The Angry Maratha

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How the silent march for reservations has become a violent protest

ON AUGUST 9TH, Anand Pole spent much of the day in his office in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, satisfied that the strike announced by representatives of the Maratha community had passed by without much incident in the city. As secretary general at the Chamber of Marathwada Industries and Agriculture (CMIA), Pole often speaks with pride about the manner in which Aurangabad has been developing over the years, attracting several large companies— especially in the automobile industry—to set up manufacturing plants and offices here.

Pole, however, has become progressively worried over this past year. A series of violent protests—first across the state after the Bhima Koregaon violence, then events that turned into communal clashes within the city, and lately another bout of restlessness among Marathas for reservations—has tensed nerves across Aurangabad, his own included.

The city lies at the heart of both the Marathwada region (‘the house of Marathas’) and the current agitation. Just last month, when Maratha demonstrations across the state took a violent turn, Aurangabad was one of the most severely affected parts. Clashes took place between the police and protestors, and at least one policeman died. Several buses and vehicles were torched and life was brought to a complete standstill. During these protests and immediately after, several people attempted to commit suicide in the city, allegedly for the cause of Maratha reservations, and at least a few of them were successful.

Pole was weary of how badly Aurangabad was going to be affected by the August 9th protests. But apart from a few street fights here and there, right up till about 3 pm, nothing terribly worrisome occurred in the city. In comparison, the situation seemed far worse some 230 km in Pune. There, roads were blocked, people were pelting stones, and the police had to resort to teargas shelling and lathi charges. Some protestors even went on a rampage at the district commissioner’s office. Aurangabad seemed less troubled.

But then, around 3 pm, Pole heard distressing news. A large crowd, numbering somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, he says, had broken into the Waluj industrial area and started vandalising property. Located on the outskirts of Aurangabad, Waluj is a large township where over 3,300 companies—including large ones like Siemens—have manufacturing units, workshops and offices. Most of the companies were shut that day, according to Pole, in deference to the strike. But the mob began to ransack the area. They broke into offices, smashed cabins, computers and cameras. Vehicles were smashed and burnt. Some people—employees and security personnel—were also assaulted. Many of the protestors appeared to have been drunk and some of them even stole items like computers. Although the police were called in, the mob overpowered them. A fire brigade tried to enter the premises, but was torched. The rioting, Pole says, went on till about 8 pm. In all, he estimates that Waluj suffered private losses of at least Rs 300 crore that day.

“It was terrible,” Pole says. “Here we are, trying so hard to push the city as a hub of industry. And then something like this happens.”

He thinks much of what happened had the appearance of being premeditated. “CCTV footage shows that many of the people went about in a planned manner. They knew where to go, what to break down, where [computer] servers were kept. Some of them made it a point to break CCTV cameras. It was not spontaneous,” he says. Some of the vandals even kept their faces covered.

Industry bodies like the CMIA have reached out to the police and politicians to ensure something like this does not occur again. They are going through CCTV records, they say, and those found rioting will never be given employment within the township.

“I just don’t get it,” Pole says. “What is achieved by targeting industry in this manner? Industry is the primary source of employment in this region.”

“T HE GOVERNMENT SAW these huge silent marches. And all they noticed was the event. They didn’t see the anger inside the crowd,” says Abasaheb Patil, describing the response of the state government to the 58 silent marches that took place in Maharashtra in 2016 and 2017.

Those marches were a unique form of protest, first begun to draw attention to several issues facing the Maratha community, most notably their economic hardship, their demand for reservations and the repeal of the Scheduled Cast and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. These marches had hundreds of thousands of peasants, professionals and other Marathas swarming the streets in a show of numerical strength. Usually led by women, they were visibly apolitical and leaderless and made an effort to select days that would lessen the inconvenience of others. Swelling masses of silent people marching long distances were often a sight to behold. Their silence, their spokespersons kept saying, was one that the government could ill afford to ignore.

“The goal is to mobilise Marathas against the government and its Brahmin Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis” - Surendra Jondhale, professor of political science, University of Mumbai

Abasaheb Patil is one of several state coordinators of the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM), the group that organised the earlier marches and the one behind the current stir. “[The government] said, ‘Oh, look at these Marathas. They come quietly, ladies in front, then the children, the professionals and then the others. They come, they give speeches, and they go away.’ They only looked at it as an event. Nobody paid us any attention. The stress was very high [among Marathas]. The youth are uncontrollable. It is difficult to always keep them silent.”

