Lakhs of Marathas, walking silently with placards, are creating a political storm that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is finding difficult to withstand.
The Marathas, who form about 35 per cent of the state’s population, have been holding massive rallies protesting the brutal rape and murder of a Maratha girl in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar, on July 13, allegedly by three dalit youth. According to the postmortem report, her arms and hair had been pulled out, her teeth smashed, and her vagina stuffed with sand. The three youth allegedly warned her parents against going to the police and threatened them with a case under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. All three were later arrested.
The latest of the Maratha rallies, held in Pune on September 25, had 10 lakh participants. The rallies are being organised under the banner of Maratha Kranti Morcha, and the organisers have refused support from political parties.
Activist Nilesh Khaire said: “This [the rape] was a trigger for the community, [which came out] against the humiliation it had to put up with for decades. It brought the poor, exploited Maratha youth to the streets.”
The community took out rallies in the districts of Aurangabad, Beed, Osmanabad and Parbhani, and plans to hold rallies in all districts. Interestingly, the initial marches were unplanned and had neither any prominent leader nor lacked proper funding. “That really shook the Maratha leadership in the state,” said Khaire. “It became evident that the ordinary Marathas did not believe in the traditional leadership.”
Maratha leader and Congress spokesperson Hemlata Patil said: “The first march was organised in Jalgaon by little known individuals. Nearly 3.5 lakh people participated, and they spent voluntarily on water, banners, etc.” The rally in Jalgaon was solely about justice for the rape victim and some dalits had also participated in it.
But then, on July 25, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray visited Kopardi and demanded abolition of the Atrocities Act. Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar, in a news conference in Mumbai in August, said: “I know a few cases where some upper caste individuals misused the act to settle their personal scores with other upper caste people. The government should ensure that nobody misuses the act.”
Soon, social media was abuzz with posts against dalits and they, too, retaliated. The next Maratha rallies demanded abolition of the Atrocities Act, along with reservation for the Marathas. Vinay Kate, a social activist, however, said: “No sensible person would say the Atrocities Act should be abolished, especially after incidents like the one in Una. Even Maharashtra has had such incidents.” He said political leaders were using the consolidation of Marathas to divert their attention from real issues such as “the increasing losses in agriculture, exploitation by moneylenders, donations for admissions in education institutes and corruption”.
Sanjay Dabhade, an activist and a Maratha, said that as soon as ordinary Maratha youth started coming together, the leaders felt threatened and started advising them on how to organise the protests in their towns. “Leaders who took part in the meeting at Nashik said they would donate 0w1 crore in an hour,” said Hemlata. The marches that started with voluntary contributions from ordinary Marathas soon had cars and mineral water bottles with “Maratha Revolution” stickers.
The Maratha consolidation, however, seems to be creating deeper social divisions. Messages on social media asking castes like Banjara and Mali to consolidate have gone viral. “This was not meant to be against any caste or community at all,” said Hemlata. “People should question the government as Maharashtra has topped in the number of crimes against women in the entire country.”
Said Khaire: “The government and the people in power will only sit back and relax as long as people and communities keep blaming each other for their pathetic situation. The government will have to perform and ensure the security of the people.”
Fadnavis has stated that the government is prepared to discuss issues with the Maratha community and that he shouldn’t be blamed as he came to power hardly two years ago. There were rumours that he might be asked to step down if he failed to tackle the issue. “I am not concerned whether I am chief minister or not. But, as long as I am, I will continue to work for social transformation,” said Fadnavis at a function in Navi Mumbai on September 25. He also said Marathas must get reservation and that his government was committed to making that happen.
It is said that the possible successor to Fadnavis would be from the Maratha community. Chandrakant Patil, a senior BJP minister from Kolhapur district, has emerged as a frontrunner as he is reportedly close to BJP president Amit Shah. BJP state president Raosaheb Danve Patil, who was a Union minister, also seems to be in the running.
However, it is too early to predict a change of chief minister. After all, the organisers of the rallies have not demanded that Fadnavis, a Brahmin, should go.