community members.”

Jaydev Gaikwad, the chief of the NCP’s state social justice cell and a member of the state’s legislative council, echoed Pravin’s assertion that Maratha leaders had always extended significant support to other communities. “Who gave Ambedkar’s name to Marathwada University in the nineties, and more recently, Savitribai Phule’s name to Pune University?” he said. “It was Sharad Pawar. He also introduced reservation for women in state politics, despite stiff opposition, both within and outside his community.”

As the community rallies now to claim what it sees as its due, the challenges before the government are compounded by the fact that the magnitude of the Maratha protests has unsettled other caste groups in the state. Pravin asserted that such fears were unfounded. “We’re not against Fadnavis, nor are we against the SC/STs, OBCs or the Marathas who are being promoted so zealously by the BJP as part of its social engineering,” he said, referring to Sambhaji Raje, and others, such as the Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale and the Dhangar leader Mahadev Jankar, who serve as ministers in the Narendra Modi and Fadnavis governments respectively.

Still, the Maratha offensive, though nonviolent, has unnerved members of other castes, especially Dalits. (The Dalit and Maratha communities in the state have had a history of conflict, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s, when they fought pitched battles over the renaming of Marathwada University. In 1994, conceding to Dalit demands, Sharad Pawar renamed the institution Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University.)The former Rajya Sabha member Bhalchandra Mungekar, a Dalit, wrote in the Indian Express on 22 September that although more than 150 incidents of atrocities, including murders, were committed against Dalits in Ahmednagar district over roughly the past five years, “not a word of protest was uttered by any section of society in the state, let alone the Maratha community… This once again underlines that community sensitivity or conscience even in the crime of rape is determined by one’s caste.” About the Atrocities Act, Mungekar said that its implementation in Maharashtra was poor, as “out of a total 7,345 cases of atrocities brought to trial in the state in 2014, only 59 persons were convicted, making the conviction rate 0.8 per cent of the cases.”

But Jaydev insisted that the community had a rich legacy of upholding progressive ideologies of people such as Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj and BR Ambedkar.“After all, it was Shahu Maharaj, the progressive Maratha ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur, who pioneered one of the country’s earliest affirmative programmes, introducing 50 percent reservations for weaker section in jobs and education, as early as 1902,” Jaydev said. The Kranti Morchas would not detract from this legacy, he argued, though it was essential that the movement steered clear of leading towards a caste-based agitation, and of raising demands such as the repeal of the Atrocities Act.

The state’s Dalit leaders have not emphatically opposed or organised against the Maratha rallies. Last month, Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of BR Ambedkar, urged Dalits not to resort to any counter-protests which could lead to friction with Marathas. Another prominent Dalit leader from the state, the union minister Ramdas Athawale, has shifted between stances, initially announcing counter rallies, then calling for a Maratha-Dalit unity meet at Shirdi on 7 October.

Hints of opposition came from leaders of the other backward classes, whose members have faced a leadership void since the death of the BJP’s Gopinath Munde in 2014, and the incarceration, since March 2016, of the NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal over money-laundering charges. The former hails from the Vanjari community, and the latter from the Mali community.

Munde’s daughter and Maharashtra’s minister for women and child welfare Pankaja visited the ailing Bhujbal in Mumbai’s JJ Hospital on 21 September, stirring speculation of a possible coming together of the OBC leaders in the state. (The official line from the minister’s office maintained that it was a courtesy call to inquire about his health.) These speculations intensified following news that Eknath Khadse, another OBC leader and a former revenue minister in Fadnavis’s government, who had to resign in June after allegations of impropriety surfaced against him in a Pune land deal, would also be visiting Bhujbal. Khadse hasn’t visited Bhujbal yet. But in a show of gathering solidarity, the OBC community held a silent march in Nashik on 3 October to demand Bhujbal’s release.

The restlessness of multiple communities has led to a volatile political atmosphere in the state. For Devendra Fadnavis, the escalating Maratha protests will pose a formidable political challenge in the days to come. The community is planning a “Maha Morcha,” a mother of all marches, in Mumbai sometime around the Diwali festivities in October, also the time the state government will be preparing to celebrate two years in office. The stakes are high as Fadvanis begins discussions with opposition leaders this week, hoping to arrive at a solution to the Maratha problem. Though there is intense pressure on him, his Maratha confidante and public works minister Chandrakant Patil has ruled out any change in leadership.

The Marathas, true to their character, refuse to budge. “We don’t want talks with Fadnavis, nor his removal,” Pravin Gaikwad said. “We want the CM’s actions to speak louder.”