The earlier discipline is now nowhere to be seen. Since last month, silent Maratha marches have given way to violent protests across the state, posing a menace to public order in new ways. The organisers, however, claim that this spurt of lawlessness is not their handiwork but instigated by others who want to discredit their movement. Raghunath Chitre Patil, a coordinator at MKM, claims several people who are otherwise not a part of their organisation have joined the last few protests uninvited. “They come with bags of stones to throw on policemen. They are not our people. Even in Pune [on August 9th], I was there in the DC’s office. There were these groups of people I had never seen before—and I know all our volunteers by face because I have been training them for the last two years [for the silent marches]—and they just wouldn’t listen to the authorities or to us. They were saying they wanted reservations ‘by today itself’.”

The trigger for the latest round of agitations was the declaration of a recruitment drive of about 72,000 government jobs. This has now been kept in abeyance till a framework is set up to consider the demand for a Maratha quota. “It was very foolish of the government to announce such an employment drive at this point when people were so unhappy,” Abasaheb says. “There are only about 5-7 per cent Marathas in government jobs currently. If this recruitment drive had happened, we would all have vanished.”

There is intense unease among large numbers of Marathas that they are losing their grip on the state. This might appear strange because they constitute an estimated 30 per cent of the state population and thus form the most politically dominant group in Maharashtra. They enjoy a measure of economic heft as well. They control most cooperative banks, large tracts of farmlands, and a large number of industries and educational institutes. Most of the state’s chief ministers have also been Marathas. But as Raghunath Chitre Patil points out, a little over 150 Maratha families have cornered all this. The vast majority of the community, he says, remain poor and unemployed. “There are some families, like the Pawars, Chavans and Deshmukhs, who are the elite. They have improved only themselves and their families, not the community. Just look at the rest of us. Marathas are very poor, very backward. They have no jobs, can’t get admission to colleges. Most Marathas are farmers. And you just have to look at agriculture, the huge number of farmer suicides, to know how bad the situation is.”

The Maratha silent marches began in the wake of the gang-rape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl in Ahmednagar district’s Kopardi village, allegedly by Dalit youths. Abasaheb remembers travelling to Kopardi after he heard of it, and the manner in which they had to pressure the police to act swiftly on the case. At one of the first marches, in which he participated, they were expecting between 5,000 and 10,000 people to show up. “Around 4 lakh people came. We were stunned. That is when we realised the anger and unhappiness among the people,” Abasaheb says.

The aim of the marches, however, apart from the oft-stated demands, has always been to unite and mobilise the community. According to Surendra Jondhale, a political commentator and professor of political science at University of Mumbai, while the marches have had no political face in the lead, and their structure has appeared apolitical, the goal has always been political. “It was always meant to create trouble for this current state government,” Professor Jondhale says, “To mobilise Marathas against the current government [led by the BJP] and its Brahmin Chief Minister [Devendra Fadnavis].”

Historically, Marathas have usually voted for Maratha leaders, whether they were members of the Congress or Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). This pattern has meant that the state has had some 10 Maratha chief ministers so far. But the 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections saw those parties trounced by the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, with the Congress and NCP assessed to have lost a chunk of their Maratha vote.

In the context of that splintering, the ongoing mobilisation seems like an effort to swing en bloc Maratha clout again. Genuine concerns about rising unemployment and agrarian distress, Professor Jondhale says, are being used to focus the community’s ire on the BJP’s Fadnavis government. “They say their marches are not political. But Maratha leaders from several parties have always been supporting [the movement] from the background, either directly or through other businesses,” says the professor, “Where else would the money and the logistics for organising such large marches have come from?”

The issue of quotas is being used to stir up Marathas, according to Professor Jondhale, although it is unlikely the government will be able to surmount the constitutional hurdles to meet that demand. “As elections approach and the frustration increases, there will certainly be more violence and protests,” he expects.

In the absence of a single leader, a few cracks now seem to be emerging within the MKM. Some leaders now want to wait till the end of November, by when the state government promises to solve the reservation problem. Others want to press on with public demonstrations. Abasaheb, who was leading protests in Maharashtra’s Beed district, called them off and did not participate in the agitation of August 9th. “There is no point in pressing on right now,” he says. “One way or another, we have to wait till November to see if our demands are met. Nothing can be achieved by continuing the protest.” According to him, the organisation has been infiltrated by political elements who want the stir to go on. “There are some such people. Their agenda is to benefit themselves politically, not based on keeping the community’s welfare in mind,” he says.

Pole, meanwhile, is apprehensive of what the future might hold as the polls of 2019 draw near. Close to 200 people were arrested in Pune and Aurangabad after August 9th. Some groups, he says, have issued threats that those arrested must be freed or else there will be ‘consequences’. “I hope nothing untoward happens again,” he says. “But I have very little faith.”