The form and content of the Maratha agitation sparked off by the rape and murder of a 14-year old school girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, notorious for its record of caste atrocities, has stunned observers. The form of muk morcha (silent rally) adopted by the protesters is novel and puzzling since the community is not known for such patience, individually or collectively. The content is confusing since all the culprits were arrested within a week of the crime and the chief minister himself promised that they would be hanged to death. The original demand — justice to the victim — has been overshadowed by the plea to introduce reservations for the Maratha community and repeal of the SC and the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The call for capital punishment to the culprits of the Kopardi incident — they belong to a Dalit caste — was supported by all, including the Dalits. But the protests took a distinct caste turn after it was raised in the state assembly by NCP leaders, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and Ajit Pawar. A massive muk morcha on August 1 demanded reservations for Marathas and the repeal of the SC and the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. NCP bigwigs including party supremo Sharad Pawar supported the morcha. A spate of similar morchas, over 40 so far, have since taken place all over Maharashtra. Some of the NCP leaders have accepted that they provided logistic support to the rallies. These morchas have no face or clear leadership. The spokespersons are like school girls. Established politicians have been scrupulously kept out.
The Marathas, who account for a third of electorate, are divided into three classes. The top layer is made of the wealthy Marathas who control the cooperative sector, run businesses, and hold political power. They are called gadhivarcha (fort-dwelling) Marathas. The NCP is their party. The second layer comprises rich landlords, who control small cooperatives and institutions of local self government. They are described as wadyavarcha (mansion-dwelling) Marathas. They support the Congress and the BJP. The third section, the vadivarcha (the commoner) Marathas, is facing the brunt of the mounting agrarian crisis. They support parties like the Shiv Sena, MNS and other such lumpen outfits. None of these parties could inspire the Marathas masses in such large numbers and incur the electoral risk of identifying openly with the demands raised by the agitators. However, each party imagines that it could partake of the gains of this mobilisation.
The demand for Maratha reservation is not a new one. Similar demands have been raised by the Gujjars, Jats, and Patidars, their counterparts in other states. The Marathas are the kunabis (tillers) of Maharashtra, but would not identify themselves as so when the kunabis were classed as OBC by the Mandal Commission. Instead, the Marathas have claimed kshatriya-hood for themselves.
History apart, are these demands feasible? The political class, including Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who appears to be the target of the NCP, has supported the claims, notwithstanding the failure of earlier attempts to secure them. The Maratha community, which has complete dominance over the politics and economics of the state, can never establish through constitutional means that it is socially and educationally backward and establish the claim for OBC reservation. If the political class manages the inclusion through fraudulent means, the existing OBCs are likely to oppose it and the courts will stall it. The second demand — the claim to repeal the SC and the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has now changed to modification of the act — is directed against the Dalits. The basis of the demand that convictions are few — the rate of conviction is as low as six per cent — only indicates the dominance of the dominant castes over the state apparatus, which works to ensure that cases booked under the act fail at every node of the justice delivery system. Moreover, it is a national act and cannot be tinkered under false pretexts.
Though both the demands are unlikely to be fulfilled, the consciousness of victimhood among the Marathas achieved by the morchas is going to serve the interests of the political parties. The Maratha youth must realise that their own leaders have been responsible for their current plight. The current mobilisations are unlikely to alleviate their misery.