Indian members of the Maratha community in the state of Maharashtra take part in a rally in Mumbai on August 9, 2017.The Maratha Kranti Morcha silent protest is being held to demand emplyoment quotas for the Maratha in state-run education institutions and government jobs, a minimum support price for farm produce, and amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. / AFP PHOTO / PUNIT PARANJPE
Indian Marathas take part in a rally in Mumbai in August 2017 to demand work quotas in state jobs and other benefits. Photo: AFP / Punit Paranjpe

Kakasaheb Shinde, an unemployed farmer in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, jumped into the Godavari River earlier this week and killed himself. The following day a second youth from his Maratha caste did likewise, and five others have since tried to commit suicide.

They were among a group of 40 young people who staged a protest on a water mausoleum in support of demands that the Marathas, a strong and proud warrior community, be given “backward status”, which would give them access to government subsidies, jobs and education. Scores of Maratha also went out on strike.

“Thousands of Marathas people since July 18 have been holding strikes in peaceful ways across various towns,” said Pravin Gaikwad, state coordinator of Maratha Kranti Morcha (Maratha Revolutionary Forum), the platform that unites all organizations from his caste.

“They were sitting in front of government offices, would hold bike rallies and so on for reservation. During the strike at Aurangabad, a big city, Kakasaheb Shinde was able to commit suicide even though there was police protection. The death gave a violent turn to the strike,” he said.

Under India’s reservation system a portion of jobs and positions in the education system have historically been given to backward castes, who are known as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. If the Marathas receive this status they will be allocated 16% of employment posts and access to educational institutions in Maharashtra.

The suicide of Shinde, 27, triggered a spate of violence, with buses, a police van, fire brigade vans and other vehicles torched and agitators pelting stones at shops and police officers. On Wednesday, strike organizers called for a state-wide blockade, but this was halted by Maratha Kranti Morcha after violence in Mumbai and other cities.

“Only the bandh (blockade) is called off. The strike will go on until our demands are met,” Gaikwad told Asia Times. “Agitators will hold protest rallies, have sit-in dharna [peaceful protests] across the state.”

Living in the shadow of Brahmins

Marathas constitute 33% of the state’s population and have been the dominant caste in political and social circles for centuries, but still get a raw deal. One reason for their angst is that the chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, is an upper caste Brahmin and not a Maratha.

Since the state was formed in 1960, 10 of the 18 chief ministers have been Marathas, and 1366 of the 2430 legislators have come from their caste. They also own most co-operative banks, milk co-operatives, sugar factories, medical and engineering colleges, universities and large tracts of land.

Yet political analyst Prakash Pawar says that “Marathas are just in [political] power, but the economy is in the hands of businessmen and Brahmins”. He added: “Maratha chief ministers and ministers have not been able to do much for their own community. And they also have failed to deliver due to their power politics.”

Nikhil Wagle, a political expert and senior journalist agreed: “The power has remained in 240 families over generations and [it] has not reached to the lower strata of the community.”

The Marathas were historically farmers and landowners, but as generations passed the land was divided and holdings shrunk. The current generation own only small patches of land, which is inadequate for sustaining livelihoods.

“The agrarian crisis has worsened in the last 25 years due to consistent droughts, and low procurement rates of agricultural produce left farmers in distress,” Wagle said. “Their only livelihood option is farming and they are not able to earn enough through it.

“Having no livelihood option, youths have turned to education and government jobs. [But] they don’t have jobs in government or the private sector. It is understandable that they want a reservation. People from backward castes would get seats and jobs even after having lower merit due to their reserved category,” he added.

More than 3500 farmers commit suicide every year in Maharashtra due to a lack of income from farming and an inability to repay loans; most are from the Maratha community. Little wonder that demands for reservation have been growing.

Protest movement likely to spread

The state government twice enacted laws allowing a 16% reservation for Maratha before 2015, but these were blocked by the Bombay High Court because the Supreme Court has ruled there must be a 50% threshold on a state’s reservations; Maharashtra already has 52%.

Since August 2016, Maratha Kranti Morcha has carried out 58 silent marches in 58 cities and towns in the state, each attracting thousands of participants. These stopped when chief minister Devendra Fadnavis promised to look into allocating reservations, as well as scholarships for Maratha students and non-interest business loans.

But Manoj Akhare, state coordinator for Sambhaji Brigade, another Maratha organisation, said that “not even 50,000 students have received scholarships until now”. He added: “Not a single hostel for students has been built until now. Banks do not give loans to youth without [them] submitting collateral and all documents, though the state has promised loans without interest. All the promises have proved to be failures,” he said.

The State Backward Commission, which was set up to collect data  proving the Maratha are socially and economically backward, has still not released its report after two years of work, making it unlikely a reservation will materialize in the near future.

Pravin Gaikwad issued a dire warning. “The patience of Maratha youth has ended and they are turning violent. That is an alarming situation, actually,” he said. “The government did not call a meeting until the strike had worsened … But we are not ready to accept more promises.

“What we need is affirmative action regarding reservation, otherwise it will be difficult to control the Maratha youth. They have already tried to assault a member of parliament who attended the funeral of a youth who committed suicide. It’s possible that youth might attack houses of politicians. Who will be responsible for the mayhem then?”