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Millions march in a sea of saffron – the silent rage of Indias ignored farmer caste

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.

Baramati
Baramati protesters speak out at the end of the march. Photograph: Bhaiya Patil

The silent marches have quickly turned a centuries-old caste issue into a social media sensation. Live feeds from the marches quickly populate Facebook and Twitter. A drone is sent up to capture images of the crowds from the sky. For Patil and his army of 2,000 Twitter users, who each have multiple accounts, its easy to turn a tweet into a trend. Social media has really made these marches what they are. It has brought the Maratha people together, he says. Their demands go far beyond wanting the hangmans noose for the alleged killers of the girl from Kopardi. The Marathas voice has been suppressed for a long time. It was a divided community, but what happened in the village united us, says Patil.

Marathas are traditionally landowning farmers. Their status would have meant they were much richer and more powerful than the Dalit castes. But the rapid increase of Indias population since independence means that, over generations, large farmlands have been divided into smaller plots to share between brothers, leaving each Maratha son with less land to farm than his father had.

Four consecutive years of drought have ruined harvests and left farmers without water even to drink or wash. Marathwada, a Maratha-dominated region of Maharashtra, was one of the worst hit places in India. Doctors delayed surgeries and schools had to close down; in many villages water was available only once in nine days.

Without banks to borrow from, farmers had to turn to loan sharks and borrow at high interest rates, which increased financial instability. Maratha farmers were severely hit, and the effects rippled through the entire community, even those who had moved away from their villages to the cities. Some farmers took their lives.

The marches are silent, but their demands are loud and clear. The movement brings together the economic and social grievances of millions of people across Maharashtra. They want reforms in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which they argue is unfairly used against higher-caste communities.

They want to be included in the list of other backward castes, which gives welfare benefits to listed castes and which politicians change every election season to win votes. The Marathas also want loan repayments cancelled and a fund for drought-hit farmers.

At one of the first marches, we saw that many women had come, too, and we didnt want any violence, says Patil. So we decided the marches would be silent. That way they would be peaceful. We dont want to disturb the peace of the cities, but we want our demands to be heard. We even have a team of volunteers at the back of the procession, who sweep up the streets after the crowds pass through. We want people to say, look, five million people came and went, but not one stone is out of place.

The marches bring together various Maratha factions. Pravin Gaikwad, the chief of the Sambhaji brigade, a Maratha activist group, calls the protests the Maratha Arab spring.

There is an awakening in the Maratha community, he says. And one of the main reasons is that our own leaders have failed us. Politicians such as Sharad Pawar [chief minister of Maharashtra], for example, are known as strong Maratha leaders. But in reality they do little for the Marathas. They go to all the big functions and festivals of the other communities so they can win their votes, but they never come to our events, they never ask us what we want. We have been overlooked. Nobody, no politician, has done anything for us.

Desertion by the political class is part of the problem. Even worse for the Maratha farmer, Gaikwad says, are the effects of globalisation and environmentalism. It is very simple. Say I need to build a dam to irrigate my fields. To build that dam, I need to cut down a forest. I understand that global warming is a problem, but without that dam, my children wont have food to eat. This is a big problem for farmers.

The rich countries America, Europe and Australia they have already developed. After developing they figured out that global warming was a big problem. So now, they are blocking our development. The rich countries are making laws through international green tribunals, and putting pressure on us to reduce our carbon emissions.

There are trees literally in the middle of our highways that we cant cut down just because they are so old. It means there are dozens of deaths on that road every year, just to save that old tree. Our country is an agricultural country. But nobody cares about the farmers. We have put up our demands, and we will march until they are met. The politicians are not helping. Now theyve started paying attention, asking to meet with us. But what is the use of having tea with the chief minister? We want our farmers to be looked after and we will keep marching until they are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/16/farmers-march-in-silence-india-maharashtra-maratha-dalit