16/11/2016 4:14 PM IST | Updated 17/11/2016 9:50 AM IST

Inside The Maratha Protests: A Quest For Social Parity Or A Caste War?

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Demonstrators with saffron flags ride motorcycles past the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station during a silent protest organized by Marathas in Mumbai on 6 November 2016. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In my long career in journalism I have never seen a protest march where hundreds of thousands of people turned up and yet maintained peace and discipline. I have never witnessed a rally which has been attended by entire families. In India's western state of Maharashtra, the Maratha community has been organising rallies which are attended by millions. The protesters are silent and orderly. They are marching through the streets waving flags. Their demand? They want reserved quotas in education and government jobs.

Last month I was at two such rallies, and one of them was in Kolhapur, which is a prosperous city. "It's a city of more than million people, and nearly the same number came for the march," gushes social activist Vilas Sonawane. So far, 28 such rallies have been held in different parts of Maharashtra where Marathas are a visible majority.

"Only a handful of Maratha families are rich and powerful. The large majority is poor."

- Sambhaji Raje, MP

With Kolhapur's main roads and squares decorated with saffron Maratha flags and posters and food kiosks everywhere, the city bears a festive look. Lakhs of men, women, boys and girls in colourful attire march, with military-like discipline, through the city's main streets. There is no slogan-shouting and no apparent leader at the helm of the teeming crowds of protesters.

Chandrakant Patil, a local journalist-turned Maratha activist, says that never in the history of independent India has there been another march as peaceful and well-organised as the one he is part of. "The hallmark of our marches is that they are leaderless, well-organised and disciplined." An organiser, Indrajeet Sawant, proudly describes it as the "Maratha revolution".

Just like the marches elsewhere in the state, the Kolhapur rally is silent. Senior journalist Sriram Pawar, a Maratha himself, sees the silence as the march's main asset: "It can shake the state government. It's even capable of shaking up the entire political system."

On an upper rung of India's caste hierarchy, the Marathas have a reputation of being affluent and politically powerful. Numerous former state chief ministers and the majority of elected legislators in the current state assembly are Marathas. So what is it that is bringing the Maratha community out on the streets?

India's affirmative action — reservations in education and jobs offered to downtrodden communities, including Dalits and other under-represented communities, castes and tribes — is a complex and sensitive issue. The country's Supreme Court has put a 50% cap on reservations. Many states, including Maharashtra, have reached that threshold. With their silent marches, the Marathas are demanding reservations for themselves in education and government jobs.

Marathas are primarily farmers, and Vilas Sonawane says the Maratha stir is "a reflection of the agrarian crisis India is going through". Following the market liberalisation in 1991, India's services industry boomed — but the farming communities were left out of it. The landholdings became smaller and farming ceased to be profitable. Says Mr Sonawane, "Marathas and other farming communities gradually became marginalised and poor. Years of anger and frustration resulted in the mass movement."

Sambhaji Raje, a Member of Parliament and a descendant of the revered medieval king Shivaji, says the myth of Maratha affluence and power must be busted. "Only a handful of Maratha families are rich and powerful. The large majority is poor."

The Maratha leaders and activists claim their youth are being left to fend for themselves. Farm yields are dwindling fast and the number of jobless people has skyrocketed in the last 10 years. According to Sonawane, "The Marathas had been angry and frustrated for long. Their anger was bottled up. It needed a spark for it to burst out."

The Marathas had been angry and frustrated for long. Their anger was bottled up. It needed a spark for it to burst out."

- Vilas Sonawane, Maratha activist

That spark was provided by a tragedy: the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Maratha girl in the village of Kopardi some 300 km away from the state capital Mumbai.

On the evening of 13 July, the girl left her grandfather's house to return home. Her body was found on a farm barely 300 metres from her home. Three boys from the Dalit community were later arrested and charged with the girl's rape and murder.

Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of Marathas poured out on the streets, demanding death penalty for the boys. The Marathas were then accused of being anti-Dalit, a charge they have vehemently denied. Marathas' mostly spontaneous rallies soon became streamlined as dozens of their community organisations got together to form the Maratha Kranti Morcha (Maratha Revolution Front). It now organises the rallies.

One of the most striking features of these marches is the participation of young Maratha boys and girls in huge numbers. A typical protest march is led by girls, followed by women and men. Politicians are made to march right at the end of it.

Initially focused on demanding the harshest possible punishment for the culprits, the boys and girls are saying the reservations for the Dalit community and other backward classes for years have put them at a clear disadvantage. Says a school-girl Shivani: "We get 95% marks in exams and yet we don't get admission in good schools and colleges. But my peers in the Dalit community and backward classes are admitted to good schools even if they get 50% marks."

Bhaiya Patil, who is part of the movement's social media campaign, says that jobs for the community's youth are hard to come by. "We are not against the Dalits and others having their seats reserved in jobs. But we also want reservations in jobs."

We are not against the Dalits and others having their seats reserved in jobs. But we also want reservations in jobs."

- Bhaiya Patil, Maratha activist

Former judge P.B. Sawant is part of a committee which is looking into ways of circumventing the legal hurdles so that the new economically backward communities — such as the Marathas — can benefit from them. He believes the demands of the Marathas are just.

But another former judge, Kolse Patil, believes that the Maratha stir and some other recent caste-based protests are "the divide and rule policy of the Brahmins. If we all get together on the grounds of our backwardness and not on the basis of caste, we can defeat the Brahmin conspiracies".

India has witnessed several caste-based movements in the last three years, all of which have demanded reservations for their respective communities in jobs and education. The Marathas are preparing for a massive rally in Nagpur city early December, where the organisers said they were expecting more than two million participants.

Could the Maratha movement lead to a new social order in India? No one is willing to bet on it just yet. But a million people did turn up at that silent, colourful and very disciplined march of Kolhapur's Marathas.

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