A year after the Marathas first staged large demonstrations across Maharashtra, there is agreement that the rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi, Ahmednagar district, was only the trigger for the series of muk morchas, or silent protests, that followed. As they gathered, sometimes in lakhs, in every district head and many taluka towns, disavowing slogans and leaders, they asked first for reservations in jobs and educational institutions, and a review, or dilution, of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Act, they claimed without statistical evidence, was being widely misused by Dalits to settle scores with members of dominant castes. Other, disparate demands were added on, including the expeditious erection of a grand Shivaji statue in the Arabian sea off Mumbai.
Reservations, however, remained a central theme through the 57 morchas held in the span of a year. At the end of the 58th and final morcha in Mumbai on Wednesday, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced a slew of measures that acknowledged the movement’s focus on economic progress. His announcements will help Marathas skill their youth, and provide better financial assistance and amenities for Maratha youngsters who take up higher education. On reservations, the CM said, the Backward Classes Commission would be persuaded to complete and submit its report to the High Court in a time-bound manner. As the Congress and NCP pointed out on Wednesday evening, the announcements are low-hanging fruit — and not just because the knotty issue of reservations is now in court.
On the streets of South Mumbai on Wednesday, marching Marathas discussed jobs as well as agrarian distress. One memorandum of demands spoke of diminishing Maratha numbers in spheres of industry and entrepreneurship. Marathas were finding agriculture an increasingly unsustainable profession, it said. It was sowing season when the first Maratha morcha was held in August 2016. One year later, rural Maharashtra is looking back at a year of plentiful rain and bumper crops, but is unable to find remunerative prices for agricultural commodities. Even after a good year following back-to-back droughts, economic distress is deepening. The Marathas, who account for over 32% of the state’s population, dominate the socio-political milieu of much of rural Maharashtra. They are seen as a major political force, and have dominated successive Maharashtra cabinets. And yet, they have found, not unlike the Jats and the Patels, that years of low returns from land, coupled with fractured landholdings and inadequate non-farm incomes, have led to increasing privations for the community.
A total 52% of government jobs and seats in educational institutions are currently reserved. The Congress-NCP government initiated another 16% reservation for Marathas and 5% for Muslims — a move the present government has backed, but which has been challenged in Bombay High Court.
At least 30 lakh youth across the state are registered as unemployed, not including the lakhs who are unregistered, and agriculturists who are looking for a way out of unproductive farms. Over the last three years, the government has promised lakhs of jobs in various industry projects, mega infrastructure projects such as the Shendra-Bidkin industry clusters, the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi Corridor, and more. It has also launched widely lauded skill development schemes. Job creation, however, remains dull. Some high-profile projects that were announced with fanfare are yet to take off, even though Maharashtra holds the top position in states’ share of industry and investment proposals.
Young Maratha men and women facing unemployment and low returns from land, along with large numbers of economically backward Marathas, formed the bulk of the Mumbai agitation. Their problems are not caste-specific, but the movement has framed inadequate opportunities in jobs and education for Maratha youth in opposition to the affirmative action enjoyed by SCs, STs and OBCs. At inception, the movement barely veiled its anti-Dalit stance. The rape and murder of a Maratha girl, allegedly by Dalit youths, provided reason for muscle-flexing vis-à-vis the backward communities. Any resentment that might persist over Dalit men seeking relationships with upper-caste women, was not on display in Mumbai.
The focus of the speeches by 13 girls at Azad Maidan, as well as of the delegation that met Fadnavis, was on jobs and reservations. The Chief Minister bought peace, but the protesters’ central demand, and the central problem of the continuing economic distress of an agrarian community, remain unsettled. It was the last muk morcha, the Marathas have said, although it will not be the end of their agitation.