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Supporting caste: A peek at the massive machine behind the enormous Maratha rallies

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The protests across Maharashtra, which are drawing lakhs of people, are silent. But they aren’t leaderless.

Prajakta Sankpal’s voice rang out through the bustling hall in the heart of Kolhapur last week, cutting through the commotion of people entering and leaving, holding private conversations.

“Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj was the one who gave our country the idea of reservations and at that time, all Marathas were included in it,” she thundered in Marathi to a ring of middle-aged and elderly men seated around her. “But when we got independence, Marathas were not included in that list. We need to ask why this injustice was done.”

Sankpal, 20, was auditioning, if a little late. Five young women were to deliver speeches at the Maratha Kranti Morcha scheduled for the next day, as Marathas across Kolhapur district gathered to silently hand over a set of demands to the district collector. The organisers had finished selecting the five speakers some days ago. The youngest of them was five years old. Their photographs had even appeared in local newspapers.

“I read about this only yesterday morning, which is why I came so late,” Sankpal admitted after her performance was over. “The organisers were kind enough to listen to me, but they said that I was too late. Maybe I will get a chance to speak in Mumbai instead.”

Sankpal has been delivering speeches since she was in school, which explains how her declamation slipped so easily into the cadence of political speeches. Caught up with her engineering studies, she had missed the excitement building around the impending rally. But she was not so far removed from events. As a result, her script – which she had hastily written the previous morning – converged almost entirely with the rhetoric that surrounded the rally.

This was an energetic propaganda machine was working itself to its final conclusion.

Entering the rally

The Maratha Kranti Morcha that took place on October 15 in Kolhapur was the largest rally of a series of similar demonstrations that have been organised in districts across Maharashtra since August 9.

These marches all share certain features. They are all silent: no slogans are raised, no political leaders are visibly involved and there is no visible face leading the rallies. All the rallies end with vehement speeches delivered by young women and then the national anthem. Protestors are discouraged from cheering. The protestors are demanding reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, the dilution of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocity) Act of 1989 that penalises people who abuse Dalits and Adivasis, and relief for farmers burdened with heavy input costs and loans.

Most of these Maratha rallies have attracted anywhere between two lakh and five lakh people, most of them from the district in which the event was held. But the one in Kolhapur, which is the seat of a branch of descendants of the famous Maratha ruler Shivaji, is estimated to have drawn around 40 lakh participants, according to organiser estimates. To put this in perspective, it must be noted that the official population of Kolhapur city is just 5.4 lakh.

The nerve centre for the rally was the two-storied Shivaji Tarun Mandal building in Shivaji Peth in the heart of Kolhapur. The organisation from which the structure takes its name is home to one of the city’s more prestigious football groups. It also hosts a famous Ganapati every September. In October, the building also became the temporary headquarters of the committee that would organise the city’s largest-ever rally.

Wheels turning

Behind the pious declarations of the rallies being leaderless, and by implication free of corruption from hidden agendas, there is a smoothly running mechanism that generates the conformity across districts and manufactures the discourse that channels lakhs of voices into a seemingly unified one.

There are several theories of how the rallies first began. Some say planning began a year ago.

There is also the theory that a group of Marathas gathered on July 14 in Kolhapur to discuss the rallies at a roundtable conference on the future of the Maratha community. There were 500 people at this conference.

Dilip Patil, founder of the Kshatriya Maratha Chamber of Commerce and owner of four steel factories on the outskirts of Kolhapur, was among them. He was introduced to this reporter by several people at the Shivaji Tarun Mandal as one of the key organisers of the rally.

Patil described the core membership of the organisers of the conference as a thinktank, which included poets, journalists, authors, industrialists and agricultural leaders. They were careful to avoid people associated with any political party.

The conference took place a day after news of a gang rape and murder at Kopardi in Ahmednagar district broke. This incident, in which three Dalits are alleged to have gang raped and then murdered a 15-year-old Maratha girl, has become the flash point for the community. The three Dalits are alleged to have threatened the girl’s family by claiming that they would file a case against them under the Prevention of Atrocity Act if they complained to the police about the rape, which is why Marathas are now demanding that the act be diluted.

The meeting itself had been planned some months ago, Patil said, even before the agitations of Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana – other dominant castes that also want government assistance. The idea, Patil said, was that the Maratha community was floundering and needed direction. For that, it would be best for Maratha organisations that had gathered to share resources and plan together.

“To organise the community, we had to raise feelings,” Patil said. “Kopardi helped us to materialise that. When we heard the news at the conference, the inner voices of all the people was raised and that was when we first began to come together.”

