Shops were closed and entire roads cordoned off on the first half of Saturday in Kolhapur as 25 lakh Marathas descended on the city in western Maharashtra for the last of the district-level Maratha Muk Morchas before the grand one in Mumbai that is planned after Diwali.

The entire city turned saffron with flags, banners, hats, saris, scarves and tattoos as people streamed in from all nine entries of the city towards Dasara Chowk in its centre. At least 10,000 volunteers from 32 organisations in Kolhapur worked on crowd control, water distribution, lost child services and to ensure that the city would be up and running again by evening.

Marathas, an agricultural and warrior middle caste in Maharashtra, have been holding silent marches across the state in a show of solidarity for the victim of a brutal murder in Kopardi village in Ahmednagar, and to raise their own demands. These include a call for reservation in education, for The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to be diluted, and for relief to farmers suffering an agricultural crisis.

The demands are similar to those of the Jats in Haryana and the Patels of Gujarat. The Marathas, however, are going about it differently.

The marches all follow the same format: people congregate silently at a central point in each district, but do not raise any slogans. At the end of the rally, a group of individuals hands a list of demands to the district collector and the crowds disperse.

This has been a social media hit.

People gather at the central Dasara Chowk. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
People gather at the central Dasara Chowk. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

The first rally was in Aurangabad on August 9. Since then, there have been rallies across the state. The one in Kolhapur on October 15 was the last of the district level rallies. Kolhapur is the seat of the former rulers of the Maratha empire.

“There is a belief that whatever happens in Kolhapur spreads to all of Maharashtra,” said Vinayak Bhogan, a Maratha engineer who has developed a mobile application that he wanted people to use for coordinating at the rally. “The 1857 movement started from here. Now our movement will also begin here.”

These marches, Marathas claim, are leaderless because they refuse to accept funding or display the names of political leaders. They are silent, because they realise that the administration will crack down on violence. Marathas also claim that their protest is not against any government or for any opposition. They are instead against the entire system itself.

City moves to support

The entire system of the civic administration moved into gear to facilitate the march.

Some instances listed by Bhogan:

  • The municipal corporation cleaned and decorated statues across the city.
  • Vehicles were not allowed to ply on the day of the march.
  • City and school buses were made available for women and children.

Associations across Kolhapur also joined in enthusiastically. An association for hotel owners opened their hotels for women to use toilets there. Fifty wedding halls were made available for both men and women to use their toilets. Although this was not officially a bandh, the cinema association agreed not to screen any shows from the morning until 6 pm. Two radio stations – Radio Mirchi and Tomato FM – agreed not to play any songs, but that they would give only required announcements.

Posters have mushroomed across the city, all put up by local associations. These include those such as “Youth Circle, Kolhapur” (since 2016, its poster proudly said), “Stationery Committee”, “Flower Sellers Association”, “Chemist Association” and even churches and Muslim groups.

Also jostling for space were dozens of Mitra Mandals, small unregistered neighbourhood associations that usually organise Ganpati arrangements for particular lanes but now decided to lend their visible support to the rally.

Posters by individual groups such as these adorn the entire city. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
Posters by individual groups such as these adorn the entire city. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Even schools and colleges have supported the rally. Student volunteers for the event said that they had been missing their classes for two weeks to prepare for the rally.

“Girls who have been doing janjagrutis in villages have been missing classes,” said Pranali Parte, recently married and now a housewife. “She gets support from the teachers who never blink an eye that she is missing classes.”

Parte, along with 25 other young women and girls, travelled to villages for two weeks to give speeches there and to exhort the Marathas of the district to attend the rally in large numbers. At times, they visited five villages in a day. One child visited 22 villages in all.

Tight lid

The rally itself was unusually controlled. Every time crowds broke into spontaneous sloganeering, volunteers shushed them. Those who stepped out of the cordons to take photos were herded back inside – nobody was there for social media, one volunteer tersely said, even as a drone fluttered above to record the size of the march.

Four young women and one girl were selected to give fiery speeches at the end. Even attempts at cheering them were silenced.

The organisers were particularly anxious to maintain control of the narrative. When this reporter was speaking to people from a village near Kolhapur, a volunteer approached the group and told them to make sure to repeat only the main points agreed on at the meeting and not to say anything further. The group, which had until then been voluble, fell silent and gradually dispersed.

