Engraving of a Maratha Soldier by James Forbes, 1813.
Minor: Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.
The Maratha (IPA: [ˈˈməraʈʰa"]; IAST:Marāṭhā; archaically transliterated as Marhatta or Mahratta) is a group of castes in India found predominantly in the state of Maharashtra. According to Britannica, "The Maratha group of castes is a largely rural class of peasant cultivators, landowners, and soldiers".
Robert Vane Russell, an untrained ethnologist of the British Raj period, basing his research largely on Vedic literature, wrote that the Marathas are subdivided into 96 different clans, known as the 96 Kuli Marathas or Shahānnau Kule The general body of lists are often at great variance with each other.
The term "Maratha" originally referred to the speakers of the Marathi language. In the 17th century, it emerged as a designation for soldiers serving in the armies of Deccan sultanates (and later Shivaji Maharaj). A number of Maratha warriors, including Shivaji's father, Shahaji, originally served in those Muslim armies. By the mid-1660s, Shivaji had established an independent Maratha kingdom. After Shivaji's death, Marathas fought under his sons and defeated Aurangzeb in the war of 27 years. It was further expanded into a vast empire by the Maratha Confederacy including Peshwas, stretching from central India in the south, to Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan) on the Afghanistan border in the north, and with expeditions to Bengal in the east.
By the 19th century, the empire had become a confederacy of individual states controlled by Maratha chiefs such as Gaikwad's of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore, the Scindias of Gwalior, the Puars of Dhar and Dewas, and Bhonsles of Nagpur. The Confederacy remained the pre-eminent power in India until their defeat by the British East India Company in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817–1818).
By 19th century, the term Maratha had several interpretations in the British administrative records. In the Thane District Gazetteer of 1882, the term was used to denote elite layers within various castes: for example, "Maratha-Agri" within Agri caste, "Maratha-Koli" within Koli caste and so on. In the Pune District, the words Kunbi and Maratha had become synonymous, giving rise to the Maratha-Kunbi caste complex. The Pune District Gazetteer of 1882 divided the Kunbis into two classes: Marathas and other Kunbis. The 1901 census listed three groups within the Maratha-Kunbi caste complex: "Marathas proper", "Maratha Kunbis" and Konkan Maratha.
According to Steele, in the early 19th century, Kunbis, who were agriculturists and the Marathas who claimed Rajput descent and Kshatriya status - were distinguished by their customs related to widow remarriage. The Kunbis allowed it and the higher status Marathas prohibited it. However, there is no statistical evidence for this.
The Maratha population was more than 31% in Western Maharashtra and the Kunbi was 7%, whereas the upper castes - Brahmins, Saraswats, and Prabhus were only about 4% of the population. The Other Backward Class population (other than the Kunbi) was 27% while the population of the Mahars was 8%.
Gradually, the term Maratha came to denote an endogamous caste. From 1900 onwards, the Satyashodhak Samaj movement defined the Marathas as a broader social category of non-Brahmin groups. These non-Brahmins gained prominence in Indian National Congress during the Indian independence movement. In independent India, these Marathas became the dominant political force in the newly-formed state of Maharashtra.
The caste hierarchy in Maharashtra is led by the Brahmins - Deshasthas, Chitpawans, Karhades, Saraswats and the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus(CKP). The Maratha are ranked lower than the Pathare Prabhus, CKPs, Brahmins etc. in the caste hierarchy but are considered higher than the Kunbi , backward castes and castes that were considered ritually impure.
