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Who’s Responsible For Violent Maratha Agitation in Maharashtra?

Nikhil Wagle |
The communal polarisation may help both BJP and Congress-NCP to win few seats in next elections. But Maharashtra cannot afford riots or communal gulf.
Maratha Agitation in Maharashtra for Reservation of Maratha Community

Politicians have mastered the art of keeping the pot boiling. The current eruption of violent Maratha protests in Maharashtra is a result precisely of this shameless attitude.

How did the Maratha agitators, who conducted peaceful marches across the state merely two years ago, unexpectedly become violent? Remember that the number of their peaceful morchas was not one or two, but 58. How did they suddenly lose their patience?

The first culprit is the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. In the monsoon assembly session, he declared 72,000 government jobs, and said 16 per cent of them would be reserved for the Marathas. That was the first straw. At the brink of the election, Maratha youngsters wondered if the CM is playing a game with them, which led to the protests. It was largely peaceful for the first two days, with stray instances here and there, but nothing that the police could not control.

The real conflict began when Maratha leaders said they wouldn’t let Fadnavis conduct the puja on the auspicious event of Ashadhi Ekadashi in Pandharpur. Every year, the Chief Minister conducts the puja in Vitthal Mandir.

This year CM Devendra Fadnavis cancelled his participation because of the Maratha agitation. Fadnavis told the media that he is canceling the puja to prevent any law and order situation that would endanger the lives of the innocent pilgrims. But he further rubbed salt on the wounds when he said that the protestors plan to plant snakes among the pilgrims gathered for the puja, as per the police report.

That infuriated the agitators. They asked if Fadnavis questioned their conscience and ability to understand how important the Pandharpur ‘Wari’ is for the pilgrims. They thought he was trying to malign the movement. To make things worse, Fadnavis’ followers started running a hashtag calling Fadnavis a true follower of Vitthal, accompanied by anti-reservation content. The irony of BJP backing Maratha reservation while their supporters were running this campaign was not lost on the agitators.

Yet, the Pandharpur yatra concluded without any law and order situation. But revenue minister Chandrakant Patil added fuel to fire. The agitators are bogus and paid, is the accusation he made, and all hell broke lose. Two agitators jumped in the river and committed suicide. But the government did not understand the seriousness of the situation. Chandrakant Patil once again made an appeal not to trouble Chief Minister Fadnavis because he is a Brahmin, adding that the CM is an efficient leader. Now whether he said it to ease the pressure off the CM or he said it aiming at the CM’s chair is a matter of investigation. There is a sense that some Maratha and OBC leaders in the BJP are fed up of Fadnavis, but they are silent because of Modi and Shah.

What surprises me is the attitude of Chief Minister Fadnavis. He had handled the previous Maratha protests brilliantly, by constantly extending the offer of discussions. But why did it take him five days to do so this time around? It was an open secret that the agitators were angry at the state. They had made it clear by attacking some of the policemen. How did nobody advise Fadnavis properly? It is said the leader’s journey starts going downhill when yes-men surround him. Is Fadnavis falling in the same trap?

Maratha reservation cannot be a political debate in the state anymore. Every party has backed it. It was mentioned in theBJP manifesto duringthe 2014 assembly elections. A few days before these elections, the Congress-NCP government promulgated an ordinance to give 16 per cent reservation to the Marathas, which was struck down by the High Court. Automatically, it fell on Fadnavis’ shoulders to enforce it. But having backed the demand even in its manifesto, agitators accused the government of derailing the process in the last 4 years.

The demand of reservation for Maratha community is often compared to Haryana’s Jat or Gujarat’s Patel agitation. Maratha is a dominant community in Maharashtra, constituting 32 percent of the population. In spite of enjoying power for the longest period, a large section of the community has remained socially and economically backward. Analysts blame powerful Maratha leaders for the growing insecurity in Maratha youth. In addition to this, the agrarian crisis has dented the confidence of the community as it is mostly engaged in farming. Maratha strongmen failed to recognise the changing reality after the implementation of Mandal Commission and globalisation. Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur was the first King to implement reservation in 1902. He included Marathas along with SC/STs as he knew their social backwardness. But after independence, this reality was totally overlooked.

The spokespersons of the government seek refuge in the fact that the case is sub-judice. But petitioner Vinod Patil complains that the government is only delaying the matter. Even though the Supreme Court ordered to expedite the matter, it is still languishing in the High Court. State OBC Commission’s report has still not been submitted to the government. On the previous date of hearing, the High Court even admonished the state for being slow. Yet, Fadnavis does not seem to have understood the urgency of it.

No sane person would defend the violence that transpired during the agitation. Law and order is a responsibility, not just of the state machinery, but also of the protestors. OBCs in the state are anxious, wondering if Maratha reservation would eat into their share. Dalits fear these protests may hurt them. Initially, the Maratha protestors demanded cancellation of the atrocities act. But fortunately, that demand has been dropped now. Dalits and OBCs need to be reassured by the state.

The communal polarisation may help both BJP and Congress-NCP to win a few seats in the next elections. But Maharashtra cannot afford riots or a communal gulf. We may have lost the battle of annihilation of caste proposed by Dr Ambedkar, but we can at least hope for social harmony.

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