Kolhapur/Pune/Mumbai: If changes in the language and leitmotif of a movement convey the mood of its main actors, the Maratha mobilization in Maharashtra would qualify as one of the most eloquent case studies in contemporary India. In two years, the movement has mutated from the Maratha Kranti Muk Morcha (Maratha revolutionary silent march) of 2016, which chief minister Devendra Fadnavis celebrated as an ideal agitation, to the Maratha Kranti Thok Morcha (Maratha revolutionary hit march).

With Maharashtra expected to wake up on Thursday to the second year anniversary of a protest movement, which has shifted gears from a mute assertion of angst to a raucous expression of might, the government machinery is palpably on edge.

At Dasara chowk in Kolhapur, once a seat of power under the Maratha empire founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji, the banners and cut-outs on display are a far cry from the sober statements of intent of 2016. Two monsoon seasons have washed away all messages of moderation into the mud. On a makeshift stage which will function as the venue for a mass sit-in by Maratha protesters, a large banner shows the word ‘muk’ (mute) struck off and the word ‘thok’(hit or strike) superimposed. “Aata yuddha atal aahe," (Now, war is inevitable) says another.

On 9 August 2016, a spectacular march of the Marathas in Aurangabad, Marathwada, put everyone on alert by its scale and silence. The Maratha agitators readying for another round of protest on August 9 at Dasara chowk insist the Kolhapur bandh on Thursday would be “peaceful".

Rishikesh Patil, 29, is not the typical Maratha youth seeking reservation. “I am better off, but I belong to a minuscule minority," he says. “The rest are in deep trouble and are staring at insecure futures. I am fighting for them," Patil says. Patil—who quit a job in Pune and started his own consultancy in Kolhapur—has stayed engaged with the Maratha upsurge since 2016. He is an engineer from a government college in Pune, hails from a farming family, and has not personally felt the need for a quota. “But I have seen the community from close quarters. Most are marginal farmers and daily wage labourers. This is about them," Patil says as he gears up for the sit-in at Kolhapur’s Dasara chowk.

The Simmering Pot

But two years on, how much longer are the protestors going to press on? “Till a government resolution is issued granting a quota and till that reaches the administration in every district of Maharashtra," he answers. On Tuesday, the Bombay high court had expressed exasperation with the persistence of protests even while the matter is being heard in court. “We are on a peaceful protest. Temperamentally, Kolhapur is one of the angriest towns but the protest has been most peaceful here. We will fight on," Patil says.

On Tuesday, the Maharashtra government had told the HC that the state’s Commission for the Backward Classes would submit its final report by 15 November. The report would give a comprehensive view of the social and educational status of the Maratha community and also make a recommendation whether or not a quota should be given.

Two days before the HC hearing, an under-pressure chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said the government would complete the legal process to grant a quota by November end, though he did not specify what exactly that process was. Fadnavis, however, ruled out the option of either issuing an ordinance immediately or calling a special sitting of the state legislature to pass the legislation. “We can issue an ordinance but that would be a mere two-day joy. It won’t stand the legal test," Fadnavis said, stressing that his government wanted to give a legally tenable quota to the Marathas.

At the crossroads again

So, as things stand now, the Marathas are not going to get the benefit of a quota at least till November end.

The Maratha Kranti Morcha (Maratha Revolutionary March) in 2016 began as a quiet yet strident backlash against the rape and murder of a teenage Maratha girl in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar. But the mobilisation quickly snowballed into a platform for a variety of grievances.

The silent march of August 2016, with teenage girls wearing black clothes at the vanguard, made four major demands through the medium of banners, social media, and posters.

One, death penalty for the three accused in the Kopardi case (a sessions court awarded the death penalty to the three accused, who are from a Dalit caste, in November 2017).

Two, a 16% quota for the Marathas. Three, amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to stop its misuse against the Marathas. And four, a blanket farm loan waiver (the Fadnavis government announced a farm loan waiver last year, which came with riders).

For the restive Marathas, what has caused as much as grief as not getting the quota is what they term as the “government’s activism" on other fronts. The Lok Sabha recently passing a unanimous bill to nullify the March Supreme Court order on the SC/ST Act, which Dalit groups saw as a watering down of the act. This has enraged the protesting Marathas. Agitators constantly cite how the government swung into action in the case of the SC/ST Act but constantly defers to the courts on the quota issue.

“The BJP government passed a bill to protect the SC/ST Act because Dalits protested violently after the SC ruling and had threatened a Bharat bandh on August 9," says 27-year-old Aashutosh Kharade.

“Is the government saying that violence is the means to get everything you want? We organised as many as 57 silent marches in just four and half months in 2016, but haven’t got anything so far," he says.

Caught amidst these competitive demands from competing groups, what is legal or constitutional, or even appropriate and fair, have receded from view.

In 2014, when the BJP-Shiv Sena came to power in Maharashtra riding on the support of a large chunk of Maratha voters, who traditionally voted for the Congress and the NCP, the parties currently in power inadvertently tapped into and fed the restlessness among the dominant castes, says Suhas Palshikar, veteran political commentator and former head of the department of political science at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University.

“The unease among the Maratha community dates back to almost the early 2000s. Traditionally, not able to garner Maratha votes, the BJP went out if its way to show how it would benefit the Marathas rather than the Congress. Having thus fanned unrealistic expectations, the BJP now has the task of both satisfying the demand and, at the same time, using state power to control the agitating Maratha organizations," Palshikar says.

“Given the numerical strength of the Marathas, an aggressive demand by the community for reservation always had the potential of being disruptive and tough to handle. That is why we have now come to an impasse. The political fragmentation of the Maratha community meant that the Maratha vote would be open to all kinds of mobilizations and that competitive populism would influence the stance of all major parties. That was a sure recipe for producing an impossible situation," he adds.

An uphill legal task

While a large section of the Maratha population may indeed be socially and educationally backward, there are nearly insurmountable legal, political, and constitutional impediments to accommodating the demands made by the Marathas, says Shreehari Aney, a constitutional law expert and former advocate general of Maharashtra.

“The constitution provides for reservations to the SC/STs, and not even to the Other Backward Class (OBCs). The Constitution speaks in certain parts about special provisions for socially or educationally backward citizens. If some class or section is sought to be established as backward deserving of reservations in education and jobs, there are some built-in riders either in the Constitution itself or by way of Supreme Court rulings. If the Marathas are to be added to the OBCs, keeping in view the Supreme Court ceiling on reservation at 50%, the share of the pie that each section gets will get reduced. This may lead to socially and politically difficult conflicts and a lot of future pain," Aney says.

Parliament could intervene, but it might be perilous to legislate from the centre for the whole country.

“How would parliament know which class in which part of India is backward? This would open up a Pandora’s Box. A parliamentary legislation exclusively for Maharashtra or any other state is not possible. No sane politician would want to touch this option," Aney pointed out.

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So, what next for the belligerent and fragmented Marathas?

“The demand and the agitation have meant that whatever hegemony the Marathas still had after the 1990s would evaporate rapidly and the community would be seen as one of the many contenders for various state benefits," Palshikar says.

The prime reason for this, he says, is the decimation of any state-level leadership for within the community.

“As for the government, the options are extremely narrow and unproductive. The judicial contest over its decision would continue and for any future government in the state, this issue would remain as an awkward matter. Having given the impression that reservation would be granted, the government has tied itself into knots," Palshikar adds. Clearly, the end is not near.

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