Between 2015 and 2018, the records show that 885 Scheduled Caste women were raped in Maharashtra. However none of these crimes evoked the display of public outrage that the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl in Kopardi village in July 2016 did. That crime by three drunk Scheduled Caste men in Kopardi village sparked a kranti (revolt) amongst the Maratha community, which has dominated the state’s politics for decades.

Marathas refer to themselves as raje – kings – in both public and private and the rape of the Maratha girl by the (former?) untouchables was not to go down well. The Maratha revolt took the form of massive rallies that allowed Marathas to display their kshatriya-hood and their capability for violence.

They made three key demands: reservations for Marathas in educational institutions and government jobs, the death sentence for the accused men in the Kopardi case and amendments to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which, they claim, is being misused.

The demand for reservations for Marathas and modifying the Atrocities Act is well over two decades old. The Kopardi rape served as an opportunity for frame this within the context of Maratha victimhood, a sense of grievance that has been exacerbated by the fact that Maharashtra has for the past five years been ruled by a Brahmin chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis.

Royal function of caste

The Marathas, as the dominant caste at the village level, try to reproduce the royal function of caste in miniature. They valorise their Kshatriya claims and revere the 17th century Maratha king Shivaji as they look down on members of other castes. Violence has been an important part of the repertoire of Marathas against erring groups and individuals, particularly from the Scheduled Castes.

However, Brahmins too have not been spared their ire in the past. In 1948, following the murder of Mohandas Gandhi, many Brahmins were economically and physically displaced from rural Maharashtra. Some were even murdered. The violence of 1948 was seen as revenge against the Brahmin Peshwas who usurped power from the Maratha rulers in the 17th century.

Maratha Kranti Morcha protestors in Navi Mumbai throw stones at police personnel during a Maharashtra bandh last year. Credit: PTI

After 1948, Marathas assumed both the kingly role and the role of caste regulation in Maharashtra’s villages. In contemporary times, Maratha violence against members of the Scheduled Castes has been evoked due to a range of social actions by Dalits that elicit the kingly disapproval of Marathas: Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations, temple entry by Dalits, playing loud music, criticising caste Hinduism or members of the scheduled castes asserting themselves in village panchayats.

Caste violation

In my book Civility against Caste, I have highlighted the use of violence by Marathas, including rapes and murder against Scheduled Castes in rural Maharashtra. In the Marathwada region for instance, between 1990 and 2009, Marathas were accused in 54% of the cases registered by members of the Scheduled Caste community under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Following the Kopardi rape and murder, Maratha leaders successfully mobilised the kingly sentiments of Marathas. Ironically, the Atrocities Act was blamed for the crime. It was the act (along with movie Sairat which explored an inter-caste relationship between a Maratha girl and a Paradhi boy) that was said to have given Scheduled Caste youth the confidence to rape and murder a Maratha girl.

Maratha protests against Kopardi and their instrumental use points to the role women’s bodies play in caste society: their violation is perceived as a violation of the entire caste.

This may not have been the first time a Maratha woman had been raped and murdered, but the brutality seemed even greater to the Maratha community due to the untouchable caste of the perpetrators. Marathas made instrumental use of women’s power by getting girls to deliver speeches recounting the glory of Shivaji and the favours Marathas had done to marginal castes.

Declared one of the girls at a Maratha rally in Mumbai in August 2017:

 “I never thought that in the land of Shivaji something like this could happen. They broke her limbs they violated her. They had this confidence because of the atrocity kaayda [atrocity law]. Rakshasa [devils], you have misused the atrocity kaayda. The culprits should be hanged or else how will we consider this state-Constitution as pure?  

Standard ideas of sanskritisation (of lower castes imitating higher ones) do not help in explaining Maratha power and dominance. Marathas achieved a status change from Shudra to Kshatriya under Shivaji despite the reluctance of the Brahmins. In popular Maratha understanding, the past 400 years have been a period of social revolution for the community during which they have achieved status mobility to become Hindu-Kshatriyas.

Status anxiety

Maratha power is based on the homology of political and sexual dominance in their imagined village kingdoms. Caste boundaries and roles, if violated by lower castes, especially former untouchables directly threaten the kingly elements of Maratha power in the village context. As a consequence, the social, economic and political mobility of members of the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes have caused status anxiety amongst the Marathas. The king has to now become ordinary citizen and violence has been normalised response of Marathas to counter their anxiety.

Maratha violence is not restricted to marginal groups. In 2015, a Maratha family in Kolhapur murdered their daughter for marrying a Brahmin and the Brahmin son-in-law too was killed.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis celebrates the passage of the Maratha reservation bill. Credit: CMO Maharashtra via Twitter

In November 2017, the accused in the Kopardi case were convicted and given the death penalty – this was one of the rare examples of justice being served without delay. In June 2019, the Bombay High Court upheld reservations for Marathas. Marathas have gained more than any other caste group under Bharatiya Janata Party rule.

As Maharashtra readies for another election on Monday, several cases of rapes and murders involving victims from the Scheduled Castes await the hope of justice. Irrespective of whether Marathas desert Nationalist Congress Party-Congress or stick to BJP, they will vote strategically for Maratha candidates. Most MLAs will continue to be Marathas, and as political scientist Rajendra Vora pointed out – Maharashtra will continue to be a Maratha-rashtra.

Suryakant Waghmore is Associate Professor of Sociology at IIT-Bombay. His forthcoming co-edited book with Routledge is titled Democracy against Civility.