A Gandhian gamble

Mounam sarvartha sadhanam – Silence can yield results.

That, says Pravin Gaikwad, is the driving philosophy behind the Maratha Seva Sangh, one of the many organisations that are backing the massive morchas the state has witnessed over the past couple of months.

It might sound simple enough, but for the larger Maratha asmita movement, it is the equivalent of a tectonic shift.

From a time when the Maratha identity and disaffection was known by its violent acts – the vandalising of the highly-respected Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) and stone-pelting of a minister’s helicopter spring to mind – to organising silent protests for their demands, hardline Maratha organisations seems to have made a 180-degree turn.

“For years, films had put forth the image of (Maratha) Patils and Deshmukh’s as being drunkards, rapists and bereft of character. Doubts were being raised about the character of the community at large. Now, we have proved this to be false and silenced our critics,” said entrepreneur Mansingh Pawar, who was among the organisers of the first such ‘Maratha Kranti Morcha’ at Aurangabad.

He described the silent protests as a means to channelise public anger against the system in a constructive manner without resorting to violence or criticism.

This, community leaders note, has set them apart from other social groups like Patidars (Gujarat), Gujjars (Rajasthan) and Jats (Haryana) who protested for quotas, albeit in a violent manner, leading to erosion of public sympathy for their cause and little tangible gains.

In organising people for the massive ‘Maratha Kranti Morchas,’ which are silent protests sans any slogans, leaders and, most importantly, violence, these representative bodies seem to have abandoned their earlier scorched-earth style for a mellower strategy. But what has driven them to adopt silence and non-violence as both strategy and weapon to press their demands?

A key factor, of course, is the need for public acceptance of demands. For too long, such identity politics have been hijacked by violent protests, resulting in the loss of public sympathy, particularly among the middle class, which, in any case, is largely de-politicised precisely because of displays of violence associated with politics. And in successfully coalescing both political and non-political demands under a more homogeneous identity, the organisers have brought the sizeable middle class on to their side.

As a result, the morchas, which went largely unnoticed initially but have seen turnouts often numbering in lakhs, including white-collar professionals, started off demanding justice for a raped and murdered minor at Kopardi in Ahmednagar, but have expanded almost seamlessly to include prevention of the “misuse” of a law to prevent atrocities against Dalits as well reservations for the Maratha community.

“Mahatma Gandhi went on silent (non-violent) protests, but this led to the British scurrying for cover,” said Gaikwad. Similarly, he says, the Maratha protests have taken on a non-violent hue to avoid cases being slapped against protesters and organisers as well as to ensure massive turnouts, including from the educated middle-class, which is chary of violence.

“Hence, the government is being forced to take note due to the sheer numbers turning up for the morcha… (it) is under pressure and has invited us for talks as against previously when they did not even take note,” he says. On the other hand, he notes, violent protests would lead to destruction of public property, legal complications and above all,turn the public mood against them.

Pawar noted that protests in other states like those of the Patidars in Gujarat which employed aggression and violence had failed to yield anything tangible and were in a disarray. “In contrast, the chief minister (Devendra Fadnavis) is talking about this (demands by Marathas) every day and is saying that he agrees with it. We have come 10 steps forward,” he said.

Attribute the change of heart also to legal fatigue. The Sambhaji Brigade, the youth wing of the hardline Maratha group, is spent fighting as many as 600 cases against its cadre, ranging from attacks on the BORI in 2004 at Pune and protests for quotas.

“After all, the political class is very vicious and vindictive,” argues Gaikwad.

Meanwhile. Dalit leaders and organisations, who point to how the Maratha morchas, which despite being silent have a strong anti-Dalit sentiment (the Kopardi accused are Dalits) are also planning to organise similar silent protests for counter-mobilisation. Dalit protesters and critics of the demand by Marathas for OBC quotas noted that these morchas by the dominant community stem from resentment at the upward mobility of Dalits and a resurgence of backward classes in the post-Mandal era. They said that the Maratha protestors have taken to silent marches realising that violent agitations are a zero-sum game.

