FOR MORE than 40 days now, the Marathas have been on protest across Maharashtra. ‘Muk Morchas’ or ‘silent rallies’, where processionists march without raising slogans, are set to go on for the next two months. The ruling BJP is rattled, and the Congress and NCP, which are seen to back the protests, are no longer sure which way the anger will blow.
With the protests continuing unabated, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said his government was “committed to providing reservation to Marathas”. In a move seen as trying to appease the protesters, the BJP-Sena government on Monday appointed Shivaji descendant and Rajya Sabha MP Sambhaji Raje Bhosale as its tourism brand ambassador.
The protests grew out of the brutal gangrape and murder of a 14-year-old Maratha girl at Kopardi in Ahmednagar on July 13, allegedly by three Dalit youths. In the month and a half since, the agitation has raked up barely concealed caste tensions. Apart from death penalty for the rape accused, the protesters are demanding scrapping of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, saying it is being misused, and reservation for Marathas in education and government jobs.
The Maratha anger stems from two reasons — the belief that reservation for SC/STs and OBCs is hurting their job and educational prospects; and that through reserved seats, SC/STs and OBCs are eroding their political clout.
Marathas constitute 33 per cent of Maharashtra’s population and are the decisive political force in at least 75 of 288 Assembly seats.
All Maratha leaders of consequence, from the Congress and NCP to the BJP and Shiv Sena, have been vying to show solidarity with the protesters — from providing logistics to funds.
Former Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan was present at the Nanded rally on August 18, while Leader of Opposition Radhakrihna Vikhe-Patil has said he will be attending the Ahmednagar meet on September 23.
NCP president Sharad Pawar, arguably the state’s biggest Maratha leader, was among the first to back the demand to scrap the SC/ST Act, saying “it could not be ignored”.
He told The Indian Express that behind the Maratha anger was “the BJP government’s failure to tackle agricultural problems” and its inaction on the demand for reservation by the community, saying youths are not getting jobs despite education.
Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, also a Maratha leader, says, “The government should have taken the Maratha reservation process to its logical end… This is causing unrest.”
A Maratha minister claims his own relatives are on the streets demanding scrapping of the SC/ST Act, and adds that the legislation is being rampantly misused. “My nieces and nephews believe the Act empowers Dalits/tribals to settle scores against Marathas,” he says.
However, qualifying the Marathas as a socially or economically backward community is not easy. No government has been able to establish this before courts, which is why the previous Congress-NCP government had issued an ordinance in this regard ahead of the 2014 Assembly elections rather than a Bill. The ordinance, which gave 16 per cent quota to Marathas in education and jobs, was challenged in court.
Saying he understood the Maratha demand, CM Fadnavis told The Indian Express, “In a state with 18 per cent irrigation, how can 45 to 50 per cent depend on agriculture for their livelihood? In the last 15 years, the Congress-NCP was able to increase the irrigation potential by only 0.1 per cent. Our agro-industrial reforms are oriented to address the root problems.”
Appealing to organisers of the rallies to “come forward for a dialogue”, the CM says the government is working on generating rural jobs. “I associate with the Maratha cause and their concerns… But we need to look beyond quota to accommodate the larger concerns of the community.”
Dalit leaders see the Maratha rallies as a bid to create caste friction, especially by the Congress and NCP. Says Dalit activist Kishore Kamble, “The two parties cannot digest being out of power and want to undermine the Fadnavis government.”
“The charge of misuse of the SC/ST Act is a pretext to undermine Dalit socio-political empowerment,” adds Prakash Ambedkar, the president of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh. “If they had problems with the Act, the Maratha stalwarts of the Congress-NCP could have moved an amendment in Parliament.”
Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale, a prominent Dalit leader of Maharashtra, says Dalits are not even against Maratha reservation. “But the demand for scrapping of the SC/ST Act cannot be justified… The Act has constitutional sanction. If there is misuse, let us plug the loopholes.”
His party, the Republican Party of India, has announced morchas supporting the Maratha demand. Other Dalit and OBC leaders have also supported reservation for Marathas, provided it does not curtail their existing quota.
Apart from a bid to destabilise the Fadnavis government, observers feel, there is another reason the Maratha protests have Congress-NCP backing. Many of these leaders have long remote-controlled the cooperative sector in the state, which could be under threat due to changes introduced by the BJP government. “Fadnavis is investigating scams in the cooperative and irrigation sectors. That has threatened them politically,” Kamble says.
Congress Dalit leaders also fear in private that the party would suffer the most in case of a Dalit-Maratha polarisation. Leaders of the Congress and NCP could find themselves facing embarrassing questions over what they did to empower the Marathas in their government. Apart from cooperative sectors, many of the educational institutions are also controlled by them.
In an editorial in Saamna on Tuesday, the Shiv Sena warned the NCP against taking advantage of the Maratha protests, while reminding Pawar that his party was part of the ruling coalition that let the problems fester. “The ongoing Maratha agitation is like a storm which nobody in Maharashtra is capable of handling. Leaders in Maharashtra have to decide now whether to create an understanding among people or fuel fire over this issue,” it said.