No room for politicians?

Their first rally in Ahmednagar in July was a regular morcha, complete with slogans and leadership. The response, however was cold, and only one lakh people attended.

“Our thinktank people thought then this should be a mook morcha [silent rally] and that if all the political people were out, more people would join,” Patil explained.

The groups were tapping into an evidently growing anxiety of Marathas across the state. Their perception was that while political and economic power is certainly in Maratha hands, it is concentrated only in a few families. Most others have not seen these benefits.

“The government was made of our people for 50 or 60 years,” Avinash Naik, from Hervad, 50 km from Kolhapur, who attended the Kolhapur rally on October 15, told Scroll.in. “So the leaders said the Marathas are our people only, who else will they go to? They took us for granted and just took out the caste card at election. This is our way of showing them.”

While the organisers claimed they were non-political, that did not prevent politicians from frequenting the rally headquarters at Shivaji Tarun Mandal. Among the people who came “as Marathas, not as party people” were politicians from the Nationalist Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Uttam Korade, associated with the Nationalist Congress Party, spoke of his considerations in coming there.

“The public hopes that a new person will do more than the old one, so it is good that they sent NCP out of power this time and see the other side,” he said. “They think they will get 100% work from the new person, but now they are getting not even 20%. Then in the next election, they will be happy with the 60% of the Congress-NCP. Now I am here to support them because they are my community.”

Korade’s son was unable to get admission into an engineering college without him having to pay a capitation fee.

“To be honest, there is very little education talent in the Marathas,” Korade said. “But even the 5% of the community that has talent cannot get admissions in colleges. At least I have money so I can make it happen, but what about the poor?”

Sticking to the script

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on crafting the narrative in the minds of people who were to attend the rallies. In Kolhapur, young women and girls were despatched to villages to hold “janjagruti” discussions – or discussions to awaken the people. Armed with a set script, these volunteers were to rattle off the list of demands to village residents and coax them into attending.

This they did in large numbers, and stayed on message. At the Kolhapur rally, organisers encouraged people to speak to journalists only of the main demands and not of their personal lives. They used social media too. When the mainstream Marathi media did not cover their first three rallies, the organisations called for a boycott of one of these outlets on Twitter and Facebook. After this, Patil claimed, they have gotten solid, consistent coverage.

The decision to use Kopardi as a rallying point was taken on the day of the Kolhapur conference. The group also attempted to make it clear that only this incident and no other would be used – in order to keep emotions under control.

The script has already slipped once. In early October, there was an incident in Nashik where initial rumours suggested that a Dalit teenager had allegedly raped a five-year-old Maratha girl, Though doctors confirmed after medical examination that she had not been raped, violence broke out across the district. But Patil claims that this was an aberration, and that the group did their best to ensure that the unrest did not travel outside Nashik.

“We have to raise spirit only, not the instinct to fight,” Patil said. “After Kopardi, there were incidents at Pathardi and Nashik. Why do you think nobody at this rally is talking about them? Because our social media team has made sure not to let any message of that circulate.”

Standing against it

Despite the community’s anger, it ignores a simple fact: no matter how poor a Maratha might be, that person will have more social power at the village level than Dalits or members of the Other Backward Classes. This, claims Shravan Deore, a leader who has been organising silent counter-rallies of OBCs in Marathwada, is the reason the Maratha events have been so well-attended – to the point that even certain OBC and Muslim groups have endorsed and joined the marches.

“In any village, the Patil is the zamindar or watandar [land owner] and does not even have to hold political position to be dominant,” explained Deore. “All they have to do is put a vehicle in the village and everyone will have to come, whether they are Mali or Teli. … The entire private and government machinery is in their support. Aisa unka morcha yun hi nikal jata hai. This is how their rallies happen without any effort.”

That is also why the Dalit and OBC counter-rallies so far have seen fewer numbers gathering, he said. It was simply difficult to get people to spend their own money to come.

“All of us initially supported the Maratha morcha in Aurangabad because we all thought that what happened in Kopardi was very wrong,” Deore said. “But when we saw their demands, insecurity began to grow in our people.

Around one lakh people attended an OBC rally against the Marathas in Nashik on October 3. Dalit and OBC groups have also held separate silent rallies in Beed and Jalna. Some organisations plan to organise a rally in Mumbai as well, but planning for this is still underway.

“Be very clear,” said Deore. For the Marathas this is not a war against a party, ideology or religion. This is a caste war. But we also have some tradition of fighting, so we are not going to sit silently.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own

Mridula Chari

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