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02 Jul 2020, Edition - 1815, Thursday

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Why the Marathas have decided to go leaderless in their fight for reservation

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The strategy is rooted in the current leadership crisis facing one of Maharashtra’s most politically dominant caste groups.

Last year, when the Patels and Jats agitated for caste-based reservations, their community members organised massive rallies that led to violent clashes with the state. In July, when Gujarat’s Dalits rose against cow vigilantism, they protested by leaving cattle carcasses to rot on the streets. Now, for nearly a month, the Marathas of Maharashtra have been drawing attention to their discontent through another strategic form of protest: “muk morchas” or silent marches by lakhs of protesters across the state.

Like the Patels and the Jats, the Marathas are traditionally a socially and politically dominant land-owning caste group with a significant agrarian population. For more than a decade, sections of the community have been demanding recognition as an Other Backward Caste to avail of reservations in government jobs and educational institutions.

Their recent muk morchas, however, are not just about quota. In the wake of the gangrape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl allegedly by Dalit boys in Ahmednagar district’s Kopardi village, the Marathas are also demanding that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act be repealed. This Act, they allege, is being used by Dalits to target the Marathas.

Nearly 25 silent marches have been held in districts across Maharashtra, many of them attracting crowds numbering between two lakhs and five lakhs. The rallies, which last three to four hours, feature flags, banners and posters but no speeches or slogans. Most strikingly, they have been disciplined, non-violent and conspicuously leaderless.

Faceless agitation
In Gujarat, the Patels were led by Hardik Patel while activist Jignesh Mavani became the face of the Dalit agitation. And there were many Jat organisations and leaders participating in the violent stir in Haryana that spilled over into neighbouring Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Starkly different are the marches in Maharashtra, where there is no political or non-political leader mobilising the Maratha masses. In media reports, too, organisers of the various Maratha Kranti Muk Morchas have been careful about being quoted anonymously.

Being leaderless, according to some Maratha leaders, is a conscious strategy to ensure the focus of the protests remains on the community’s collective demands.

“We don’t want any leader in this agitation, we want the common man to be the leader,” said Pravin Gaikwad, state president of the Sambhaji Brigade, a Maratha vigilante organisation known to have affiliations with the Nationalist Congress Party. “We want people to focus on our community issues and if anyone tries to project himself as a leader, he will face problems.”

On Tuesday, members of the Sambhaji Brigade owned up to attacking the Mumbai office of Saamana, the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, after the newspaper published a cartoon allegedly mocking the muk morchas. However, Gaikwad insisted the Sambhaji Brigade was not directly involved, as an organisation, in convening the rallies. He also claimed that in his individual capacity, he was one of the many “helping in organising” the silent marches.

“The muk morchas are being organised by groups of people who come together on social media and fix a date and time that works for everyone at the local district and taluka level,” said Gaikwad. “Then they spread the word and lakhs of people show up.”

He said no political party was involved in this movement, “at least not in their capacity as parties”.

Revolt
Political observers, however, said they believed parties across the political spectrum were backing the Maratha movement, and that the strategy of being leaderless stemmed from a leadership crisis in the community today.

“This movement is leaderless because it is a revolt against the established Maratha leadership,” said Prakash Bal, a political commentator from Mumbai. “The Kopardi rape is just a pretext to express their discontentment with NCP and Congress leaders, who have enticed the Marathas with reservations for years.”

The Marathas have been politically dominant through most of Maharashtra’s history, generating 10 chief ministers in the state who belonged to either the Congress or the NCP. In the 2014 Assembly elections, however, these parties lost a large chunk of their Maratha vote base and were thrown out of power.

“The Marathas realised that the Chavans, Pawars, Deshmukhs and other leaders were the ruling elite who, over the years, did a lot for themselves and their families but not for the community,” said Sujata Anandan, a senior political journalist.

Even the powerful Pawars – NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit – have now lost favour with many Marathas, especially after Ajit Pawar’s mocking of a Maratha farmer in 2013 by asking if he should urinate in an empty dam.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena now in power in the state, the Marathas are a politically splintered group, sharing little but their caste identity and widespread despair over their dwindling land holdings, the agricultural crisis and the difficulty of getting jobs.

Averting state action
Despite the change in fortunes, the Marathas remain politically sought after. According to political commentator Surendra Jhondale, they are being wooed by all the major political parties in Maharashtra – where they make up 32% of the population.

“I’ve heard that the silent marches are funded by more than 50 organisations, including the Maratha business class and established political parties in the state,” said Jhondale, who believes this is the “beginning of the decline” of the Maratha political class.

“The Congress and the NCP are trying to regain their social and political base with the Marathas, while the BJP and Shiv Sena don’t want to lose Maratha favour either,” he said.

If the Marathas are seeking support from across the political spectrum for what is essentially an anti-government movement, their decision to be overtly leaderless seems logical.

However, propping up a politically unaffiliated leader is also not an option, said political commentator Prakash Bal.

“In Gujarat, Hardik Patel was slapped with sedition charges and became a target for the state, and the organisers of the Maratha rallies clearly don’t want such a government clampdown,” said Bal. “They don’t want to go down the road of the Patels and Jats, and being disciplined without a leader is their new technique.”

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

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