On 3 September, at least 100,000 people attended one such rally in Parbhani, Marathwada, to silently protest against the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Maratha girl in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district on 13 July.
The three suspects arrested for rape and murder belong to a Dalit caste. Before Parbhani, Aurangabad, Beed, Osmanabad, and Jalgaon saw similar protest rallies attended by a large number of people. The protests have seen a remarkable participation of women and school-going girls carrying placards which demand justice for the Kopardi victim.
While those who participated in these rallies and other mainstream Maratha voices say the protest has nothing to do with political parties, politicians have joined the issue. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar, arguably the most formidable Maratha politician, has said that these protests made two demands.
One, the Maratha community, which accounts for nearly 33% of Maharashtra’s population, be given the benefit of reservation in government jobs. Two, the misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 be stopped. The act provides a legal protection to SC and ST population against caste-based atrocities. Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has demanded a special legislative assembly sitting to discuss this Act.
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray has demanded amendments to this Act. Dalit parties have reacted strongly to the criticism of this Act and union minster of state for social justice Ramdas Athavle, whose Republican Party of India (RPI) is a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, has said that there was no question of changing this Act.
Maratha activists who participated in these rallies say there are no organisers or leaders who are behind this “spontaneous" manifestation of Maratha anger. Established Maratha organisations, which so far have maintained a formal distance from these rallies, also maintain that the protest is “raw and natural expression of anger" and not an orchestrated event.
Political observers, though conceding that resentment is running deep into the Maratha community, do not buy the claim that such spectacular shows of caste solidarity are spontaneous. But the activists directly involved in these rallies, established Maratha voices, and observers agree that the heinous Kopardi crime is only an immediate trigger and the large turnout at each of these rallies, the symbolism on show, and the muteness of the Maratha masses that marked these protests, represent larger issues confronting the Marathas who constitute around 33% of Maharashtra’s population.
Aurangabad-based businessman and activist Mansingh Pawar participated in the rally in Aurangabad on 9 August. He says the protest was a spontaneous manifestation of deep-rooted Maratha discontent. “There are no organisations or political parties behind these rallies. People are coming on to streets on their own and this is a social protest," Pawar says. He lists out a number of reasons, apart from the immediate cause of Kopardi crime, behind this Maratha consolidation.
“The biggest misconception about the Marathas of Maharashtra is that they are the dominating political class. This misconception persists even though there have been many chief ministers and ministers from non-Maratha castes. A minuscule minority of Marathas is politically influential while more than 80% of them are confronted with severe livelihood concerns born out of their dependence on subsistence farming, lack of quality education and job opportunities, and misuse of the Atrocity Act. At the time of independence, 80% Indians were dependent on agriculture. This percentage has come down to 55-60% but in Maharashtra, 80% of Marathas are still surviving on subsistence agriculture. The resentment comes from these factors," Mansingh Pawar says.
He says similar protests will be held in Pune, Navi Mumbai, Latur, and Solapur. “These protests will spread to smaller towns," he adds.
Founder-president of Maratha Seva Sangh Purushottam Khedekar says the protest has deeper economic reasons behind it and it needed a spark which was provided by the Kopardi incident. “It is wrong to say that the anger is directed at chief minister Devendra Fadnavis because he is Brahmin. The Maratha community is also angry with the so-called pro-Maratha parties like the NCP for their incompetence," Khedekar says.
Agrees another Aurangabad-based entrepreneur and social activist Kishore Shitole who took part in the protest. “Barely 2-5% of the Marathas are rich and politically powerful. The rest are poor, dependant on others, and unsure of their social and economic future," Shitole says.
Describing himself as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist, Shitole says though the RSS did not believe in castes, he joined the protest to make sure that “the Maratha anger was channelized and given a certain direction".
“The anger comes from the persistent political refusal to talk to the larger groups about their concerns while pandering to the smaller groups. To raise the issue of caste is fundamentally wrong but large groups such as the Marathas have no other option but consolidate. To avoid this caste-based narrative we need the uniform civil code and reservations based on the economic criteria," Shitole adds.
Prakash Pawar, a political analyst and professor at the faculty of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University, rejects the claim that these rallies are spontaneous.
“The way these rallies have followed a format and mobilised large turnouts defies the claim that they are spontaneous. Each rally ends with the national anthem, refreshments are arranged, girls make speeches and statements, and typically in every rally, careful attempts are made to keep the streets clean to give a kind of symbolic support to Swachh Bharat campaign and also to indicate that the protesters are not against the BJP. This symbolism and arrangement need organised efforts and spontaneity cannot result in a particular format," Prakash Pawar says.
He does not think that this protest will spread over to other parts of Maharashtra beyond Marathwada and the districts of Solapur, Ahmadnagar, and Buldana. “These rallies represent the Maratha community’s past and present fears as well as their position in relation to power politics. One very important dynamic of Maharashtra’s Maratha politics is that the Marathas in Marathwada have been against the Marathas in western Maharashtra for the latter’s greater political and economic clout. These rallies also represent this dynamic and that is why I feel the protest won’t spread to entire Western Maharashtra," Prakash Pawar says.
He says the rallies have been “consciously" silent because Marathas are afraid of several factors. “They fear that if they speak out against the Atrocity Act, they could be arrested. If they criticise the current government which is controlled by the BJP, there is danger of government backlash. Another fear is of the rise of the intellectual class among Dalits and the guilt that Marathas have not produced as much intellectualism," Prakash Pawar says.
The rape and murder of a Maratha girl, Prakash Pawar says, has been considered by the community as the affront by the Dalits on the Maratha pride. “Added to all these long standing fears and economic issues is the latest affront to the Maratha pride. Till now the Marathas have perpetrated atrocities against Dalits but this time the atrocity seems to have been reversed. So there is an issue of community’s self-esteem too," he says.
Mansingh Pawar agrees that the Maratha community seriously needs its own Ambedkar. “We need our own Ambedkar, our own social and educational leadership that represents our discontent and directs it in a positive way," the activist says.
He says globalization has brought with itself newer challenges and the Maratha community, which is largely dependent on agriculture, needed education, resources, and skills to take on these challenges.