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Maharashtra: Politics of Frustrations, Anxieties and Outrage

Over the last two years Maharashtra has witnessed a series of violent outrages over symbolic issues in the cultural realm. However, these events represent more than simply the curtailment of the right to freedom of expression or assertions of cultural chauvinism on the part of militant maratha organisations. Rather, they speak of a crisis that sections of marathas are facing at the present political juncture and have to do with the changing nature of the state's capitalist development.

Commentary

MAHARASHTRA

Politics of Frustrations, Anxieties and Outrage

Over the last two years Maharashtra has witnessed a series ofviolent outrages over symbolic issues in the cultural realm.However, these events represent more than simply the curtailmentof the right to freedom of expression or assertions of culturalchauvinism on the part of militant maratha organisations. Rather,they speak of a crisis that sections of marathas are facing at thepresent political juncture and have to do with the changing natureof the state’s capitalist development.

RAJESHWARI DESHPANDE

M
aharashtra was long known for its placid and well knit Congress system that survived intact for almost three decades of the postindependence period. It survived on the basis of the successful accommodation of entrenched interests, a neat and institutionalised system of patronage and favourable caste equations under the leadership of the dominant maratha-kunbi caste cluster. The system experienced its first cracks in the 1980s when maratha elites divided their loyalties between rival political parties. The 1990s saw a further distancing of the marathas from the Congress as well as from the OBCs of the state. This resulted in the decline of the Congress and the rise of a competitive, bi-nodal party system in the state, woven around two alliances of the BJP-Shiv Sena and the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Growing dissatisfaction at various levels among the ranks of marathas and their desperate attempts to retain control over power always played a crucial role in bringing about these political changes. It seems that the frustrations and anxieties of sections of marathas will now inaugurate a new phase in Maharashtra’s politics in the coming days.

Politics of Intolerance

During the last two years or so Maharashtra has witnessed a series of violent outrages over small issues. The James Laine-Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) controversy over a book on Shivaji in 2004 was perhaps the first major instance of this kind. It was followed by several other instances where sections of the masses straightaway resorted to a violent politics of intolerance. Narendra Maharaj, an influential god man was not allowed to carry his ‘dhwajadanda’ on board. His followers organised violent protests in different cities of the state in December 2005. A Marathi play was attacked and forced to change its title for its disrespect to a Hindu god. The recently split Shiv Sena protested violently when a TV channel presented a satire commenting on the rift in the party. The Bombay Art society withdrew an award that it had extended to M F Hussain, the famous painter, when there was a controversy over one of the paintings of the artist. A neo-Hinduist militant organisation ransacked the offices of a Marathi daily for not celebrating the birth anniversary of Shivaji in (what they saw as) a proper way. Chhava Sanghatana, a militant maratha organisation, has now threatened to demolish Shaniwarwada (the seat of Peshwas), because it symbolises unjust brahminic rule.

The most recent addition to the politics of intolerance is the row over a passage quoted (from some yet unknown source) in a question paper for the higher secondary examinations of the state board. The passage contained derogatory remarks about Sant Tukaram, one of the most well known saint poets from the Bhakti tradition of the 12th century. This time it was the Varkari Mahasangh (a federation of the Varkaris – followers of the Bhakti tradition, worshippers of Vithoba at Pandharpur) that joined more militant organisations like the Sambhaji Brigade in attacking and molesting the chairman of the state educational board. Four teachers responsible for the controversial question paper were arrested for spreading communal hatred (and were released on bail). In the celebrations of the birth anniversary of Tukaram Maharaj, the state home minister – a leader of the NCP publicly apologised to the Varkaris and withdrew all cases against them on the charges of attacking the chairman of the state educational board.

There is more to these issues than simply the curtailment of the right to freedom of expression or manifest expressions of cultural chauvinism on the part of militant maratha organisations. It is true that in most cases the anxieties of various social sections were shaped over symbolic issues in the cultural realm. However, there were instances when violent contestations emerged over other social and material issues as well. The riots in Navi Mumbai between early and migrant settlers in mid-March symbolised a perverse struggle for access to different (often scant) resources in urban centres of the state. During the same time, farmers in Maan, a small village on the outskirts of Pune city, mobilised themselves against government acquisition of their fertile land for development of an IT park. It is not only a coincidence that in both cases members of the maratha community were involved. Most of the agitating farmers in Maan are marathas whereas in Navi Mumbai migrant maratha workers from western Maharashtra are settled as ‘mathadi’ workers (head loaders).