“The word ‘mook‘ (meaning silent) has been used for the depressed classes till now. For instance, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar called his periodical Mooknayak (leader of the depressed). That the established castes like Marathas have been resorting to silent protests is rife with contradictions and is unique,” noted Deepak Pawar, assistant professor, department of civics and politics at the University of Mumbai.

“If there was violence (in the Maratha protests) like it happened in the Jat and Gujjar agitations, it would have been easy for the government to handle… (but) now the government cannot even claim that the law and order situation is in danger,” says Prof. Pawar of the strategic shift. “The activists or their godfathers who have thought about this must be appreciated. A strong community, which is part of the ruling elite is muting its voice in this manner… going against their political mannerism.”

He cautioned, however, the contradictions in such silent morchas and the prominence given to women in these protests would come to the fore when these girls would assert themselves in making choices about marriage and divorce which will then go against the established family system, creating the potential for schisms withing the community.

Former legislator and activist Vivek Pandit notes that the maxim about silence speaking louder than a thousand words is potent when applied to mass movements. In the late 1980s, Pandit and his Shramajeevi Sanghatana had protested against an ashram run by a powerful godman in rural Thane for not paying workers the prevailing mandatory daily wage of Rs 12.

Threatened by senior police officials of an iron-fisted crackdown if they protested during a function at the ashram which was to be attended by VIPs, Pandit and his workers tied their hands behind their backs and gagged their mouths and faced the authorities, who were finally forced to back down. In 2012, a similar Gandhian silent morcha with gagged protesters also caught a powerful western Maharashtra NCP leader – who was accused of land grabbing – on the wrong foot.

Dalit leaders, too, admit that such silent protests helped prick the conscience of the society.

“Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar brought about a bloodless revolution (using non-violent means),” noted Dalit activist and senior Republican Party of India (RPI) leader Avinash Mahatekar, pointing out that this had prevented India from sliding into the tyranny of the oppressed during the perilous and fragile pre- and post-Independence years.

He added how peaceful protests by Ambedkarites, including a morcha in 1988 during the controversy over the publication of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Riddles in Hinduism”, had shaken up the establishment. The Shiv Sena had objected to its publication, alleging it denigrated Hinduism.

Mahatekar pointed out that Ambedkar, widely considered the guiding force behind India’s Constitution, had laid great stress on non-violent protest during agitations such as the one at Chavdar lake in Mahad (1927) and the Kalaram Temple satyagraha (1930). In 1929, Ambedkar’s associates like P.N Rajbhoj, Shivram Janba Kamble, and Keshavrao Jedhe, Prabhodhankar K. S Thackeray, Senapati Bapat, S.M Joshi and N.V (Kakasaheb) Gadgil used similar means in Pune’s Parvati temple satyagraha. In 1947, Gandhian and social reformer Pandurang Sadashiv Sane (Sane Guruji), went on a fast at the Pandharpur to allow entry to Dalits in the Vitthala temple.

“During the Mahad satyagraha, Babasaheb told his followers that even if they are attacked with lathis and their heads split open, they should just protect themselves but not counter-attack. Many of his followers were ex-servicemen (but still he preached the value of non-violence to them),” points out Suhas Sonawane, an Ambedkarite and a chronicler of the Dalit movement.

Dr Kumar Saptarshi, a socialist and Gandhian, said the Maratha morchas were “not aggressive but put forth this non-aggression in an aggressive manner” and described this strategy of silent protests as a tactical strategy and “collective wisdom.”

“Caste itself is a concept which carries hatred for others,” said Saptarshi, adding that the Maratha leadership which was leading the protests was using it to unite a stratified community. The silent morchas helped ensure that other communities would not unite against the Maratha, who along with Kunbis, are estimated to comprise around 31.5% of the population.

For now, it remains to be seen if the Maratha’s silence can carry their voice far enough.

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