The Marathas, who comprise a third of the population of Maharashtra, began to agitate for their demands — mainly reservations for the community in jobs and education — a little less than two years ago. Through 2016-2017, the protests took the form of tens of thousands of people marching in silence, not only staying away from violence but also cleaning up the streets after themselves. The mook morchas (mute protests) were organised by local units of Maratha organisations under a loose umbrella called the Maratha Kranti Morcha.
The marches began on August 9, 2016, in the wake of the July 13 rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar. Their demands included the death penalty for the accused, and amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to curb its alleged misuse, which they said was being used to harass the Marathas with false cases. The protesters’ other key demand was reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. Memoranda handed over to district collectors at the end of each of the 58 protests also demanded expeditious building of the Shivaji statue off the coast of Mumbai, hostels for Maratha students in every district, and interest-free loans for the economically backward members of the community.
While the current phase of renewed protests ended Wednesday, the agitation is far from over. This is because of two reasons.
One, the Maratha mobilisation is linked to the continuing agrarian crisis in Maharashtra, for which there is no quick fix. Traditionally a landowning caste, Marathas have spoken of a slow impoverishment amid rising uncertainty in farming and the prices of agricultural produce. Their insecurities are not fundamentally different from those of other dominant castes such as Patels, Gujjars and Jats, which have triggered shows of assertion elsewhere, too.
Two, reservations is a knotty issue that is under litigation, and is far from resolution.
Anger against the CM Fadnavis
The mook morchas stopped in August 2017, and in May this year, Maratha Kranti Morcha leaders met Revenue Minister Chandrakant Patil and others to complain they were having trouble accessing government schemes, such as the one for interest-free loans. The latest round of protests started on July 18 in Parli in Beed, amid an outpouring of anger at the long delay in resolving the matter. The following day, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis told the Assembly that the government was committed to reservations for Marathas, and would keep aside 16% vacancies while recruiting for government jobs. In response, Maratha leaders asked for a clarification on how this would be done.
The street anger that saw a Maratha youth drowning in the Godavari in a protest jal samadhi, attacks on state transport buses, and the forcible shutting of shops in several cities including Mumbai was triggered, protesters said, by Fadnavis’s statement that he had been forced to cancel the Chief Minister’s customary visit to Pandharpur on the occasion of Ashadhi Ekadashi after intelligence inputs that Maratha protesters may endanger the lives of lakhs of Warkari devotees with stampedes or by releasing snakes in processions.
Government’s quota stand
Bombay High Court has twice rejected a proposed quota for Marathas — striking down an ordinance issued by the earlier Congress-NCP government — and then, in December 2014, staying the implementation of a quota law brought by the BJP-Sena regime. In 2016, the government filed an affidavit that argued that extraordinary circumstances — including displacement, high illiteracy, destruction of environment resources due to climate change, and consequent suicides by farmers — justified reservations beyond the 50% ceiling (set by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney vs Union of India, 1992). Referring to a study of farmers’ suicides in 2014-16, the affidavit said nearly 78% of suicides had taken place in Marathwada and Vidarbha, and “most” of the victims were Marathas. The government expects that the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission — which has received thousands of representations for and against reservations and is now assessing the backwardness of the community — will submit a favourable report. The Commission has informed the government that it will need another four months to complete its work, after which the government is expected to go back to the High Court.