Modern research has revealed that the Marathas and Kunbi have the same origin - although the two are treated as two different communities currently on a social level. Most recently, the Kunbi origin of the Maratha has been explained in detail by Professor Richard Eaton from the University of Arizona and Professor Stewart Gordon. The Kunbis who served the Muslim rulers, prospered, and over time adopted different customs like different dressing styles, started identifying as Maratha and caste boundaries solidified between them. In the nineteenth century, economic prosperity rather than marital service to the Muslims replaced the mobility into Maratha identity. Eaton gives an example of the Holkar family that originally belonged to the Dhangar(Shepherd) caste but was given a Maratha or even an "arch-Maratha" identity. The other example, given by Professor Susan Bayly of Cambridge University, is of the Bhonsles who originated among the populations of the Deccani tiller-plainsmen who were known by the names Kunbi and Maratha. Professor Dhanmanjiri Sathe from the University of Pune states that "The line between Marathas and Kunbis is thin and sometimes difficult to ascertain". Iravati Karve, Anthropologist, University of Pune, showed how the Maratha caste was generated from Kunbis who simply started calling themselves "Maratha". She states that Maratha, Kunbi and Mali are the three main farming communities of Maharashtra - the difference being that the marathas and Kunbis were "dry farmers" whereas the Mali farmed throughout the year. John Vincent Ferreira, from the University of Mumbai states: "The Maratha claim to belong to the ancient 96 Kshatriya families has no foundation in fact and may have been adopted after the Marathas became with Shivaji a power to be reckoned with". Professor Cynthia Talbot from the University of Texas quotes a saying in Maharashtra, "when a Kunbi prospers he becomes Maratha". The Kunbi origin has been one of the factors on the basis of which the Maratha leader, Gaikwad, in 2018, suggested that Marathas should be given an Other Backward Class status and he has submitted proofs about the same to the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission (MSBC).
The empire also resulted in the voluntary relocation of substantial numbers of Maratha and other Marathi-speaking people outside Maharashtra, and across a big part of India. Today several small but significant communities descended from these emigrants live in the north, south and west of India. These descendant communities tend often to speak the local languages, although many also speak Marathi in addition. Notable Maratha families outside Maharashtra include Bhonsle of Tanjore, Scindia of Gwalior, Gaekwad of Baroda, Holkar of Indore, Puar of Dewas and Dhar, Ghorpade of Mudhol.
Comparative Cultural Issues, Literacy and Women's issues
In 17th century Maharashtra, Brahmins, CKPs and Saraswats were the only communities that had a system of higher education. Education of all other castes and communities was very limited and consisted of listening to stories from religious texts like the Puranas or to Kirtans.
Steward Gordon, Professor Emeritus of world history at the Michigan State University writes that the prominent Ghorpade Maratha family for instance was not literate and had to use Brahmins as record keepers.
Gail Omvedt concludes that during the British era, the overall literacy of Brahmins and CKPs was overwhelmingly high as compared to the literacy of the maratha and Kunbi communities where it was strikingly low. The artisan castes were intermediate in terms of literacy. For all castes, men were more literate than the women from that caste(respectively). Female literacy as well as English literacy showed the same pattern among castes.
However, higher literacy of a caste and happiness of the widows from that caste did not go hand in hand - in fact, researchers showed exactly the opposite results in Maharashtra. Dr.Neela Dabir in her research on widows in Maharashtra divided widows into three groups. First group consisted of the women belonging to Saraswat, CKP and Brahmin communities. The second group consisted of women from the Maratha caste and the third group was all others. She concluded that the Brahmins, CKPs and Saraswats who had similar "family norms" of following the higher caste Hindu rituals and traditions, discouraged widow remarriage. Although the marathas were politically dominant in the 20th century, they did not prohibit widow remarriage due to their ritualistic norms. The widows from the three castes (Saraswat,CKP, Brahmin) had to join Ashrams in large proportions whereas the widows from Maratha and other Hindu castes did not generally face such distress in their life in the 20th century.
Rosalind O'Hanlon, Professor at the University of Oxford stated that the Hindu God Mhasoba is traditionally very popular in the Maratha caste. She quotes about the devotion of the Marathas in the 19th century to Mhasoba as follows:
You will not find a single family among the Marathas who do not set up in the grounds around their village some stone or other in the name of Mhasoba, smear it with red lead, and offer incense to it; who without taking Mhasoba's name will not put his hand to the seed-box of the plough, will not put the harrow to the field, and will not put the measure to the heap of threshed corn on the threshing floor.
