A year of discontent for the middle castes

An agrarian crisis has undercut the economic power of the middle castes, who have generally been unable to take advantage of globalization


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Cities across Maharashtra have witnessed massive protest rallies by the dominant Maratha caste over the past few weeks. These rallies come in the wake of similar agitations by the Patels in Gujarat and the Jats in Haryana. Is this the year of discontent for what are often described as the middle castes? And what does this mean for India?

The cauldron boiled over in Maharashtra following the brutal rape and murder of a young Maratha girl. The three accused are Dalits. Some may wonder why one stray incident has snowballed into a massive movement. But that is quite common. Think of how a hike in canteen prices in Gujarat led to the first episode of the total revolution movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan or the self-immolation of a frustrated Tunisian fruit seller eventually led to the Arab Spring. History is not linear.

The main demands of the agitators in Maharashtra are that the accused should be hanged, the atrocities law should be withdrawn and Marathas should get the benefit of reservations. Actually, none of these decisions is within the direct control of the state government led by Devendra Fadnavis. The punishment to the accused can only be decided by the legal system. The atrocities law has been made by Parliament. And the issue of Maratha reservations is currently being heard in the courts.

The Maratha rallies have not been the subject of prime-time excitement because of their very nature. The protesters have not resorted to any violence, the silent rallies are not punctuated by angry slogans and the spreading protests do not have any central figure like Hardik Patel in Gujarat. So, there are no easy narratives for prime-time television news. However, despite the peaceful nature of the rallies, the chatter on social media has been far more incendiary. The powerful Maratha leadership that controls state politics in Maharashtra also seems to have been caught off-guard.

The protests by dominant castes such as the Marathas, the Patels or the Jats may seem odd at first glance. They wield immense political power in their respective states. They have the numerical strength to be a dominant force in democratic politics. Their economic power too has been substantial. So, why are they out on the streets in competition with the Dalits, without a doubt the most disadvantaged social group in India?

The year of discontent: Protest rallies across India

  • Southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have seen widespread destruction of public and private property following protests over the Cauvery river water-sharing dispute. Scores of vehicles, including state transport buses and a bus station for Tamil Nadu-bound buses, were torched in Bengaluru. Kashif Masood/Hindustan TimesSouthern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have seen widespread destruction of public and private property following protests over the Cauvery river water-sharing dispute. Scores of vehicles, including state transport buses and a bus station for Tamil Nadu-bound buses, were torched in Bengaluru. Kashif Masood/Hindustan Times
  • Maharashtra witnessed massive protest rallies by the dominant Maratha caste over the past few weeks. The tipping point was the brutal rape and murder of a young Maratha girl in July. The protesters demanded capital punishment for the guilty and also reservations in education and government jobs for Marathas. Abhijit Bhatlekar/MintMaharashtra witnessed massive protest rallies by the dominant Maratha caste over the past few weeks. The tipping point was the brutal rape and murder of a young Maratha girl in July. The protesters demanded capital punishment for the guilty and also reservations in education and government jobs for Marathas. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
  • The dominant and rich Patidars in Gujarat are agitating for quotas in education and jobs. Patidar leader Hardik Patel (centre) who campaigned for the inclusion of the Patidar caste in the OBC category has been charged with sedition for inciting violence in the state that led to loss of life and property. Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan TimesThe dominant and rich Patidars in Gujarat are agitating for quotas in education and jobs. Patidar leader Hardik Patel (centre) who campaigned for the inclusion of the Patidar caste in the OBC category has been charged with sedition for inciting violence in the state that led to loss of life and property. Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times
  • Jat agitation in February has dealt an estimated blow of Rs18,000-20,000 crore by way of loss to public and private property and halting trade, industry, small business and transport, according to the Assocham. Manoj Dhaka/HindustanTimesJat agitation in February has dealt an estimated blow of Rs18,000-20,000 crore by way of loss to public and private property and halting trade, industry, small business and transport, according to the Assocham. Manoj Dhaka/HindustanTimes
  • The death toll in the ongoing unrest in Kashmir since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces on 8 July, has risen to 82. Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan TimesThe death toll in the ongoing unrest in Kashmir since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces on 8 July, has risen to 82. Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times
  • Manipur has been beset with public protests by citizens demanding the implementation of the Inner Line Permit, a licence to regulate entry and residency of outsiders to the border state. PTIManipur has been beset with public protests by citizens demanding the implementation of the Inner Line Permit, a licence to regulate entry and residency of outsiders to the border state. PTI

The first step towards an answer involves going back in history to the years of the Green Revolution. Large farmers who could afford modern agricultural techniques benefited from the policy package launched by Indira Gandhi to break our dependence on food aid that often came with strings attached. The middle castes were beneficiaries. The high levels of social capital among these groups also led to the rise of complementary institutions such as sugar cooperatives or lending networks. The subsequent rise of these middle castes also deepened Indian democracy.

The situation is radically different now. An agrarian crisis has undercut the economic power of the middle castes, who have generally been unable to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by globalization. Several studies have shown that agriculture is no longer a profitable business. The United Progressive Alliance government tried to manage the problem by engineering a change in the terms of trade in favour of agriculture. The limits of that strategy were soon evident as the sharp increases in minimum support prices sent food inflation out of control. The current discontent can be linked to the agrarian crisis.

What now? The most important risk is of caste violence. The Dalits have threatened counter-mobilization, and they are hardly likely to forget how they have been at the receiving end of caste violence over the years. The Dalits also worry, as in Gujarat too, that the demand for reservations for even more castes is implicitly an attempt to bring down the entire structure of reservations.

The current Maratha leadership—as well as their peers in other states—has also been given notice. They have captured most of the gains from the good years. The sugar barons have used ordinary Marathas as a vote bank—remember that this caste group is also deeply stratified in terms of income. So, this could be a revolt not just against other castes but also the traditional political leadership.

So, it is important to understand the current disquiet not only in terms of social dynamics but also the agrarian crisis.

Does the discontent among middle castes stem from a deeper agrarian crisis? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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