Indian members of the Maratha community in the state of Maharashtra shout slogans during a protest in Mumbai on August 9, 2018. AFP PHOTO / PUNIT PARANJPE

It has been a bad year for caste strife in Maharashtra, even by the volatile standards of the western Indian state, but there is much worse to come as politicians exploit social divisions ahead of next year’s general election.

On August 9 the dominant Marathas caste forced a complete shutdown in the country’s second most-populous state, with major highways blocked, public buses and private cars damaged, and a rampage in industrial areas. Schools, offices and shops were closed. Protests in July also became violent, with gangs of youths pelting police with stones, stopping trains and destroying fire engines.

There were clashes between Dalits and Marathas and a state-wide shutdown on the 200th anniversary of the Bhima Koregaon battle earlier this year. The battle was fought between the British East India Company (with soldiers drawn from the Dalit community) and Peshwas (upper caste Brahmin). The Brahmin were defeated.

The Marathas are demanding a 16% quota in educational institutions and government jobs and a complete waiver of farm loans. But the tensions have opened up old caste faultlines between the Marathas and the Dalits and Brahmins.

Their protests have become a major headache for the coalition government led by the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), which has encouraged voting on caste lines. The BJP favors the Brahmins, even appointing one of its people, Devendra Fadnavis, as chief minister.

Other parties are also taking sides in the countdown to the election: the Nationalist Congress Party, headed by Sharad Pawar, is trying to woo back its Maratha base, while its ally the Indian National Congress is trying to get support among the Dalits.

At the heart of the conflict is rising animosity between the upper castes, the Brahmin and Marathas, and lower caste communities

The standoff, which has perplexed scholars and political observers, is happening in the home state of anti-caste crusaders like Dr B R Ambedkar and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. Significantly, Ambedkar framed the Indian constitution and created the reservation policy for socially disadvantaged classes that triggered the protests.

At the heart of the conflict is rising animosity between the upper castes (Brahmin and Marathas) and lower caste communities, who have traditionally been seen as “untouchable” and have been denied  basic human rights. The Marathas, Hindu upper caste groups who were traditionally landowners, cultivators and warriors, don’t only want government quotas: they are also demanding changes in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which shields Dalits from caste-based violence and discrimination.

Adding to the tensions, other backward classes (OBCs) have taken to the streets to demand sub-categorization of their quota so that the most oppressed castes can get better representation. Dhangars, traditional shepherds, have demonstrated for the right to change their status from nomadic tribes to the scheduled tribe quota, which offers  more reservation benefits. They plan to protest again this month.

Caste clashes have been occurring in Maharashtra for decades, but have escalated since the rise of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose political arm, the BJP, scored an impressive victory in the 2014 state assembly election on a platform of Hindu nationalist ideology.

The tensions reflect poorly on Maharashtra, which is known as a progressive state: observers note that its capital, Mumbai, is an international financial hub. “Frequent bandhs [protests] and violence could deter foreign investors,” admitted a highly-placed official.

Political commentator Surendra Jondhale said caste-based trouble has escalated in the past two decades, especially since the 2002 Gujarat riots. “Post-Gujarat riots, the Sangh managed to expand its influence among upper caste communities in rural Maharashtra once again. The right-wing body was otherwise on a decline in the state from 1995 onwards,” he said.

Marathas are the most populous caste in the state, accounting for  about 32% of the population. Dalits are fewer in numbers — about 10% of the population — but are more dispersed across Maharashtra.  While the Dalits have mostly focused on education, the Marathas are prominent in agriculture, which is a major reason for their demands.

“The younger generation of Dalits and OBCs are better off compared to Marathas in education as well as employment, thanks to quota benefits. OBCs, too, emerged stronger after they got reservation benefits in 1990s”, said Uttara Sahastrabuddhe, a professor at  Mumbai University. OBCs constitute around half of the state population.

‘The nationalist Hindutva groups are using the pretext of hostility to increasingly radicalize the Marathas to counter Dalits’

“Armed with education and employment, the Dalits have consistently posed a challenge to Maratha hegemony by explicitly rejecting stigmatized traditional village-based duties. Since then, the tension between the Dalits – who have largely converted to Buddhism – and the Marathas has actively grown, leading to volatility in the state,” said Sahastrabuddhe.

Surendra Jondhale added: “For the last decade or two, the terms of caste antagonism between the two communities have fundamentally changed. The nationalist Hindutva groups are using the pretext of hostility to increasingly radicalize the Marathas to counter Dalits. Anti-Dalit violence in contemporary times is packaged with Hindutva ideology.”

Social scientist Abdul Shaban said Marathas have experienced a significant decline in their social and political stature since the late 1990s. “The agrarian crisis affected the socio-economic status of the land-owning ‘upper’ caste Maratha communities in villages,” he said.

They structure of villages has undergone significant change since India became independent in 1947, with the Marathas gaining an early political ascendency in the newly-created state of Maharashtra due to their numerical superiority.

But their dominance of the social and political landscapes began to decline after the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990, which provided the OBCs with 27% reservation rights and introduced the New Economic Reforms. This contributed to a long and sustained tussle between the Dalits and Marathas, which is still being played out with the current violence.