Home / Opinion / The rise of identity politics

The Maratha protests have been silent so far but the rallies and processions are unprecedented in recent history in terms of size and scale. The recent gathering at Ahmednagar was estimated to have attracted a million Marathas. Even the regular marches have attracted hundreds of thousands. The three demands of the community are punishment for the culprits behind the gang rape and murder of a girl in Kopardi by some Dalit youths, amendments to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and resolution of the reservation issue.

The gang rape and murder happened on 11 July and there have been more than 30 protests since but the recent mobilization has surprised many because of the sheer number of participants marching silently under the banner of a relatively unknown entity called Maratha Kranti Morcha.

But reading this mobilization as a mere protest against the government’s inaction or action regarding the incident of 11 July would be missing the larger issue of growing unrest and disillusionment among dominant farming communities in some of India’s richest states.

The Marathas have been demanding reservation for quite some time now. This demand has to be seen in line with those voiced by the Jats in Haryana and the Patidar agitation in Gujarat. Like the Patidars and the Jats, the Marathas are the dominant cultivator group in the state.

The Marathas too were beneficiaries of the Green Revolution and the consequent agricultural boom until the 1990s. Also, their dominance was not restricted to agriculture alone. They were able to use their wealth and numerical strength to wield influence in politics. To some extent, this was also accompanied by control of the cooperative sector—in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

All three communities hail from three of India’s richest states in terms of per capita income. Today, all three communities are agitating for reservation in government jobs. It is important to note that in all the three states, government jobs as well as seats in public higher educational institutions are an insignificant part of overall employment and total seats for higher education. So why are they protesting?

First, the declining fortunes in agriculture due to squeeze in farm incomes has certainly weakened the influence of these caste groups as far as the political landscape is concerned. Once known for powerful farmer leaders such as Devi Lal, Charan Singh, Morarji Desai and Sharad Pawar, there are few powerful leaders from the farming community in the current generation.

Second, the decline in agriculture has not been accompanied by a shift towards the non-farm sector with most of these communities not known for their affinity towards education or manual labour.

The changing nature of the economy has also meant that the new power centres are no longer the sectors and industries which thrived on political patronage such as the cooperative sector but are sectors which require better management, skilled workforce and thrive on competition.

Last but not the least, the Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have slowly and steadily used reservations and scholarships to take advantage of the opportunities in the non-farm sector to improve their status socially as well as politically. The emergence of Dalits as a politically powerful group has increased the conflict between the cultivating communities and the Dalits.

Incidentally, this is not the case only in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat. It is now seen in various forms in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

But the real elephant in the room is the inability of the economy to create sufficient jobs of decent quality. The employment problem, which was already there as a result of the neglect of employment creation by successive governments since the 1990s, has now reached alarming proportions.

Not only did the economy create insignificant jobs during the period of high growth in the last decade, it was also accompanied by worsening of employment quality.

Unfortunately, the last two years have not only seen this trend worsen with employment creation remaining stagnant but worsening demand in rural areas has also meant that the agriculture and the construction sectors are no longer absorbing the ever rising workforce.

At a time when the new economy was supposed to blur caste boundaries and create an anonymous workforce, the emergence of caste identities are a grim reminder of the susceptibility of the economy to caste based mobilization.

The fight for limited government jobs and educational opportunities through reservation may not solve the larger problem of lack of employment and upward mobility through education, but the unrest among the youth of the dominant groups in some of the richest states may lead to identity based mobilization, which is detrimental to the overall political stability of the economic model that successive governments have pursued in the last two decades.

Himanshu is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.

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