Members of the Maratha community take part in a rally in Mumbai in August. Photo: AFP

India’s financial capital Mumbai came to a standstill on Wednesday and witnessed violent protests following a blockade by the politically active Maratha community. The Marathas dominate the state of Maharashtra, where the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leads a coalition government. The agitation is a headache for the ruling party on several counts.

Currently, the tension has eased after several vehicles were torched by the protesters. However, the issues the led to the strife continue to simmer.

The Marathas dominate one of India’s largest states, and a loss among them could damage Modi’s aspirations to continue as prime minister for another term. But a deeper worry comes from root causes behind the agitation. The Marathas are upset that they aren’t getting jobs, while farming, their traditional source of sustenance, is under severe stress.

This is true across India, and the lack of jobs will take younger votes away from Modi. In 2014, youths voted for Modi in large numbers, aiding him to form India’s first majority government in 30 years.

Agitation in Maharashtra

Large parts of Maharashtra have been at the heart of the agitation since last week as the Marathas who constitute around 33% of the state’s population. The state has 48 Lok Sabha seats in Parliament in Delhi, and along with Uttar Pradesh (80 seats), Bihar (40 seats) and West Bengal (42 seats), is a key state to win.

Ironically, the Marathas, who have always been a politically and economically dominant community in the state is now seeking a quota of government jobs and other benefits citing its “backwardness”. Had the Modi government’s scheme worked out in the last four years, an upswing in the economy would have ensured better prospects for these people.

In August last year, the state’s chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis had assured them a 16% quota, but this issue has been fought over in the courts since 2014. The same job quota, offered by the previous government, was struck down by the Bombay High Court on grounds that the community didn’t need the benefits. It also cited a Supreme Court order that bars reservations beyond 50% of the available vacancies. So far the 50% quota is already taken up by the historically oppressed “lower castes”, as mandated by the Constitution.

Apart from their long pending “dues”, the agitating groups are also seeking an apology from Fadnavis for “hurting the sentiments” of the community and threatening to continue the stir until he relents.

On Sunday, Fadnavis canceled an annual trip to the Pandhapur temple for a significant prayer meet for the first time since he became chief minister in 2014. The reason cited was “intelligence inputs” that agitators might resort to “stone pelting” and “throwing snakes” during his visit to the famous temple.

This charge provided fresh ammunition to the agitating Maratha groups which seek to corner the BJP ahead of the election next year, observers say.

“[The] chief minister is taking us for a ride again. Now, to expedite the court case, the government is supposed to submit ‘evidence’ of the socio-economic backwardness of the Marathas. However, the survey in this regard is yet to be completed”, says Virendra Pawar, head of a prominent Maratha organization.

While the government assured a 16% quota when it was still pending with the court, Fadnavis went ahead and announced a mega recruitment drive for 72,000 posts with a promise to keep aside 16% posts for Marathas to be filled after the verdict. The government also introduced a scholarship for Maratha students besides promising hostels and interest-free loans to young people.

Maratha leaders claim the community got nothing out of the last year’s resolutions. “Colleges force poor students to deposit the fee due to delay in government reimbursement. The promise of hostels remains on paper same as interest-free loan for business,” says Pawar.

Agrarian crisis

Professor Abdul Shaban, a social scientist said the ongoing agrarian crisis in India was the main cause of the unrest. “[The Marathas] were warriors and rulers in the past with considerable land holdings. At present, the community is largely involved in farming, which is in distress across India due to rising input costs and low returns coupled with fractured landholdings.”

The community’s economic distress had changed the caste structure in villages with Marathas increasingly losing dominance to the smaller communities, he said. Over 1,300 farmers have committed suicide in the state in the first half of this year with Marathwada region witnessing a rise in such deaths compared to last year. Over a third (36%) of the suicides were by Maratha farmers.

“Agriculture was the backbone of Indian economy till a few decades ago and Marathas being farmers used to rule in villages as well. It is not a profitable occupation anymore, which has left most farmers in India in abject poverty. Their dominance has gone forever,” Dr Ajit Nawale, state head of the All India Farmers Association, said.

In 2014, a committee headed by Narayan Rane, then a minister in the Congress-led coalition government, found that Marathas account for only 15% government jobs and 12% of those enrolled in higher and technical institutes. This report formed the basis of the controversial recommendation for a special quota for Marathas.

The scarcity of jobs, especially in rural areas, has added to their woes despite Maharashtra receiving more investment than any other state. Many unemployed youths participate in Maratha rallies.“Investments under the BJP government are aimed at benefiting corporates, not the people,” Dr Nawale said. “It’s a jobless growth with no focus on villages or agriculture. Most of the investments are based around Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Nagpur cities and leave out the 32 other districts.”

According to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy think tank, there were about 31 million unemployed in India up to February this year and many of them are young. But the number of jobs created this year was estimated at just 600,000. It put Maharashtra’s unemployment ratio at 3.7 %, which is much higher than other states.