Crisis for Marathas

These events therefore speak of a crisis that sections of marathas are facing at the present political juncture. Since the marathakunbi caste cluster constitutes the most influential social group in Maharashtra politics, the crisis for them, implied in the crisis of the state’s political system, looms large. The Congress-maratha nexus of the

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earlier period was a combination of a political majority and ascendant material interests. Institutional networks like cooperatives and economic policies of the state that advocated capitalist growth in the agrarian sector, protected maratha interests in this period. The Congress leadership successfully managed a complex set of entrenched interests that were internally competing with each other [Palshikar and Deshpande 2003]. However, these mechanisms have collapsed since the 1980s. Maharashtra pursued an aggressive agenda of economic liberalisation since 1988 under Sharad Pawar’s leadership. The agenda neglected rural and agrarian interests and advocated export-oriented commercialisation of agriculture that benefited only a few. With the state’s emphasis on urbanisation, industrial expansion and growth of the service sector, material domination soon shifted from the rural to the urban realm. Between 1978 and 1990, the state witnessed an acute disjunction between politicalelectoral domination and the ascendance of new forces in the material realm. Marathas were still presiding over the political apparatus in the Congress scheme, but their control over key economic and institutional resources was gradually lost. Disgruntled maratha leaders rebelled against the Congress and the masses divided their loyalties between the Congress and the Sena. Pawar floated a new party, the NCP, as a party of the marathas. But its formation could not compensate for the material loss that marathas faced under the changing nature of the state’s capitalist development.

Material Deprivations

The maratha-kunbi caste cluster was always projected as a homogeneous group in the political realm. However, it has always had a stratified structure, socially and economically. It is true that marathas constitute the dominant landowning caste in the majority of villages across the state. However, Maharashtra has only a small portion of its agricultural land under irrigation. The rest of the land is arid and most of the maratha and kunbi farmers survive as subsistence farmers. The Congress model of agrarian development even during the 1960s added to the existing economic inequalities among these groups. Internal contradictions within the maratha-kunbi caste cluster were often discussed in terms of those from the irrigated and droughtprone areas, aristocratic and non-aristocratic families, marathas and kunbis, or in terms of rich and poor marathas. It is to cover these contradictions that the ideology of ‘bahujan samaj’ was practised by the Congress in the 1950s and 1960s [Vora 2003]. But the ideology was punctured gradually as material gaps within sections of marathas increased and the larger politicalalliance under their leadership was disturbed.

A call for the expansion of the industrial, urban centres naturally attracted maratha youth, among others, to urban areas since the 1980s. However, these sections could not find adequate access to urban resources for various reasons. First, only a few elite maratha families could invest in large capitalist projects in urban as well as rural areas. Second, maratha youth lacked the skills and training required for the industrial sector. The 1990s saw a further distortion in capitalist development that resulted in the disproportionate expansion of the service sector and IT industry. Brahmins monopolise high profile jobs in these sectors with all their advantages as traditional elites in Marathi society. Maratha youths are engaged in lower rung jobs or are mostly accommodated in sundry networks of the informal economy that flourish around these sectors. Public sector opportunities were already shrinking when young marathas aspired for them through State Public Service Commission examinations. The lack of access to urban economic resources developed a deep sense of relative deprivation among sections of marathas.

Since the decline of the Congress, the marathas have tried various political vehicles for maintaining their political dominance and registering their anger against the established leadership. Shetkari Sanghatana of the 1980s successfully mobilised the marathas over agrarian issues. Then it was the Shiv Sena that recruited maratha youth from the more backward regions like Vidarbha, Marathwada and Konkan. In the 1995 assembly elections, marathas entered as rebel Congress candidates and engineered a formal change of guard in the state. And finally, it was the NCP that emerged as a party of the marathas in the late 1990s. Throughout this period, a slow process of the fragmentation of maratha votes was taking shape. It was both an outcome and a cause of the competitive party system that emerged in the state. The fragmented marathas could retain formal political power till recent times [Palshikar and Birmal 2003]. In almost all state assembly elections so far, marathas were able to secure around 50 per cent of seats. These trends continued in recent elections, in spite of the decline of the Congress [Vora 2003: 3-4]. And yet, political frustrations grew at various levels.

