'Theirs is not a campaign for diffused issues like social justice and equity. They have three clearly articulated demands,' reports Aditi Phadnis.
A 14-year-old girl in Karjat, Ahmadnagar, Maharashtra, went to see her grandparents on July 14. She never returned. Anxious search parties found her bicycle, and later her mutilated body at a nearby farm.
The police said the medical report stated her hair had been pulled out, her hands were dislocated from the shoulders, her teeth smashed and she was strangled to death after rape. She was a Maratha. The alleged perpetrators of the rape (three of the four involved are in custody) and murder are Dalits.
The Kopardi case (Kopardi being the village where this happened) has become a defining political issue among mostly Marathas in Maharashtra.
The incident grabbed some headlines initially, but the national media more or less forgot about it. The Facebook and WhatsApp chatter in Maratha groups runs thus: 'would similar brutality have got the same treatment if it had been the other way round -- that is, a Dalit victim of outrage by upper caste boys?'
While Dalit activist groups are maintaining resolute and complete silence on the matter, the Marathas, whether in community gatherings or marketplaces, ask each other in hushed outrage: "How did they even dare?"
This refers not just to the changed pattern of violence (Dalits attacking upper castes) but also the deep feeling at the unresponsiveness of political outfits to the incident.
A month passed. People got angrier. In August, Osmanabad in Marathwada district saw a rally of 25,000 people, presumably Marathas. The thing about the gathering was: It had no political patronage, no leaders made speeches; it was just a silent march culminating in a rally where a few Class 12 girls spoke about being a woman and being raped. They read out their speeches from sheets torn out of their school notebooks.
They said: 'We can't stay silent any more.'
- Perpetrators of the Kopradi rape and murder to be hanged
- 16 per cent reservation for Marathas
- Modification of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act
A couple of days later, a similar rally was held in Beed, also in Marathwada. This had 50,000 people. This was followed by another march in Parbhani. This got 100,000 people. It was a completely silent assembly of people that included thousands of women and the elderly. Nothing -- not a sheet of paper, a bamboo stick or a plastic water bottle -- remained after the crowd had dispersed. Everything was cleaned up by those who attended.
Maratha activist groups are now planning such rallies in every big city in every district of Maharashtra. Towards the end of the year, the plan is to hold one in Mumbai where the target is 10 million people. That will be something.
Social media tells us what Marathas -- who are not a monolith, with sub-castes and all, comprising around 40 per cent of Maharashtra's population -- want.
Theirs is not a campaign for diffused issues like social justice and equity. They have three clearly articulated demands.
One, they want the perpetrators of the rape and murder, no matter what their caste, to hang. They want a fast-track court to run the trial and a time frame in which the girl's family should get justice.
Two, they want 16 per cent reservation for Marathas. The outgoing Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government passed the law promising reservation, but the high court struck it down. They want the ban on reservation lifted and the ruling Devendra Fadnavis-led government to look as if it is fighting for a decision taken by the elected legislature.
And they want a modification of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act. This is the real issue.
Maharashtra has a well-organised and assertive Dalit population. Years of oppression and activism have taught Dalits how to use affirmative action in their favour.
The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is a national law that makes any action -- in speech or in any other way -- against Dalits a cognisable offence.
Which means that if a non-Dalit reproves a Dalit at work, the latter can file an first information report and the police will take him away and lock him up.
Malicious complaints, especially in Maharashtra, abound. The use of the legislation as a tool of blackmail, extortion and intimidation has also been reported.
What the Marathas want is an end to the appeasement of the Dalits. The politically correct may well shudder. But if governments want to correct historical wrongs, they must be prepared to face the consequences.
The most important aspect of the current situation is it is without violence; and it is out of the control of politicians.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the movement is funding itself -- a couple of empty oil tins circulated at one rally yielded nearly Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million), reports social media.
IMAGE: A Maratha Kranti Morcha protest in Solapur. Photograph: PTI Photo