Caste politics Society

The great masquerade

The ideology of Maratha politics draws majorly from the part-real and part-imagined glory of the medieval Maratha Empire. Images are from a protest march in Thane on October 16. Photo: PTI  

Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra is well known for Shirdi, its pilgrimage spot, and its social activists Anna Hazare and Popatrao Pawar. It is famous for one other thing: crimes against Dalits. Called the ‘atrocity capital’ of Maharashtra, it records a staggering number of caste-based crimes against Dalits.

The last three years saw several cases reported, of which these three are perhaps the most brutal: in January 2013, three Dalit youth were savagely killed and their mutilated body parts strewn around Sonai village, Nevasa taluka; in October 2014, three members of a Dalit family met a similar end in Javkhede Khalsa village, Pathardi taluka; in May 2015, a Dalit boy was beaten to death for playing a song praising Ambedkar in Shirdi town. In most atrocity cases, the perpetrators are Marathas.

The stronghold of the Marathas over the social and political structure of the State is well documented and their share in the population is a formidable 30 per cent.

Following the 2006 Khairlanji incident — when members of a Dalit family were paraded naked, sexually assaulted, and murdered by members of the Maratha community — instances of atrocity appear to follow a distinct pattern: violence targets a specific household, family or individual; the form of violence is savage; the police, media and civil society are co-opted through caste, kinship and professional links; FIRs are delayed and so is the invocation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PoA Act); initial investigations are delayed to avoid tough punishments; and attempts are made to make invisible caste and caste-related violence in public discourse.

Then, in July this year, a young Maratha girl was brutally raped and killed in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar’s Karjat taluka. The suspects were Dalits.

This soon became the first case of caste-related violence where Anna Hazare demanded an inquiry and punishment. Civil society and the media were prompt to condemn the rape and murder and police action was relatively swift.

Today, the Kopardi incident has become the rallying point for Marathas across small-town and rural Maharashtra. Maratha Kranti Muk Morchas (Maratha revolutionary silent marches) have begun sweeping through towns such as Aurangabad, Osmanabad, Jalgaon, Beed, Latur, Parbhani, Solapur and Amravati. The three major demands of the movement are: justice in the Kopardi case, reservations for Marathas, and the abolition/ amendment of the PoA Act.

The streets are flooded with a sea of saffron flags and fetas (Maratha headgear). Anti-Dalit rhetoric is at the centre of almost every rally. Banners read ‘Ek Maratha, lakh Maratha’ (one Maratha equals a lakh Marathas), ‘Ekach mission, Maratha aarakshan’ (only one mission, Maratha reservation), ‘Marathyanchi ekjut mata bhagininvaril anyayaviruddh vajramuth’ (Maratha unity, an iron fist against crimes on women), ‘Atrocity kaydyach gairvapar band zhaalach pahije’ (Misuse of the Atrocity law must be stopped). Volunteers dole out water and snacks and most rallies have cleanliness squads to clear the trash left behind. The ‘silent and clean’ nature of these rallies is indeed very unusual for political mobilisation of this kind.

The morchas follow a formula: adolescent girls — in some cases as young as 14-15 years — are at the helm, followed by middle-aged and elderly women, then young, middle-aged and elderly men and, finally, the leaders of political parties and socio-cultural fronts. Five or six teenage girls are selected and trained to address the audience. They then submit a memorandum of demands to the district authorities. At the rally in Navi Mumbai on September 21 this year, a young girl’s fiery speech reflected the mood of the gathering. “Today, even if we score 90 per cent in our exams we don’t get admissions to colleges because of the monster of reservations. My brother is sitting at home because there are no jobs thanks to reservations”; “Only 4 per cent of atrocity cases have been proven in Maharashtra courts. The remaining 96 per cent are false and the accused must be set free.”

Now, a mammoth rally along similar lines has been planned for Mumbai where more than 20 lakh people are expected to participate. A fortnight ago, an exclusive bike rally, with a large number of women participants, was organised in Mumbai as a ‘warm up’ to this mega event.

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There’s much that sets apart the Marathas from the other caste groups now on the streets demanding reservation, such as Jats or Patidars. Unlike these groups, the Marathas claim a higher ritual status of being Kshatriya. And unlike the Jats or Patidars, the Marathas specifically demand the repeal of the PoA Act.