A group of volunteers practices their cordon-making before the rally begins. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
A group of volunteers practices their cordon-making before the rally begins. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

List of demands

There are three main points on this official agenda. Of particular concern to several people was the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, referred to simply as “Atrocity”, which they claim is being wrongly misused against the Marathas.

“In 1989 the Atrocity Act was very necessary because at that time we used to abuse others a lot," said Parte. "Now people have reformed and they are not as bad, except maybe in the villages, so the law can be made a little looser.”

Few people knew others personally who had been wrongfully incarcerated under the act, though all cited the instance of Kopardi, where the accused Dalit family had allegedly threatened Marathas with applying the Atrocity Act against them, if they were to complain.

However, while the Act was an emotive issue, the most sweeping demand was not for it to be diluted, but for reservations.

“Earlier, our old people lived until only 50 or 60 and did not have too many kids,” explained Sunil Shinde, an insurance agent from Sangavli, 11 km from Kolhapur. “Now they live longer and our people have increased in number. Because of reservations, none of us get a place.”

Some wanted reservations to be on the basis of economic status, others wanted Marathas also to get reservations.

People were not as clear about what kind of relief they wanted the government to give farmers, which forms the third part of the organisations’ demands.

"Farmers stay behind because they don't get good rates," said Bajirao Patil, 70, a farmer from Arjunwadi village. "We should get minimum support price, loan relief. There is so much variation in the rates of fertilisers and crops. Seeing my struggle, my son went to get educated."

Added Suhas Patil, Bajirao Patil's nephew: "Farmers do not even have four wheeler cars here. After 40 years, his family got a two wheeler because his son is a chemical engineer in Pune."

Women rest in the heat as they wait for the speeches to begin. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
Women rest in the heat as they wait for the speeches to begin. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Why were they there?

A few common lines of explanation ran through why the Marathas wanted to attend the rally. The educated Marathas spoke of their relationship with others in the village as familial.

“When we got freedom, Marathas were economically strong, so we did not get reservations,” said TM Godade, a professor in an arts and commerce college in the Konkan. “Our problem now is population has increased and so we have lost our strength. Now that we want a chance for education, we don’t get.”

Were there others in his village who were still more backward than the Marathas?

“It is not that all of them have gone far ahead,” Godade said. “A lot are still backward. But they support us in our struggle because they feel that their big brother is in difficulty so they should help us.”

Others were there to send a political message.

“The government was made of our people for 50 or 60 years,” said Avinash Naik, from Hervad, 50 km from Kolhapur. “So the leaders said the Marathas are our people only, who else will they go to? They took us for granted and just took out the caste card at election. This is our way of showing them.”

Many seemed to have come only for caste solidarity. One of these was Sadashiva Jadhav, from Belgaum in Karnataka, who had come for the rally despite knowing that the demands were for the Maharashtra government and would not affect his life.

“We are seemavasis – border residents,” Jadhav said. “Nobody takes care of us there so the least we can do is give our support to our people across the border.”

Sadashiva Jadhav. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
Sadashiva Jadhav. Photo credit: Mridula Chari

Only for Marathas?

Many were irked by the suggestion that a Maratha rally could have casteist inflections.

“We are Hindustanis first and then Marathas,” said Advocate Amol Patil, 30. “When OBCs [Other Backward Classes] put morchas, we never say anything. Now that we are coming together, they say we are casteist. Now only they point it out. But our demands are for everyone’s benefit. Every community has this right.”

Even Muslims had come forward to support the rally. Some Marathas said Dalits and OBCs too supported them, though evidence of that was slightly more scanty. The Muslim Education Society provided a boarding house at Dasara Chowk for lost children to gather. Local mosque groups set up water stalls. Muslims were also in charge of parking areas and clean up after the event.

Marathas and Muslims have a long standing relationship of friendship, said Firoz Jamadar, a volunteer at a stand providing water, bananas and poha to passersby.

“This changed in between," Jamadar said, "but with this gesture, we want to renew our old relations.”

Firoz Jamadar, left, near the food stand organised by the Thorli Masjid. Photo credit: Mridula Chari
Firoz Jamadar, left, near the food stand organised by the Thorli Masjid. Photo credit: Mridula Chari