Dalits are still lagging behind in Maharashtra

Caste riots in India: The appeal of backwardness

The men hold hands in the morning heat. Neatly lined up, the human chain can be led by volunteers across the main street of Kolhapur. Their wives sit in silent rows on the asphalt. While hints of parking and watering points boom from the loudspeakers, hordes of demonstrators crowd into the round square. The city is slowly turning into a sea of ​​flags, caps and sashes in saffron. Saffron is the color of the Maratha kingdom - and also that of Hinduism. The media will later report from 1.5 to 4.5 million people. It is the largest collection of marathas to date, one of the most populous castes in the state of Maharashtra. The caste system originally served as a social group for the division of labor and is still one of the most important criteria of identity in Indian society today.

Marathas belong to the second highest caste of warriors in the Hindu hierarchy - the Kshatriyas. However, with the amalgamation of several subgroups as a result of British colonization, many of them are now active in agriculture.

Their protests have been sweeping across the West Indian region since the beginning of August. In November, they are expected to peak in Maharashtra's capital, Mumbai. Although they are officially considered to be one of the dominant castes in the state and in the Hindu hierarchy, they want to be recognized as needy in order to benefit from the state's subsidy system.

Applicable system for decades

The Marathas fight to be officially recognized as disadvantaged - but they are high in the hierarchy of the caste system

Because if you are officially considered disadvantaged, it pays off in India. A quota system that has existed since 1950 reserves a certain percentage of university places and public service positions for the most severely discriminated population groups in the country. This includes so-called Adivasi tribal peoples and the Dalits, who are at the lowest level of the Hindu caste system. The latter are also called "untouchables" in the Hindu hierarchy because they are religiously unclean. Members of higher castes would not touch anything that had previously come into contact with Dalits. Although this practice is officially banned, it is still partially persecuted in everyday life.

Because the country of the many minorities is also home to a large number of underprivileged population groups, the funding system was extended to so-called "Other Backward Castes" (OBC) in the 1980s. The result: Today around half of the Indian population falls below a quota.

Caught in the middle

In the remaining half, the struggle for training and jobs increases. This is fueling frustration and caste rivalries across the country. In addition to the marathas, the Patels caste in Gujarat or the Jats in Haryana are fighting for recognition as an OBC. While the marches in other countries sometimes resulted in deaths, the marathas of the Marathas have so far been peaceful. Marketed as "silent protests" and with no political leadership, they want to give their demands particular strength.

Dileep Patil is one of the people behind the demonstrations

"Our strength is our silence," says Dileep Patil. The head of the Kshatriya Maratha Chamber of Commerce is one of the pullers behind the demonstrations, which are organized by a 25-member committee and several initiatives.

His round stomach is stretched under a starched, short-sleeved shirt, the golden smartphone shimmers in the left breast pocket. Patil owns several steel mills and seems anything but backward. But getting there, he says, is a long way in the Indian system. "In the private sector, there is an upper-caste lobby. In the public sector, the lower-caste rate prevails. We are stuck in the middle."

Envy fuels the conflict

Many of those who took to the streets last weekend think like him. They feel ignored by politics in their state and trapped in their caste affiliation. Last but not least, their displeasure tells of the ongoing agricultural crisis in the country.

In November there is to be the largest maratha protest in Mumbai

Traditionally, marathas - like patels in Gujarat or jats in Haryana - were landowners and farmers. The growth of the population, however, has led to the fact that the lands have been divided up among more and more owners, so that most of them now own little or no land. The agricultural crisis and persistent droughts also put many in need. They sold their land or got into debt. Much of India's peasant suicides took place in Maharashtra. The most important demands of the demonstrators therefore include fixed price rates and minimum wages in the countryside.

The younger generations, however, are drawn to the cities anyway. They want to live the urban dream, but the caste system is blocking their way to the education they need. "My son scored 90 percent on his university entrance exam and still couldn't get in," complained one of the protesters. "But a student with only 65 percent is allowed to study medicine because he belongs to an OBC." Those who still want to go to good universities need a bribe or stay behind. The frustration of the forgotten middle erupts in envy of the system's greatest profiteers - and threatens to further fuel the hated caste thinking.

The frustration with the system solidifies caste identities

Dalits in particular are feeling this. Anti-Dalit slogans have already been heard during protests in other countries. The Maratha protests were also triggered by a rape case in which three Dalit boys allegedly assaulted a Maratha girl. Since then, the Kopardi case has been used by Marathas to mobilize the masses.

In late September, Dalit security forces tried to arrest demonstrators in Ahmedabad

They loudly demand the reform of the so-called "Prevention of Atrocities Act" (POA). The law, which came into force in 1989, is intended to protect Dalits and Adivasis from acts of violence that are still common today. Those who abuse them can be sentenced to prison terms without a hearing. The victims receive compensation. While Dalits and Adivasis are still among the poorest in the country, protesters in Maharahstra accuse them of taking advantage of the POA. "They steal from us and harass our women. And if we resist, we go to jail," said an insurance seller from a village near Kolhapur. However, very few can report on their own experiences. Above all, they see the Kopardi case as an emotional basis for their demands.

Even today, Dalits still struggle with discrimination. Attention has recently been drawn to brutal attacks in Gujarat. Four Dalits were tied to a car there and whipped for allegedly killing a cattle, which is officially prohibited there. The video made the rounds on social media. In the state of Haryana, north of New Delhi, the suicide of a Dalit student at the beginning of the year sparked a renewed debate on the social discrimination against the lowest castes.

The long list of pressing problems

Members of the lowest caste, the Dalits, also repeatedly take to the streets and protest against murders and violent crimes against Dalits

"It's a question of how power is distributed," says Suhas Palshikar, professor of political science at Savitribai Phule University in Pune. "Every community demands its place in the system." While the frustration is directed against that system, revolts like that of the Marathas will further cement the caste identities, Palshikar said.

Counter-demonstrations by Dalit groups in Latur, a district in Maharashtra, made this clear over the weekend. For their part, the demonstrators demanded strict adherence to the POA, which in their opinion is far too often not applied.

According to Palshikar, easing the caste rivalries depends on the handling of the most pressing problems in the country: the agricultural crisis, inadequate public education and a lack of jobs in the private sector. In India, around a million people are entering the labor market every month, which according to the Indian employment office created just 135,000 new jobs last year. "The caste question," says Palshikar, "is largely determined by how India gets these problems under control."