Dharmendra Jore: What road will protesting Marathas take now?

Updated: Nov 20, 2017, 06:10 IST | Dharmendra Jore | Mumbai

On Nov 22, the court will pronounce the sentence in the Kopardi rape case, which catalysed the Maratha agitation

A heinous rape and murder of a minor in Kopardi, Ahmednagar district, changed the social and political discourse of the state over the past year. Sixteen months after the incident, three accused in the case have been found guilty. The fast-track court will pronounce punishment for the guilty on November 22.

The court said it wasn't gang rape - only one violated the schoolgirl, others helped him to execute the crime. The girl's family and people have demanded the harshest sentence for all.

Role reversal
What was so important about this case that led to unprecedented social and political turmoil in state? The victim belonged to a powerful upper caste - Maratha - and the accused to a lower caste. There have been rape cases in which the accused were upper caste people and the victims from underprivileged ones (one such case from Bhandara in which a Dalit family of Bhotmanges suffered brutalities at the hands of upper castes had led to unrest and protests among Dalits across the state).

Kopardi reversed the order. Marathas took up the case as a tool to demand not only capital punishment for the accused, but also the scrapping of the atrocities act that, they said, was being misused against the upper caste people.

Accusations and counter-accusations fly thick and fast whenever an incident involving Dalits and non-Dalits is reported. Till now, it was Dalits who protested, cried foul and held the government responsible for denying them justice whenever they were attacked and abused, allegedly by the upper castes. This time, Marathas invoked their warrior spirit to take to the streets.

United they stood
What started as village-specific protests last July, reached major towns by August, with Aurangabad staging a one-of-its-kind protest - a silent march under the banner of Sakal Maratha Samaj.

Several cities saw Maratha men, women and children marching silently towards the divisional commissioner's or collector's office in a disciplined manner. Professionals, traders and industrialists showed solidarity with the protesters.

The unity shown by the community, which continues to have the highest number of all-party legislators in the state, was unprecedented.

Alarming it was for the current government, as the protests set a new participation record. And it was worrying for the Maratha leaders who had ruled the state previously, because they weren't given any importance by Sakal Maratha Samaj.

Questions were raised: where did the money for organising such massive agitations come from? Certain Maratha bigshots were named benefactors. The effect was so immense that Maratha leaders from all parties participated. They were asked to compromise their glamour and clout - they were made to walk in the last segment of the marches and prevented from making speeches and talking to the media.

It showed the anger against established Maratha leaders who have filled their own coffers by way of cooperatives, educational institutes, private companies and scams that speak volumes of their corruption.

Demands put forth by Marathas rose, as their protests became widespread. A long-pending demand for quota in education and jobs was pushed for vigorously. The policy on scrapping of atrocities act was amended suitably, because the protest was now seen as anti-Dalit. They asked for changing the central act for preventing its misuse. The Kopardi rape remained a highlight in the speeches Maratha girls gave, but otherwise, the protest was seen as an effort to trouble a BJP government headed by a non-Maratha.

Split wide open
Marathas are still dominant politically, but unlike their leaders who were part of earlier governments, a large section of the community is economically weaker. Even the successive governments have data to prove the community's claim but did not make a serious effort, other than a pre-election legislation for granting Marathas a quota that failed to stand in court - to appease the largest section of voters.

The political domination, or an effort to remain dominated, split Marathas during the protest, which had added to the political ambitions of the community members. With no particular set following it up with the government, the BJP held parleys with the faces of its choice. The government has successfully divided the upcoming leadership and its supporting cast of established leadership in non-BJP parties.

The effect of split can also be seen in the form of a 'play within a play' in the BJP camp, which has Maratha ministers and office-bearers. An ambitious minister has already started projecting himself as a replacement for incumbent non-Maratha CM. Apparently, he draws his strength from the support he has been able to gather from his community over the past three years, even as demands hang a balance.

Whatever happens next, it is true that what a select few Marathas attempted as apolitical is now an out-and-out political process that will be used, yet again, for garnering votes, in 2019 or maybe earlier than that.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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