The mass mobilisations by the Maratha community in Maharashtra are symptomatic of the deep discontent that has been building in the state, especially in its agrarian hinterland. Triggered by the gang-rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from the community, these marches, which started more than a month ago, have gone beyond the immediate question of justice for the victim. An old demand of reservations for the Marathas in education and employment has now become a rallying point and complaints of being left behind by other communities that have access to affirmative action can be heard. Similar claims had been made by the Jats in Haryana and Patels in Gujarat when they took to the streets some months ago. At the core of the Maratha unrest, as with the Jat and Patel agitations, is the crisis in the agrarian economy, and its impact on the farmer and peasant communities. The concerns are valid. But the solutions being proposed by the affected communities are not. Worse, the anti-Dalit colour that the Maratha agitation has taken on is deeply worrying. Political parties that have extended support to the agitation must counsel caution and restraint.
Every party, community and caste has supported the demand for punishing those who are guilty of rape and murder — the four men arrested for the crime are Dalits. But the protestors have sought to keep their agitation exclusively to Marathas and have kept out people from other communities. Clearly, the attempt is to describe the rape as a caste crime and not allow a broader, secular mobilisation. In this context, the demand that the Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act be repealed has the potential to trigger tensions. This Act was legislated in the face of mounting evidence of atrocities against Dalits and the failure of existing provisions to act as deterrent. The plea for its repeal may have more to do with opposition to the political and social empowerment of Dalits than any misuse of the Act. The claim for reservation needs to pass through the process laid down in the Constitution. An executive decision, forced by the mobilisational clout of the community, cannot pass muster.
The Marathas, like the Jats and Patels, are numerically and politically powerful. They must use their clout to seek structural changes that will benefit the whole society, rather than making narrow-minded demands that discriminate against its most vulnerable.