Post by: Chief News Editor | Published: September 27, 2016 , 10:02 pm | Category: WORLD
KOLHAPUR, MAHARASHTRA:Lakhs of people from Maharashtra’s most powerful caste group, the Marathas, held a muk or silent rally in Pune on Sunday to protest the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl from the community by three Dalit boys in the village of Kopardi in Ahmednagar district in July. Similar demonstrations have been held since the incident in almost every major town of the Marathwada region dominated by Marathas and are now spreading to the rest of the state under the banner of a newly floated non-political outfit, the Maratha Kranti Samiti.
The clout of the new agency is derived partly from its success in bringing on board older groups that have represented the upper caste Marathas – groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangh, Sambhaji Brigade and the Maratha Seva Sangh. They want the death penalty for the accused Dalits. They are asking for the abolition of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) 1989 because they say this law, which is meant to prevent and punish violence against Dalits and Adivasis, is being misused by these groups to target the Marathas. “The Dalits receive financial compensation for any atrocity committed on them under the Act. To be able to get this money, they have started filing false cases against the Marathas,” alleged a young boy at the Pune rally.
But official figures reveal just the opposite. That despite the Act, Maharashtra’s weakest castes have little access to justice and continue to be victims of discrimination.
Dalits and Adivasis constitute 19% of the state’s population, but last year, only 1% of all FIRs registered by the police were filed by members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Of these, the Atrocities Act was applied in less than 40% of the complaints. The conviction rate under the Act has been even more dismal, an average of 7% in the last five years. A staggering 87% of the cases are still pending trial.
Which leads many to believe that while Maratha anger may have justifiably been provoked by the Kopardi rape and killing, the demand to scrap the Atrocities Act and restore their honour is directly linked to the community’s deep resentment of the government’s reservation policy of guaranteeing jobs and seats in educational institutions to lower castes.
This affirmative action by the country’s lawmakers, which has visibly improved the lives of a section of society’s most marginalised people, has also left dominant caste groups like the Jats in Haryana, the Patels in Gujarat and the Marathas fearful of losing their political, social and economic power, traditionally derived from their status as major farmers, and in particular, as cultivators of sugar cane.
That’s why Marathas, who make up 33% of the state’s population, also want to be tagged as an Other Backward Caste – to benefit from reservation, a demand made by the Patels in Gujarat just a few months ago. They are convinced it is the only way to protect the community’s future.
The demand for a Maratha quota is not a new one. It was first raised after the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in the early 1990s which added Other Backward Castes (OBC) as a recipient of the benefits of reservation. The influence and participation of OBCs in village panchayats and gram sabhas coincided with the decline in the state’s agriculture sector and cooperative societies in rural Maharashtra, the backbone of Maratha pride and power.
By the early 2000s, the quota agitation had become more strident. It was spearheaded by militant outfits like the Sambhaji Brigade, now a part of the Maratha Kranti Samiti, which were closely associated with the Nationalist Congress Party and its president, Sharad Pawar. (It’s an open secret that Pawar’s party supported the 2004 attack by the Sambhaji Brigade on a prestigious research institute in Pune to protest against James Laine’s book on Shivaji, alleging it had insulted Maharashtra’s legendary warrior king. The violence consolidated the Maratha vote in favour of Pawar, and his party won 72 seats in the assembly elections held that year.)
The Supreme Court has ordered a 50% cap on reserved jobs and college seats – a limit that Maharashtra has already reached. So the Marathas have not been added to the list of beneficiaries. Moreover, three government commissions since the 1990s have stated that since the community never faced social stigma, it cannot qualify as an Other Backward Caste.
In the general election in 2014, the Marathas overwhelmingly backed Narendra Modi’s development agenda, siding with the BJP and abandoning Sharad Pawar. His party, then in power as part of a coalition with the Congress, moved quickly to win the Marathas back before the state election, which was held just five months after the national election. The coalition announced that an additional 16% reservation would be kept aside for the Marathas because they were economically backward – a route attempted often by state governments to circumvent the Supreme Court limit on caste-based reservation. The new recommendations of the government were based on a survey conducted by the then Industries Minister Narayan Rane, which claimed that only 12% of Marathas go to college and less than 15% are employed by the government.
The Marathas spurned Mr Pawar and backed the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the election, but their renewed demand for reservations is based on the proposal formed by the NCP-Congress alliance.
Narayan Rane’s findings failed to point out the real reason for the community’s backwardness was the Marathas themselves. Today, 50% of all educational institutions, 70% of district co-operative banks and 90% of the sugar factories in Maharashtra are controlled largely by a handful of Maratha politicians. Just 3,000 families own 72% of the state’s total agricultural land. Power and wealth have been increasingly concentrated among an elite section. Simultaneously, the community has been let down by its leaders over the decades.
Consider this. Of Maharashtra’s 18 Chief Ministers since the state was formed in 1960, ten have been Marathas. The community has also contributed more than half the state’s lawmakers (across parties), many of whom amassed great personal wealth and power, but failed to create jobs or promote education. A recent advertisement by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) for filling five vacancies of porters received over 2,500 applications. The required qualification was Class IV pass, but those competing for the job included 250 postgraduates and nearly 1,000 graduates. Amongst them were young Maratha boys convinced that the reservation policy which excludes them is responsible for their unemployment. One of them told NDTV “It is worse than any atrocity committed on a Dalit because they will get compensation from the government and their future is taken care of. We beg, borrow and steal money to fund our education and then spend the rest of our lives breaking stones.”
Falling desperately short of visionaries, Maratha leaders have come across as just regional satraps more interested in making money for themselves and their parties through capitation or a set fee per student in colleges built by them, presiding over – even facilitating – the decline of sugar cooperatives and then buying them in sweetheart deals, and relaunching them as private sugar-processing factories that make good money.
“If the leaders were genuinely concerned about the backwardness of the community, then they would have addressed the issue of agricultural revival or job creation in areas like Marathwada where the vast majority of poor Marathas live, or in several parts of the so-called prosperous sugar belt of Western Maharashtra which are still underdeveloped. But they have not raised these economic concerns at the rallies, and focused only on the perceived threat to their honour and identity from the others,” Professor Prakash Pawar, who teaches Political Science at Kolhapur University, told NDTV.
The BJP has accused Maratha leaders in the Congress and Mr Pawar’s party of orchestrating these protests to derail its government’s investigation into several scams in the cooperative and irrigation sector during their rule – among those being probed are Mr Pawar’s powerful nephew, Ajit Pawar, who was the state’s Irrigation Minister for 10 years. But many see this mobilisation as an attempt by Maratha politicians across parties to stay relevant, at a time when other caste groups are asserting themselves in very diverse ways – they cite the rise of a highly educated class among Dalits, or the Brahmin resurgence in the BJP (apart from Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, union ministers Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar, both senior leaders from Maharashtra, are also Brahmins.)
Chief Minister Fadnavis has announced the appointment of Ujjwal Nikam as the public prosecutor in the murder of the Maratha teen and promised that the suspects will be awarded the death penalty if found guilty.
Exactly ten years ago this week, on September 29, 2006, the Mumbai High Court refused to apply the SC/ST Atrocities Act to the public lynching of the wife and children of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, a Dalit farmer in the village of Khairlanji in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district. Their attackers were Kunbis, a sub-caste of the Marathas. The judges ruled it was a case of revenge killing, not a caste-based attack. The accused were sentenced to 25 years in prison. The public prosecutor in this case was also Ujjwal Nikam – while the Chief Minister of the State at the time was Vilasrao Deshmukh, a Maratha.
NEWS COLLECTED FROM NDTV