Mumbai: When members of the Sakal Maratha Samaj met in Aurangabad in July to formulate a strategy to register their protest over the rape and murder of a Maratha teenager in Kopardi town, they did not imagine that their chosen medium of protest would become a sort of brand.
Yet two-and-a-half months after the Marathas held their first protest in Aurangabad on 9 August, their silent protest marches have become the signature mark of Maratha mobilisation. The other features—saffron flags with images of Shivaji, youths in black shirts, teenage girls making precocious speeches—have made these massive rallies a unique phenomenon. But the leitmotif has been the silence of the Marathas whenever they have marched out.
Now other caste groups in Maharashtra—the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the nomadic tribes and the Other Backward Classes — have started holding their own silent rallies. So far, Marathas have held rallies in 27 of Maharashtra’s 35 districts — all in silence. SC, ST and OBC organisations have held six silent rallies in Marathwada, Western Maharashtra and Vidarbha regions.
The Marathas have nine demands, including death penalty to the three accused in the Kopardi case. All these demands are conveyed through banners, slogans written on placards and caps, and posters — rather than slogan shouting.
Says Kishore Shitole, a leading organiser of the protests and vice-president of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Aurangabad city unit: “All of us agreed upfront that the movement has to be run in a very disciplined and silent manner to make an impact. We decided that we won’t speak against anybody, we won’t indulge in negativism, and we would maintain absolute discipline till the end," Shitole says.
Rajeshwari Deshpande, head of the department of politics and public administration at Pune University, interprets this silence as “the muteness of the Marathas because of the closure of political choices". Deshpande, who is also a member of the Lokniti Network, a programme for comparative democracy established by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says Lokniti’s analysis of Maharashtra assembly election in 2014 revealed that Marathas had voted in “large numbers for the BJP".
“The Marathas have tried Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena, and BJP, and there are no political choices left. The Maratha community itself is fragmented among the rich and poor, Kunbis and Marathas, politically established and not established. Right now, they are caught in a dilemma—they want to be the part of establishment, which is indicated by their preference for the ascending BJP in 2014, and they are also against some of the things that this establishment represents, like the fact that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is a Brahmin.
“The Patels in Gujarat can still take on the BJP but in Maharashtra the Marathas have shifted to the BJP. So the muteness of these protests is probably on account of these internal tensions, fragmentation, and lack of political choices," she said.
Deshande thinks the Marathas have so far been able to maintain this “silence and discipline" by their numerical strength—they account for 34% of Maharashtra’s population. “But the moment certain fissures surface, like the friction between Kunbi caste which is part of the OBC category, and Marathas, this silence could break."
Is silent protest the new language of caste mobilization? “We need to see that. Because other states are witness to violent caste-based agitations and one cannot say that they do not represent genuine grievances because they are not silent protests," Deshpande said.