Weakening Power

The emergence of a competitive party system provided more opportunities of recruitment in the formal political realm for marathas, but only in a limited way. Besides they had to share political offices with OBCs and dalits as part of the process of mandalisation and as a result of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments. Competitive politics made recruitment and survival in politics more difficult. Many new players, like caste associations of each small caste, entered the political realm; political contestations became more dispersed and were shaped at the district level and agents of all kinds played a key role in the political game. Local social support bases of the leaders became floating and politics became a more tentative, uncertain activity to take up. Finally, under the neoliberal discourse, the formal realm of democratic politics was slowly delegitimised and this had several perverse repercussions on the patterns of state and local politics. Important political decisions were shaped outside the democratic process and were often influenced by bureaucrats, social technocrats and the corporate sector. At the local level, politics was reduced to management and appropriation of limited resources and politicians were reduced to contractors. These changes seriously offended the status of marathas as a ruling community and injured their sense of pride.

Material frustrations and political anxieties of the marathas inevitably culminated in identity politics and led them to the forces of Hindutva during the 1990s. At one level, notions of caste pride fit well into the framework of communal pride. The politics of Hindutva, especially under Shiv Sena’s leadership, successfully appropriated symbols of caste pride in its discourse. And yet, the discomfort with the official Hindutva discourse grew at various levels. Along with the Shiv Sena, it was the BJP that presided over the politics of Hindutva in the state. In that sense, marathas were subjected to the dominance of brahmins and also had to share power with OBCs. Opportunities of political recruitment remained limited even in the BJP-Shiv Sena fold. For the younger generation of maratha activists, the opportunity

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006 networks in all established parties became inaccessible. Most importantly, as far as the material losses were concerned, none of the political parties including the BJP-Shiv Sena could compensate.

Dilemmas for NCP

The last resort emerged in the form of NCP of the late 1990s. Since its inception, NCP acquired the form of a party of the marathas [Birmal 1999]. Most of the NCP seats in the two subsequent assemblies came from western Maharashtra, a maratha bastion. The social support base of the party also remained restricted among marathas in certain regions. And yet the NCP could not articulate the demands of marathas successfully. This was because the party faced an identity crisis of its own. In his bid to provide an alternative to the Congress, Pawar tried to expand the NCP’s support base among OBCs and other sections. But soon the agenda was abandoned as dominant marathas started flocking to the party. As a result, the NCP could not spread to regions like Vidarbha that has a large OBC population. Pawar pursued an aggressive, pro-liberalisation economic agenda in this period. The move alienated sections of marathas and could not attract even urban voters. For urban voters, NCP remained a party of marathas and thus represented agrarian interests. This forced the NCP to fall back on the marathas that had by then divided their loyalties between the NCP and Shiv Sena. These two parties thus emerged as arch rivals vying for the support of the maratha community [Palshikar and Birmal 2003: 228]. In order to attract maratha supporters of the Shiv Sena, the NCP indulged in the rhetoric of maratha pride and supported the politics of outrage orchestrated by maratha militant organisations.

The post-2004 elections scenario opens up yet another dimension of the crisis that the NCP faces as part of a ruling alliance. This dimension was evident in the recent agitations in Maan village that we mentioned above. The farmers in Maan, in their opposition to the land acquisition by the government, were actually complaining against the dominant maratha leaders in the government in their agitations. Since it came to power first in 1999, the Congress-NCP alliance has been massively promoting capitalist development in the state. It is evident by now that this pattern of development has benefited only a handful of maratha leaders and a majority of marathas are deprived – not only of the long-term fruits of this development but also of the immediate perks that are generated in the process. It is this deprivation that resulted in the mobilisation of maratha farmers in Maan against their own leaders. Along with political fragmentation, it is the increasing economic stratification among marathas that has contributed to their identity crisis and to that of the NCP.

Sporadic Outbursts, Lasting Implications

It is in this context that maratha youth seem to have moved out of the official democratic realm of party politics. It is through various caste/social organisations that they are trying to pressurise the party political domain. Maratha caste organisations have resorted to two kinds of symbolic gestures in the recent period. One, they have made tokenist demands to identify marathas as backward and extend state reservations to them [Deshpande 2004]. On the other hand, and in the more recent period, these organisations have initiated violent contestations over issues of the symbolic cultural pride of the caste. At one level, there is an attempt to seek any leftovers the system offers. On the other hand, there are ambitions to teach the system a lesson. Therefore, meetings of the Sambhaji Brigade and the Chhava Sanghatana, two of the most vocal, militant maratha organisations, are held in coaching classes that offer guidance for the State Public Service Commission examinations.

