Nagpur, MAHARASHTRA—Mumbai's Azad Maidan has seen hundreds of protests and hunger strikes over the years. But the 15 young men who have been on a hunger strike since 2 November are a little different. Their high-profile visitors last week included Maharashtra cabinet minister Subhash Deshmukh and former deputy chief minister and senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar. And the reason for their protests has chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and his government on edge ahead of the general election next year.
The protesters belong to the dominant and well-to-do Maratha community in Maharashtra, which forms almost one-third of the state's population. Their main demand is reservations in jobs and education for their community. The condition of six of them deteriorated on Tuesday, after which they were admitted to a local hospital.
This is not the first protest by the Maratha community for reservations. Over the past two years, they have hit the streets multiple times, sometimes leading to violent flare-ups.
The 15 men and the entire state are keeping a wary eye on a report submitted on Thursday by the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission, which was formed by the state government to make recommendations on Maratha reservations.
The panel, chaired by Justice NG Gaikwad (retired), submitted its report to state chief secretary DK Jain as per the deadline set by the Bombay High Court.
The report, which will decide whether the Marathas are backward and if they need reservations or not, is likely to stir another round of protests. An outcome in favour of the Marathas will worry the OBCs in the state, who have been insisting that their reservations should not be touched while giving quotas to the Marathas. A report hostile to the Marathas is likely to trigger violent protests once again.
Who are the Marathas and why do they want reservations?
The Marathas are an upper caste, warrior community in Maharashtra, much like the Rajput community in northern India. They form around 31% of Maharashtra's population, and have been dominant both socially and politically since the state was formed in 1960.
Such is their political influence that 12 out of 18 chief ministers of the state have been from the Maratha community. More than 50% of MLAs and MLCs in the state legislature are Marathas. They also dominate the rich cooperative sector in the state and own a large number of educational institutions.
The Marathas identify themselves with warrior king Shivaji and his mother Jijabai of the 17th century and have been at loggerheads with the Dalit community since the formation of the state.
Until 30 years ago, the Marathas denied that they are socially or economically backward.
When the Mandal commission was traveling across the country ascertaining and counting the backward communities, Maratha leaders refused to identify the community as backward.
But in the late 1990s, a large chunk of the community began to realise that most of the benefits from their political dominance and sway over the cooperative sector in the state were being cornered by a select few families.
Around 2000, many in the community began to identify with the Kunbi community in the state. Kunbi is a backward community and has reservations under the OBC category.
Demographically, the Kunbis are located in Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of the state and the Marathas in Western Maharashtra.
The demand for reservations have bubbled up before every assembly or Lok Sabha election, only to be forgotten once the elections are over.
What triggered the current protest and Maratha unrest?
In 2014, the Democratic Front government—consisting of the Congress and the NCP—was facing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment after a 15-year long rule and tried to use reservations for Marathas and Muslims to counter it.
The government issued an ordinance in June 2014, providing 16% reservation to the Maratha community in government jobs and educational institutions.
However, even this could not save the Democratic Front government from a rout in the assembly elections in October that year and the BJP came to power—its chief minister Fadnavis is a Brahmin leader from Nagpur.
Until 30 years ago, the Marathas denied that they are socially or economically backward. When the Mandal commission was traveling across the country ascertaining and counting the backward communities, Maratha leaders refused to identify the community as backward.
In November 2014, the Bombay High Court stayed the reservations granted to the Marathas, after which the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition government decided to move the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court refused to stay the high court order, but Fadnavis's government kept exhibiting its "commitment" for the issue in public.
In July 2016, a Maratha girl was brutally raped and murdered by some Dalit youths in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district in the state. This incident invoked a strong reaction from the Maratha community, which launched silent protests to demand capital punishment for the culprits.
The first Maratha Kranti Morcha was held in Aurangabad district and witnessed a huge turnout.
Over the next 15 months, 57 Maratha Kranti Morchas were organised in different parts of the state—these well-organised protests always saw huge crowds.
The protestors also demanded that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act be repealed and that the Swaminathan Commission's recommendations be implemented (farming is the community's main profession).
Slowly, the demand for punishment for the culprits of the Kopardi incident took a backseat and the demand for 16% reservation took centrestage.
A popular Marathi movie Sairat, which depicted the feudal perspective of the Marathas, was a huge hit in the state in 2016. But the depiction of the community in this movie also contributed to the Marathas' anger, which had been simmering ever since a Brahmin became the chief minister.
Throughout this period, the Fadnavis government kept reiterating its in-principle approval for the community's demand for reservations, but the CM also bought time by saying that he wanted to give reservations which would pass the court's test.
How did the silent protests turn violent?
In May this year, the Fadnavis government announced a mega recruitment drive of over 72,000 government jobs. This triggered a second round of Maratha protests in July. But this time, the protests turned violent after one of the protestors, Kakasaheb Shinde, committed suicide on 23 July.
Over the next week, hundreds of vehicles were vandalised and four more persons died despite the organisers announcing the protests were withdrawn.
These violent protests forced Fadnavis to defer the mega recruitment drive until 16% jobs could be reserved for the Marathas.
So what's in store for the government?
The state backward class commission report is not likely to be made public until it is tabled in the cabinet meeting. The Fadnavis government is likely to push for Maratha reservations in the upcoming winter session of Maharashtra assembly in December.
The state already has 52% reservations in place—Scheduled Castes (13%), Scheduled Tribes (7%), OBCs (19 %) and 13% reservation for denotified nomadic tribes and special backward categories.
The OBCs have made it clear that there share should not be tinkered with.
Giving 16% reservations outside the already existing quotas is not likely to hold up in court and adding to the government's headache, other communities like the Dhangars are also demanding quotas now.
Whatever the commission's report, Fadnavis will have to walk a tightrope in an election year.