Unified though its voice may appear, Maratha identity is really divided into two broad groups: dominant Marathas who identify themselves with Shivaji and his martial tradition, and Kunbi or peasant Marathas, who are poorer and considered lower in the social hierarchy. The latter already have a reservation quota under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, so the recent demand for OBC status comes from the dominant Maratha group.

The demand is fraught with historical inconsistencies and contemporary social contradictions. Marathas want legal and administrative recognition as OBCs or shudras but all of them, rich and poor, take pride in associating with the Kshatriya label and refuse to identify with other OBCs, either socially or culturally.

The Kopardi case, with its overt caste bias, has allowed a new Maratha mobilisation and unity. Caste allegiance has united multiple socio-economic groups within the community and mobilised large participation in the rallies. But, however loud the war cry, the issue at stake is not reservations for poorer Marathas or farmers’ distress or even farmers’ suicides; the real issue is the increased presence of Dalits in public spaces and their increased social and educational mobility. Maratha elders never imagined that education or non-farming jobs would topple power equations one day. The repeal of the PoA Act is, thus, central.

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A large part of the ideology of Maratha politics draws from the part-real and part-imagined glory of the medieval Maratha Empire. A section of the Marathas has always sought economic, political and cultural dominance based on its ‘association’ with Shivaji and his military heroism. Maratha history is everywhere, from the smallest village to the biggest metropolis. The noted historian Tryambak S. Shejwalkar once said: “history [had] gripped Maharashtra like the devil”. Another Marathi historian Y.D. Phadke rued that “…the ordinary Marathi speaker, although physically resident in the twentieth century, mentally inhabited the Maratha period with considerable enjoyment.” Celebrations in the smallest villages use medieval military symbolisms to advertise Maratha superiority.

In the early years of the 20th century, Maratha politics did play a progressive role with its non-Brahmin moorings. That element is mostly missing now. The articulation of interests today always takes shape within the rhetoric of Maratha pride and glory. On all other issues — Dalit assertion, land, livelihood, caste atrocities — Maratha politics consistently sides with the landed and upper castes. This narrative persistently ignores the present despair and poverty of much of the population, especially the peasantry.

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Although presented as spontaneous and independent of political parties, it nevertheless appears that political leaders, from almost all parties, have extended material and ideological support to the rallies. Social activist Ashok Tangade from Beed told me, “The way the silent Maratha rallies have been organised at various locations with precise format, slogans and participation gives me the impression of intense and centralised planning. There is speculation that a group of ‘concerned Marathas’, mostly professors from Marathwada Shikshan Prasarak Mandal and other professionals, met in Aurangabad where the first morcha took place. The three key elements that have come to define Maratha rallies were taken at these meetings: that they would be silent; that political leaders would be placed at the back of the morchas; and that young women would be at the helm.”

Tangade says the rallies decided to go silent because they were primarily against the PoA Act, and any legal action was precluded by avoiding speeches and slogans. And women lead the morchas as a counterpoint to reservations for Dalits in education and jobs.

The fact that the rallies originate largely in the Marathwada region, which has witnessed severe droughts and agrarian crises over the last few years, points to a deeper unrest brewing over land, agriculture and new opportunities in the non-agricultural sector. The Marathwada region was underw the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad before Independence. Characterised by ryotwari land tenures since at least 1853, the region remained backward because of a deeply unequal social structure and negligence by the Nizam. Marathwada has never had a distinct political identity, with the dominant groups gradually co-opted by political currents in western Maharashtra. In recent times, the region has erupted with signs of distress both in agricultural and economic performance, and in social structures.

There is, thus, ample reason to believe that the demands for jobs and the livelihood worries are genuine. The nature, however, of the ongoing agitation is such that it is almost wholly rooted in caste despite the other demands it uses to mask this. While the poorer Marathas have been successfully mobilised, their coming together is made possible only by the explicit anti-Dalit call. The leaders of the movement will never allow economic issues to take centre stage, and that will be the larger tragedy for the real issues at stake in Maharashtra. The Maratha victimhood narrative today is centred on reinforcing the existing domination of a few sections of society in economy, culture and politics. This, in essence, is why the agitation is blighted from the start.

Awanish Kumar is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 3:38:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/The-great-masquerade/article16699954.ece

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