Beyond the lull
The Maratha community’s discontent is fuelled by socio-economic and political factors
Prakash Bal Joshi
Maharashtra is witnessing huge silent processions by the dominant Maratha community in major cities, which have created ripples in political circles. What has surprised many is the fact that no known political leader or organisation is leading these marches in which women and girls are participating in large numbers.The immediate provocation for these silent morchas is a brutal rape in Kopardi in western Maharashtra. That the victim belongs to the Maratha community while the alleged rapists are from the lower caste has provoked such shows of strength. These processions demand stern action against the aggressors who belong to the Dalit community. There are two other major demands by those who have taken to the streets — reservations for the Maratha community in jobs and education and scrapping of the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes (prevention of atrocities) Act 1989, which they feel is being misused.
As a result of 200-year-old social reforms in Maharashtra, caste is not such a dominant factor in power politics in the state as is evident in Northern states of UP and Bihar. However, it remained as a strong undercurrent since the state was carved out in the early 1960s. The Marathas, a warrior-agricultural caste, have been ruling the state for four decades ever since the modern state of Maharashtra came into being. The community with the help of a huge network of cooperatives managed to dominate the rural economy as well as maintain control of political power by aligning with the Congress Party which was at the helm of affairs in Delhi as well as in the state. It was possible for the community to maintain its grip over the levers of power in the state by aligning with other castes through an all-inclusive policy, popularly known as “berjeche rajkaran” adopted by the first Chief Minister YB Chavan.
Over the years, the gap between the few politically connected families and others in the agrarian community has been widening, thus creating an imbalance. Declining returns from farm produce, threat to the cooperative sector due to changed economic policies in the post-globalisation era and a lucrative service sector from which they haven’t benefitted in the least, have led to frustrations within the community. Majority of the Maratha community are marginal farmers, forced to penury and suicides due to the changed economic situation in rural Maharashtra. The demand for reservation had been pushed in the last decade during the Congress-led Progressive Democratic Front government despite many legal and constitutional hurdles.
Mere demands for reservations for Marathas may not have evoked such a massive response. The demand for stern action against the alleged Kopardi rapists added emotional fervour to the call given for silent processions by the Maratha community.
Apart from the immediate triggers for such silent processions, there are other socio-political factors, which have contributed to the community’s woes. What has perturbed the elite is the fact that Maratha domination in power politics has been weakening since 1995. It coincides with the fall of the Congress Party which began after communal riots in post-Babri Masjid demotion period. The process is virtually complete with the decimation of the Congress as well as the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 2014 state assembly elections.
Barring the beneficiaries of political power in the Maratha community, a huge number of Marathas who remained marginalised economically, if not socially, shifted their loyalties from the Congress and voted for the BJP and the Shiv Sena in a big way. The defeat of the Congress and the NCP was more hurting for the community as the BJP emerged as the single largest party and appointed Devendra Fadnavis the chief minister. For the Maratha community, which kept its dominant role intact for four decades through the Congress, this development was quite unexpected. The community had always used anti-Brahmanism as a subtext to securing power since the stance helped them garner support from Other Backward Castes in the state.
The way Fadnavis government is cracking down on corruption in the cooperative banks, sugar factories and marketing committees to lessen the Congress stranglehold over these institutions, has hurt the interests of Maratha leaders leading these cooperatives. The actions against these institutions coupled with investigations into alleged corruption charges levelled against corrupt leaders have created simmering discontent. All these leaders who lost power in 2014 elections are silently supporting the movement.
For the Congress, the loss of power in Maharashtra is all the more hurting since the state had always stood behind it despite the anti-Congress waves in the North witnessed in 1967 and later in 1989. The political fragmentation due to splits in the Congress Party did not affect Maratha dominance much as they deftly manoeuvred their way forward. The vote share of the Congress has steadily declined from 31 per cent in 19195 to 18 per cent in 2014 and the NCP, which came into existence in 1999, also followed the same downward trend. The Congress Party now sees a window of opportunity to win back the support of the Maratha community by using these silent uprisings. But it is not an easy proposition, as Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar is also waiting in the wings.
These massive shows of strength by the dominant community in Maharashtra is also being closely monitored by the BJP headquarters in Delhi as they have already burnt their fingers in the Jat and Patidar agitations, both politically dominant communities. Though Brahmins in the state have been totally marginalised over the years in power politics, anti-Brahmanism has always been instrumental in getting OBC support for the Maratha leadership.
The marginal farmers in the community have suffered because the established Maratha leaders have shifted base from rural to urban centres to enter the lucrative real-estate sector in a big way. The leadership is no more effective in protecting the community’s agrarian interests. These massive morchas are seen as efforts by established leaders to use emotive issues like reservations and the atrocities act to keep the community united. The anger in the Maratha community against a popular Marathi film Sairat, which shows a love affair between a Maratha girl and a non-Maratha youth leading to honour killing, is also being subtly used to arouse Maratha pride.
It is neither easy to predict what turns and twists Maratha politics will take in the near future nor easy to foresee who will benefit from this peaceful movement.
The writer is columnist, author and artist
Published Date: Sep 27, 2016 DNA