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.