A silence that’s deafening

Updated - November 09, 2021 01:58 am IST

Published - September 30, 2016 12:20 am IST

The recent Maratha protest marches across Maharashtra, while a reflection of the farming crisis in the State, are essentially an expression of marginalisation of the community’s lower and middle rungs.

If any political leader or pundit were to have said, even just four months ago, that lakhs and lakhs of Marathas were going to mobilise and march across Maharashtra, week after week, from Parbhani in Marathwada to the so-called “intellectual and knowledge capital” Pune, nobody would have believed that prognosis. Nobody, not even the powerful Maratha leadership, including the ‘strongman’ of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, had seen the turbulence beneath the superficial and deceptive calm in the community. Now it is obvious that the frustration and anger among the Marathas has been brewing intensely.

Most people outside Maharashtra do not understand the difference between the two phonetically similar sounding terms, Maratha and Marathi. Why, even the metropolitan Mumbaikar cannot comprehend the distinction. The broadcast media and panel pontiffs too are confused by the sudden tsunami-like Maratha marches, which they cannot simply ignore because of their sheer size and breadth. Indeed, the mobilisation is so grippingly picturesque that television cameramen and anchors cannot underplay it by pretending that Kashmir and the Cauvery water crisis are far more important!

The class divide among Marathas

The Maratha caste can be broadly compared with Jats in Rajasthan and Haryana or Patidar-Patels in Gujarat, primarily farmers. They are one-third of the State’s population and Marathi is their mother tongue, though not exclusive to them. Within the community, there is a hierarchy observed very diligently, particularly when it comes to matrimony. However, irrespective of social hierarchy, they are all directly connected with agriculture, sons of soil, as it were. But there is another hierarchy, that of class. There are four class divisions.

The elite Marathas are directly related to power or power centres — ministers, chairmen of commissions, various boards, directors in cooperative banks, board members of sugar cooperatives, zilla parishad or gram panchayat chiefs, and so on. These Marathas are seen to not distinguish between the private and public.

The class just below them is the rich farmer, “bagayati” or cash crop farmer. They are powerful because they command respect on account of their wealth, which also gives them status and authority in the villages. They are not in political power directly, but they have political heft across parties as they finance candidates.

Next in the hierarchy comes the small or middle peasant, who survives on a season-to-season basis, is dependent on the vagaries of nature, is anxious about the monsoon, takes small loans to run the farm or for wedding expenses, and commits suicide if harassed by the bank or moneylender. The middle peasant aspires to be a rich farmer, and hence imitates the lifestyle of the well-off farmer. When he fails to live up to his projected image, distraught, he hangs himself.

The lowest and the last layer is that of the landless peasants and agricultural labourers who depend on government employment guarantee schemes and other benefits.

The only bond among this four-layered class structure is of caste. Being Maratha gives them a feeling of difference from the ‘other’ and an illusion of being important.

The power elite have everything going for them. The rich farmer’s main worry is that he is not getting cheap labour because of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. His economic interest pits him against his Maratha brethren because of the class distinctions. The real frustration is among the small/middle farmers, the vast section of landless farmers and/or agricultural labourers. A young person among the lower classes of Marathas has had no opportunities for higher education, no possibilities of migrating to the cities for a better future, and certainly no avenues to new kinds of jobs — in the information technology sector, for instance. Unemployment, declining agriculture, compounded by severe drought and devastating floods, have threatened his very survival.

For the past two years these suffering classes waited with great expectation for “ Achche Din ”. They had voted against the Congress because their condition saw no improvement during the years of Congress rule. They thought Narendra Modi would provide what the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance did not. Now, there’s disillusionment.

Searching for an object of ire

Thus, multiple frustrations got accumulated and mixed up. But who should be held responsible? The Marathas are in power from sugar cooperatives to Mantralaya, the administrative headquarters of the State government. All parties, from the Congress, NCP, to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena have large contingents of Marathas. In assemblies and local self-governments there is Maratha domination. And yet the lower- and middle-rung Marathas feel isolated, neglected, marginalised in the job market and denied opportunities in higher education.

The reservation policy gave Dalits an advantage vis-à-vis Marathas in getting admission in reputed colleges. Ironically, many of the State’s private colleges and deemed universities are owned, run and managed by the Maratha power elite! Moreover, the subcaste, or parallel caste, Kunbi, was included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation category. That, too, has fuelled the demand for reservation among other larger Maratha groupings. The disgruntled Maratha youth, instead of wagging an accusing finger at the power elite of their own caste, began to see an enemy in the Dalit community, the ‘beneficiaries’ of the reservation policy.

The brutal rape and murder of a Maratha girl in July by a few Dalit youth in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district provided these marginalised Maratha youth an opportunity to direct their wrath against the Backward Castes and OBCs. Though none of the recent Maratha marches have witnessed any diatribe against the Dalit community, the underlying message is that the mobilisation is targeted against the Dalits. Since the NCP founded and led by Mr. Pawar has the largest Maratha following, many commentators believe that he and his party are behind the movement. The Maratha elites are happy to face this charge, because they get credit for channelling the discontent when they are at best only supporting from behind the scenes what is essentially a spontaneous expression of mass (and class) frustration.

In the past it was the Brahmin (caste and class) that was the ‘enemy’ of the Marathas (self-declared Bahujan). The Dalits and OBCs too regarded Brahminism as the main ‘enemy’. Demographically, this upper caste had just about 4 per cent presence in society but dominated education, bureaucracy, media and other institutions of power. That domination was sharply reduced following reservation, and a section of the Marathas too entered the corridors of power and influence. But still there were the vast armies of lower- and middle-end Maratha youths deprived of participation in the mainstream economic, political and cultural affairs. Around 200 Maratha families have kept the reins of power in their hands, claim organisers of the protest movement.

Rage of the have-nots

As stated in the beginning, the marches are a reflection of the massive crisis in the agricultural economy of Maharashtra. That is the reason the demand for the implementation of reports of the M.S. Swaminathan-led National Commission on Farmers between 2004 and 2006 has acquired importance in this agitation. The farmer is denied competitive prices for his produce, affordable prices for the input elements, relief and support during drought, famines and floods, and help from financial institutions when it is the need of the hour.

This hapless and helpless small and middle farmer is seeing around him the new wealth, new opportunities, new jobs, new lifestyles that he too aspires to. The urban haves and rural haves have cornered the new wealth, making him the new poor. The new poverty is not poverty imposed on him by nature or overall backwardness; it is enforced by the ruling class and the ruling government and the ruling establishment. He knows who the ‘enemy’ is: it is in his neighbourhood and his community. That is why all the marches are silent protest processions, perhaps. The marches are disciplined, clean, huge and silent, with massive participation from women of all age groups and girl students who are angry because they feel the future is being snatched away from them.

The silence of the lakhs of marchers is deafening and the elite — Maratha or Brahmin or Dalit — are feeling threatened. It is a silent political bomb ticking and could explode anytime, devastating all that we think is stable and settled.

Kumar Ketkar is a veteran journalist and Chief Editor of ‘Dainik Divya Marathi’.

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