Maharashtra stir: How a 'leaderless' Maratha movement is polarising the community

Following a peaceful show of strength through silent rallies on the streets of about a dozen towns in Maharashtra, the Maratha community is all set for a grand finale in the state capital Mumbai. A remarkable aspect of the silent rallies has been that apart from being peaceful, they are ‘leaderless’.

Wherever the rallies are held, the last being in Navi Mumbai on Wednesday, no speeches are made by any leader. Instead, a young girl reads out the demands, which include capital punishment for the Dalit accused in the rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district; scrapping the SC, ST Prevention of Atrocities Act; and reservation for the Maratha community in educational institutes and government jobs.

The organisation of ‘leaderless’ rallies is a clever strategy employed by the community, which seems to be working. Unlike the Dalits and the tribals, the Marathas are not socially backward. In fact, in the traditional hierarchy, they are second only to Brahmins and hence have played a dominant role in the socio-economic and political ethos of the state.

Maratha protests in Navi Mumbai. Image courtesy IBN-Lokmat

Maratha protests in Navi Mumbai. Image courtesy: IBN-Lokmat

In the post-independence era as well, there have been several powerful Maratha leaders in various political parties, businesses and professions. Most of the high profile leaders are in some way attached with political parties or organisations.

But the Maratha leaders are divided, with each one trying to achieve and maintain his supremacy in the region, then in the state before moving to the national level.

Traditional rivalries among Maratha dynasties manifest themselves during elections (right from the gram panchayats level to the Lok Sabha elections) and other spheres to establish and maintain supremacy, first over their brethren and then over others. At times, the Maratha leaders have instigated the Dalits enough to force them to file cases under the Prevention of Atrocities Act in retaliation.

The Marathas take pride in their lineage, land power, muscle power and socio-economic and political positions. Bringing them together and making them select a leader, or a group of leaders, to lead the current Maratha agitation would have become a mammoth task, with no guarantee of a prompt and long-lasting result.

It might have led to conflict and bickering, thus defeating the whole purpose of unification of the community. The Maratha leaders have been always divided, even during the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, who had several Maratha detractors. Apart from the leaders, Marathas as a community is also sub-divided into Shahannav Kuli (belonging to prime 96 families of warriors), Deshmukhi and Kunabi (peasants). Choosing a low-profile leader(s) would also have been a tedious task.

Another reason could be the apprehension over the protesters going out of control, creating a law and order problem like in Gujarat (during the Patidar movement) and in Haryana (during the Jat agitation). In such a situation, the leader or the group leading the movement would have become accountable and thus would have faced the ire of both the government and the Maratha community.

Yet another reason for a ‘leaderless’ movement is the difficulty in finding a leader who can openly take on other communities – since the demands of the current Maratha movement involves the interests of Dalits and OBCs. Even Muslims (who have lost the five percent quota announced by the state in litigation) and Brahmins (on the issue of hike in quota for the economically backwards) are indirectly involved.

A leader appointed to lead the Maratha movement would have obviously invited the ire of Dalits and OBCs instantly. The opposition to the Prevention of Atrocities Act is a sensitive issue with the Dalits. There is no Maratha leader willing to take up the issue openly.

Besides, veteran Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar has lost his Dalit protégé, Ramdas Athawale, to the BJP after some Congress-NCP Marathas ensured Athawale’s defeat in the Lok Sabha polls from Shirdi in Ahmednagar district. Incidentally, a Dalit youth, Sagar Shejwal, was lynched to death by Marathas in 2015 in Shirdi, for playing a song on his mobile phone while eulogising BR Ambedkar.

As for the OBCs, they are the largest chunk of population – estimated at around 52 percent. Within Marathas, the Kunbis are the largest in number, and in Vidarbha region they have already been included in the OBC category. In the past, the OBCs have vehemently opposed the inclusion of Marathas in the OBC category.

OBC leaders like Gopinath Munde (BJP) and Chhagan Bhujbal (NCP) have worked across party lines to oppose the sharing of OBC quota. Hence, the Maharashtra government had granted a separate 16 percent quota to the Marathas, that is under litigation.

Now, with Munde’s death two years ago and with Bhubal in custody facing cases of disproportionate assets, there are no OBC voices against the Maratha demand for inclusion in the OBC list. The visit of Munde’s daughter Pankaja, a minister in the Devendra Fadnavis cabinet, to JJ Hospital to meet the ailing Bhujbal may be an indication of things to come.

The Maratha community’s preference for a ‘leaderless’ movement has created a silent intimidation. No other community has opposed it or taken out a counter-morcha – except for the Dalits opposing the demand against the Prevention of Atrocities Act. In fact, Athawale is planning an all party conference on the plight of Marathas in Ahmednagar district. The quest for a peaceful movement has been achieved so far by the Maratha movement.

However, the movement is not entirely leaderless. Prominent Marathas, including former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, have participated in the rallies ‘as a common Maratha’ to express solidarity. Pawar has also been expressing support for the demands. The diktat of a ‘leaderless’ morcha has been followed meticulously by several leaders.

The movement clearly also has tacit support from the same Maratha leaders who are regional satraps and run economic empires in rural Maharashtra. Or else, why are educational institutions being shut down on the day of morchas and students (especially girls) being paraded in the morchas with placards of demands in their hands.

There was not a single word of criticism from the government, political parties, social organisations or the education department. Is this not a indoctrination of innocent minds at an early age? Are educational institutions run by Marathas unable to offer any quota/subsidies for students of their community?

The current series of agitations is a spectacular democratic exercise and the organisers of the movement have tacitly avoided mistakes, by learning from the Patidar agitation of Gujarat (where Hardik Patel was the leader) and the Jat movement in Haryana, that turned violent.

The fact remains that the Maratha movement is not just polarising Marathas, it is also polarising other communities, thereby vitiating the atmosphere.

Updated Date: Sep 22, 2016 15:44 PM

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