The rape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl, allegedly by untouchables, has turned old grievances into a social media sensation
The crowds gather at 10am a sea of saffron flags held by millions of marchers dressed in white cotton, the colour of mourning. Amid the chaos of the traffic, there is that rare thing: silence.
Over the past two months, at least a dozen cities in the western state of Maharashtra have exploded in an unprecedented outburst of popular uprising from the Maratha community, made up of the landowning farmer castes. The Marathas comprise a third of Maharashtras 114 million population. Their marches, which started with a few hundred thousand protesters, now gather millions in a different city almost every other weekend.
The marches are silent until the end, when the crowd stands to sing the national anthem before dispersing. During the demonstrations, young women approach politicians with a list of demands. Organisers say the biggest march will be held in Mumbai, the states capital and the countrys financial heart, in December.
The silent protests began in July after the gang rape and murder of a 15-year-old Maratha girl in the village of Kopardi, allegedly by untouchable Dalit men. The incident stirred up anger in the Maratha community, who argued that the police and media were neglecting the case in the interests of political correctness.
In India, for generations, low-caste Dalit people were considered dirty in the Hindu caste system and were not allowed to eat, marry or mix with higher castes. Lower castes were forced into menial or unholy jobs such as cleaning the sewers or working with leather. High-caste people would have to undergo a cleansing ritual if they accidentally touched a Dalit. After independence in 1947, caste was formally abolished, but continued to be one of the most important identity markers, especially in rural India.
Maratha activists argue that if the girl had been Dalit, and her alleged rapists and killers had been high-caste men, the narrative would be far more appealing to politicians and journalists, who want to be seen as champions of the underdog Dalit community. Discrimination, they say, has now swung in the opposite direction: Dalits enjoy the benefits of affirmative action in jobs and universities, while farmers face neglect from successive governments.
The media show that the victims are always Dalit, and the perpetrators are all Maratha, says Dyanesh Maharao, a Maratha activist. But its not really like that. When that poor girl died, the police didnt even bother to file a report until this week, almost three months after the attack.
The Marathas are so neglected that when the first march happened, in the city of Aurangabad, none of the major local newspaper or television outlets bothered to turn up, says Bhaiya Patil, a 28-year-old activist who has become the social media manager of the movement. There were 500,000 people in the street and no one was interested. There was no footage, no cameras, no coverage. Thats why we turned to social media. We started posting our own pictures and video and suddenly everyone started listening. It gave us our voice.
People come from all over Maharashtra for the marches. Some drive, others take buses and travel hundreds of miles to show solidarity. People come with whatever they have. Some donate money, others bring bottles of water to distribute to the crowds. Some of the farmers, who are very poor, cant give anything, so they bring rice, because its the only thing they have to contribute, says Patil.