Maharashtra legislature's passage of a bill granting 16 per cent quota to Marathas in jobs and education marked the culmination of a 36-year-long movement by the community that saw many ups and downs and loss of lives. The bill was passed Thursday unanimously, establishing wide political support for the measure and also reflecting the clout of the influential agrarian community.
Community leaders say their long-drawn struggle has finally paid off, but maintain they will continue their fight for withdrawal of cases against their members filed when their agitation turned violent and invited police action.
"The credit for the passage of the bills goes largely to those who laid their lives for the cause and also to those who have struggled for it," Ankush Mohite, state coordinator of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, said. The Morcha is among the outfits which spearheaded the Maratha quota agitation. Mohite said the next step of the protesters is to ensure that police cases filed against their colleagues at various places in the state are withdrawn. Rajendra Kondhare, general secretary, Akhil Bhartiya Maratha Mahasangh, agreed with him.
"Though the bill is cleared, our battle is still not over," he said.
According to him, the quota agitation claimed around 40 lives in nearly four decades. The demand for quota for Marathas -- who form 33 per cent of the state's around 13 crore population - came to the fore prominently in March 1982 when Annasaheb Patil (28), anative of Satara district, shot himself, Kondhare said.
"Annasaheb had led a march in Mumbai over the issue. The government ignored the demand, prompting Annasaheb to end his life," Kondhare said.
The issue remained on the back burner largely till the previous Congress-NCP government, ahead of the 2014 Assembly polls, came out with an ordinance granting reservation to the community. It was, however, stayed by the Bombay High Court. The campaign for the quota intensified after a 14-year-old Maratha girl from Kopardi village in Ahemadnagar district was raped and murdered in July 2016.
The rape-cum-murder incident triggered an outrage among the community whose members took to streets and vented their anger against the stringent SC/ST Atrocities Act (the accused were Dalits) and demanded justice for the victim. The demand for justice in the rape-murder case was coalesced with the large issue of Maratha reservation and the agitation attracted widespread attention.
Over 50 well-attended 'mook morchas' (silent marches)were held by Maratha organisations across the state in 2016 and 2017, sending a message to the BJP-led government about their demand and intention to continue their struggle. The agitation took a violent turn in July this year with protesters slamming the government over delay infulfilling the demand.
Amid restlessness among Marathas, started another phase which saw community members taking their own lives in support of the long-pending demand for quota. Kakasaheb Shinde, from Aurangabad district, the hotbed of the latest phase of quota stir, allegedly flung himself to death in Godavari river over the demand. Jagannath Sonavane, also hailing from Aurangabad, reportedly consumed poison and died to press for Marathaquota. Abhijit Deshmukh (35), who hailed from Beed, allegedly hanged himself for the cause August 31.