It was time to make their voices heard. That was the opinion of many participants in the massive show of strength by people of the Maratha caste as they surged through South Mumbai on Wednesday to demand reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, a dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and agrarian reforms.

Wednesday’s event was the most prominent of the 58 protests that Marathas have held over the past year to press for their demands – protests that have stood out because the participants have been resolutely silent, in contrast to the slogan-shouting that characterises most political demonstrations.

But now, many in the crowd – estimated to have been more than three-lakh-strong – seemed to believe that a new strategy was necessary. “This is our last silent rally,” warned Vasant Barkale, a farmer from Sinnar in Nashik district. “Now there is no telling what we can do.”

Slogans such as “Ek Maratha, lakh Maratha” (One Maratha, one lakh Marathas) proliferated during the first part of the day as wave after wave of people walked from Byculla to Azad Maidan, opposite the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in South Mumbai, where roads in a two-kilometre radius had been closed to accommodate the crowd.

Towards the evening, enthused by the enormous turnout, this chant turned into “Ek Maratha, koti Maratha” (One Maratha, one crore Marathas). “It is to add some spirit,” explained one of the slogan-shouters. “But this is still nothing compared to what will come next.”

As crowds begin to disperse, participants took a break for lighter selfie moments. Photo: Mridula Chari

The Marathas are a caste known for their roles as warriors and rulers, and for being agricultural landholders. They are among several other “middle” farming castes in the country to have protested in the last two years for reservations and other economic benefits in the face of an agrarian crisis that has rendered many in the community economically unstable, even as they retain their position of relative social privilege.

Marathas began to mobilise across Maharashtra soon after a 15-year-old Maratha girl was allegedly gang raped and murdered allegedly by Dalit men in Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra in July last year. They used the demand for justice for this girl as a rallying point for a host of other demands.

Other districts followed, drawing on social networks and intense planning to urge thousands of people from urban and rural areas to add their voices to urge the government to act on their behalf. Rallies after the first one on in Aurangabad all followed the same format. Women were at the front of the protest, all those gathered would be completely silent and had been coached about the demands of the movement for weeks in advance by a fan of volunteers, and there would be no visible leadership.

In Mumbai on Wednesday, the veneer of these silent leaderless marches is beginning to crack. Participants expressed their enthusiasm with regular slogan outbursts, something that had been strongly discouraged by volunteers at other rallies.

Protestors lounged in traffic islands and parks in south Mumbai while waiting for the main body of the rally to reach Azad Maidan. Photo: Mridula Chari

Political games

There was another significant difference. In the initial district-level rallies, the crowds that came had been schooled before the rally to maintain some distance from any political party, particularly when questioned by the media about their affiliations.

Now, a year after the first rally, this studied silence on political support is also beginning to disappear. In this Mumbai rally, people not only openly vented their frustration with the Bharatiya Janata Party governments both at the centre and state, they also proclaimed their political affiliations and support for parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party, led by Sharad Pawar. One young man exuberantly yelled that Ajit dada [Ajit Pawar, nephew of Sharad Pawar] would soon bring an end to the Devendra Fadnavis-led government.

Naturally, members of the opposition parties – and even the ruling Shiv Sena – were out in force, in an attempt to put the Bharatiya Janata Party on the backfoot. The day before the rally, organisers reportedly removed several Shiv Sena posters that had been put up in support of the Marathas.

Those politicians who attended the rally came as individuals. Despite this, Ashish Shelar of the Bharatiya Janata Party was heckled by protestors for attempting to participate.

A section of Muslims and Other Backward Classes also support the Marathas' demands. Photo: Mridula Chari

Farmers’ demands

Over the past months, demands by Marathas for agricultural reforms have grown stronger. While the National Commission on Farmers led by Professor MS Swaminathan was constituted in November 2004 under the first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in the centre, and submitted its final report in October 2006, this report was never implemented in its tenure.

Yet, on Wednesday, there was little anger against the Congress for not having implemented the commission’s recommendations. Anger was instead channelled largely at the Bharatiya Janata Party. When asked why they made this distinction, participants pointed to the election campaign promises of Narendra Modi.

“Modi promised in his election campaign that we would get 50% above our input costs for our agricultural produce,” said Yogesh Kalkar, an advocate from Chande Kasare, a village in Ahmednagar district where land is being acquired by the state government for a new “prosperity corridor” between Mumbai and Nagpur. “But despite his big promises, he has not done anything. We earn only Rs 40,000 per hectare in a year, and with that, we have to educate our children, take care of the entire family, pay back loans and so much more.”

Others were also angry that the demands of made by farmers across the state during their strike in June had not yet been met.

“We have not yet got any loan waivers in Vidarbha,” said Manish Thakre, a plywood shop owner from Amravati, who participated both in the Maratha Kranti Morcha in September last year and in the Kisan Kranti Morcha in June, a state-wide protest by farmers to demand better prices for their crops. Their strike over the first half of June saw thousands of farmers across the state refuse to take their vegetables and milk to any markets in an attempt to drive retail prices up. The government promised in response to waive their agricultural loans. “The amount they said they will give us is worth one week’s diesel for us. Now that we have to sow again [because of low rain] nobody has any money at all.”

A banner reminds Marathas to continue to fight against injustice. Photo: Mridula Chari

‘Reservations for us or for nobody’

While the farmers’ strike might have shifted the attention of some people, a year on, some demands remain the same. Among the foremost of them is for justice in the Ahmednagar rape case, for which the trial began in October 2016.

“We should fast track the Kopardi case and hang them immediately,” said Hanuman Gorde, a farmer from Paithan in Aurangabad. “It has been one year already and they are still alive. Ab aadat honge unko. Dar hona chahiye kanun ka.” Now they – Dalits – will fall into the habit [of committing acts like this]. They should learn the fear of law.

The main organisers continued to emphasise their core set of demands for reservations in education and government jobs, for realistic economic aid for agriculture, and for a dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which they believe is being misused to settle personal vendetta against Marathas. Marathas cite as a basis for this last claim the fact that many of these cases later do not result in convictions. The Mumbai police, however, say that the low conviction rate is because one in four complainants and one in three witnesses turn hostile.

Individuals attending the rally had their own list of priorities.

One such group from Amravati, a district in Vidarbha in eastern Maharashtra, had come with a banner of their demands. Notably absent from it is the demand for reservations.

“We didn’t write the demand for reservations on our banner because we knew it would not matter,” said Ashwin Pawar, a government contractor from Amravati who had come to Mumbai in a group of around 90 people. “We know the government can’t change that. But we do want everything else on our list.”

Ashwin Pawar, centre, holds up his group's banner, without the demand for reservation. Photo: Mridula Chari

The case for reservations for Marathas is stuck in the Bombay High Court, giving the government a good reason to plead helplessness in this issue.

However, some were quick to note that the state government had avoided filing a rejoinder in the case for three years, and like Pawar, held the firm belief that the government simply had not tried enough to implement their demands in the last year.

They pointed out that the government was not carrying out even those promises that were in its hands to implement.

“[Adivasi] children get boarding schools from the government,” said Ashok Awate, from Kopargaon in Ahmednagar district. “The government had promised us that they would make similar hostels for the children of Maratha farmer and that we would get vocational training. Where is all this now?”

As always, there were differing opinions both on the purpose of reservations – whether it was to address economic or social inequality – and the manner in which it should take place, if at all.

Said Jyotsna Chavan, a Bachelor of Commerce student: “If we do not get reservations, nobody else should either.”