The Maratha community, a dominant force in Maharashtra politics, has been taking out silent marches in various towns in the state over the last one month, following the rape and murder of a girl at Kopardi in Ahmednagar district two months ago.
On Wednesday, members of the Maratha community took out another such morcha in Navi Mumbai. In a show of strength, thousands marched from Kharghar to the office of the Konkan Divisional Commissioner.
A similar protest was planned for Thursday in Amravati. Nearly five lakh community members were expected to take part in that protest.
The protests may be 'silent' morchas but they have still caused a kind of tension in Maharashtra which, according to many journalists, has not been seen in the state since it was formed in 1960.
Kopardi gangrape and murder — The trigger
On 13 July, a 15-year-old Maratha girl was allegedly gang raped and murdered by four Dalit youths who inflicted injuries all over her body and broke her limbs before throttling her at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar.
"The incident took place on 13 July between 6.45 pm and 7.30 pm when the victim was returning after meeting her grandfather. She was accosted by three accused who gangraped her violently before throttling her to death. Her both shoulders were found to be dislocated," Ahmednagar district Superintendent of Police Saurabh Tripathi had told PTI.
Reports had also said that the flesh from all over the victim's body, including her genitals, were torn. Her hair had been pulled out, hands were dislocated from the shoulders, her teeth were smashed and she was strangled to death after rape.
The incident had sparked public outrage as well as a political slugfest, with the Congress demanding Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis' resignation on "moral grounds".
The protests and the demands
After the gangrape, Maratha Kranti silent morchas were held in Akola, Nanded, Beed, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Jalgaon and Jalna districts over the last one month. They had received huge response, forcing all political parties to take note of the community's grievances.
Three lakh people had taken part in the morchas in Beed and Osmanabad, according to The Asian Age.
On Wednesday's march in Navi Mumbai, the 'Muk Morcha', which began from the Central Park at Kharghar in Raigadh district, wended its way through the highway before culminating at the Konkan Bhavan at Belapur.
Unmindful of heavy downpour, the protesters, clad in black and carrying saffron flags, walked the 6-km stretch. A delegation of five girls, who were part of the march, later met Konkan Divisional Commissioner Prabhakar Deshmukh and submitted a memorandum on behalf of the Sakal Maratha Samaj, demanding strict action against the culprits in the rape case.
Apart from demanding death penalty for the accused, the Maratha community leaders have been pressing for scrapping of the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act), saying it is grossly misused, and also raised other demands like quota in in education and jobs.
Five lakh people were expected to take part in the morcha in Amravati on Thursday. "The morcha is not against any caste but against the tendency involved in Kopardi case," the organisers had said at a press conference.
The real reason behind the protests
According to this article in The Indian Express by Bhalchandra Mungekar, over 150 crimes against Dalits, including some brutal murders, were committed just in Ahmadnagar district in the last four to five years.
"Yet, not a word of protest was uttered by any section of society in the state, let alone the Maratha community, other than the Dalits. This once again underlines that community sensitivity or conscience even in the crime of rape is determined by one’s caste," said the article.
Moreover, the organisers of the silent morchas had also said that college youths alone would lead the morcha on Thursday as there would be no political or other leaders involved in the march.
However, the participants in the protests — according to The Indian Express report — belong to a wide range of political parties like Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and BJP.
The OBCs are also not allowed to take part in the protests, even though many Dalits — including the entire Dalit community of Kopardi village — also wanted death penalty for the accused. This puts a question over whether the protests are actually about punishing the guilty or about a longstanding issue of reservation and a divide between Marathas and Dalits.
"The Khopardi gang-rape may be a trigger but the anger is directed more at the reservation benefits the Dalit community receives. Marathas say only a small fraction amongst them are rich and influential, the rest are poor and unemployed. Educating their children is a huge financial strain and illiteracy amongst Marathas is on the rise. Those educated say that reservation has rendered them jobless," said another article in Open Magazine.
With input from agencies