Most of the recent outbursts of violence in Maharashtra can be linked to this dual identity crisis that sections of the marathas (and really those of many other small castes) face. These outbursts are sporadic, organised locally and fade away quickly unless the media advertises them. And yet they have certain long-term implications for the politics of the state. The most notable fact about this politics of outrage is that it is surrounded by a politics of silence. When these organisations engage in acts of vandalism, none of the enlightened elements of Marathi society protest. It is not a silence that emerges only out of fear. It is a silence that results from the extreme polarisation of social forces that forbids discussions and negotiations of any kind. The media contributes to such politics with its partisan interventions in disproportionate celebrations or total neglect of the issues involved. Both the media and socalled enlightened sections share this conspiracy of silence because both have whole- heartedly adopted a stance in favour of aggressive liberalisation policies. The politics of violence, and politics of silence that supplements it, are both equally dangerous aspects of the politics of culture that is emerging in the state.

Many political agencies also chose to manipulate this politics of symbolism at various levels. In most of the instances mentioned above the state showed a serious lack of concern for maintaining law and order. Instead, it chose to act in a partisan manner and became a party to the social contestations, rather than resolving them. Much cannot be expected from political parties as the crisis, in a way, emerges due to their inadequacies in responding to the political aspirations of different social sections. But the same parties were quick to claim the symbolic cultural demands put forward in these agitations. These demands obviously consolidated the Hindutva agenda of the BJP and Shiv Sena. Therefore, these two parties were keen to support the agitating groups. The NCP, on the other hand, had dual advantages in supporting these demands. First, it hoped to reverse the fragmentation of its support base through these gestures. Second, it also hoped to cover the internal economic fissures among marathas (and its own failure to address them) by fulfilling their symbolic cultural demands in a tokenist way. However, such claims on the part of mainstream political agencies add to the polarised, contentious and tentative nature of politics that these demands symbolise. They legitimise the politics of violence and seriously curtail democratic options in the state.

Appropriating Anti-Caste Discourse?

Perhaps the most serious implication of the politics of outrage emerges in terms of its appropriation of the anti-caste discourse in Maharashtra. Silence over many of these issues by vocal proponents of anticaste ideology and the anti-caste platform in the state is significant in this respect. Right since the pre-independence period, the ideology of Hindutva as well as anticaste ideology had a strong presence in Maharashtra’s public sphere. The anti-caste discourse developed in shades, ranging from the politics of Phule and Ambedkar to the non-brahmin movement of the 1930s, the amorphous category of the bahujan samaj coined by the Congress to the most

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

recent efforts of uniting dalits and OBCs. At all these levels, caste politics, even the one practised by marathas, was seen as (at least potentially) opposed to the politics of Hindutva. Marathas were not really uncomfortable with the Hindutva discourse since their caste pride matched with the communal pride of Hindu upper castes. However, the anti-caste struggles in Maharashtra always relied on sections of marathas as their allies and as opponents of brahminical Hindutva. There were serious attempts to unfold the internal stratifications of the maratha community and to lure poor marathas as partners of radical bahujan politics. Recent events and the response that anti-caste struggles have extended to them weaken these hopes. Under the strains of operating in a competitive and polarised political situation, anti-caste struggles have supported the symbolic outbursts of maratha militant organisations. It means that caste battles in the state would now be shaped as contestations between brahmin and nonbrahmin forces like in the 1930s. Marathas are expected to lead the non-brahmin forces and are also expected to lead anti-Hindutva politics. The stance becomes slippery, as marathas, although anti-brahmin in their cultural politics, are not anti-Hindutva. In fact, in their variety of identity politics they have developed close links with Hindu communal politics. At this level, the politics of outrage not only appropriates the anti-caste discourse but also alters the battle lines of politics of culture in the state.

EPW

Email: rajeshwarid@unipune.ernet.in

References

Birmal, Nitin (1999): ‘Prabal Jaticha Pradeshik Paksha: Rashtravadi Congress’, (Marathi), Samaj Prabodhan Patrika, No 149, October-December, pp 220-25.

Deshpande, Rajeshwari (2004): ‘Kunbi Marathas as OBCs: Backward Journey of a Caste’, Economic and Political Weekly, April 3, 10, pp 1148-49.

Palshikar, Suhas and Nitin Birmal (2003): ‘Fragmented Marathas Retain Power’ in Wallace Paul and Ramashray Roy (eds), India’s 1999 Elections and 20th Century Politics, Sage, New Delhi, pp 206-32.

Palshikar, Suhas and Rajeshwari Deshpande (2003): ‘Maharashtra: Challenges before the Congress System’, Journal of the Indian School of Political Economy, Special Number, January-June, pp 97-122.

Vora, Rajendra (2003): ‘Maharashtra: Virtual Reservations for Marathas?’, occasional paper series III: 3, Department of Politics, University of Pune, Pune.

Economic and Political Weekly April 8, 2006

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