Maratha leaders said that “Chhatrapati Shivaji is worshiped by the Maratha community, while different sections of society hold him in high esteem”. "Shivaji Jayanti" (his birthday) is celebrated with folk dances, songs, plays and Puja. There was some controversy over the date but it is now celebrated on February 19th. Earlier, the regional Marathi political parties - Shiv Sena as well as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena were celebrating it as per the Tithi according to the Hindu Calendar ("Falgun Vadya Tritiya" - third day of the month of Falgun), whereas the State Government was celebrating it as per the Gregorian Calendar.
The varna of the Maratha is a contested issue, with arguments for their being of the Kshatriya (warrior) varna, and others for their being of Shudra origins. This issue was the subject of antagonism between the Brahmins and Marathas, dating back to the time of Pratap Singh, but by the late 19th century moderate Brahmins were keen to ally with the influential Marathas of Bombay in the interests of Indian independence from Britain. These Brahmins supported the Maratha claim to Kshatriya status, but their success in this political alliance was sporadic and fell apart entirely following independence in 1947.
As late as the turn of 20th century, the Brahmin priests of Shahu, the Maratha ruler of Kolhapur refused to use Vedic mantras and would not take a bath before chanting, on the grounds that even the leading Marathas such as Shahu and his family belonged to the Shudra varna. This opinion about the Shudra varna was supported by Brahmin Councils in Maharashtra and they stuck to their opinion even when they (the Brahmins) were threatened with the loss of land and property. This led to Shahu supporting Satyashodhak Samaj as well as campaigning for the rights of the Maratha community. He soon became the leader of the non-Brahmin movement and united the Marathas under his banner.
In the 21st century, the Government of Maharashtra cited historical incidents for the claim of Shudra status of prominent Maratha families to form a case for reservation for the Marathas in the state.
Anti-Marwadi Deccan riots of 1875
Claude Markovits, director of center of Indian and South-Asian studies, writes, that in 1875, in places such as Pune and Ahmednagar, Marwadi moneylenders became victims of coordinated attacks by the "local peasantry of the Maratha caste". Historian, David Ludlen states that the motivation for the violence was destroying the debt agreements that the moneylenders held over the Maratha farmers. These riots were known as the "Deccan riots".
After Gandhi's murder in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, a Chitpawan, Brahmins in Maharashtra became victims of violence, mostly by elements from the Maratha caste. Later, in Sangli, Jains and Lingayats joined the marathas in their attacks against the Brahmins. Thousands of offices and homes were also set on fire. Molestation incidents were also reported during these attacks. On the first day alone, the number of deaths in Bombay were 15 and 50 in Pune.
As per V.M.Sirsikar, "It will be too much to believe that the riots took place because of the intense love of Gandhiji on the part of the Marathas. Godse became a very convenient hate symbol to damn the Brahmins and burn their properties." Donald Rosenthal opines that the motivation for the violence was the historical discrimination and humiliation that the Maratha community faced due to their caste status. He writes, "Even today, local Brahmins claim that the Marathas organized the riots to take political advantage of the situation".
In Satara alone, the official reports show that about 1000 houses were burnt down in about 300 villages. There were "cruel, cold-blooded killings" as well - for example, one family whose last name happened to be 'Godse' had three of its male members killed. Brahmins suffered from serious physical violence as well as looting.
Maureen Patterson concludes that the greatest violence took place not in the cities of Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur - but in Satara, Kolhapur and Belgaum. Destruction was very large in Kolhapur where Shahu had actively collaborated with the British against the Indian freedom struggle - a fact that was identified by Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Shahu was also actively involved in the anti-Brahmin movement as well. In Sangli, the Jains and the Lingayats joined the Marathas in the attacks against the Brahmins. Here, specifically, the factories owned by the Chitpawan Brahmins were destroyed. This event led to the hasty integration of the Patwardhan states into the Bombay Province by March 1948.
Worli BDD Chawl violence
The BDD Chawl in the Worli inner suburb of Mumbai is a complex of buildings which were built in 1920s to house workers employed by the textile mills. In the 1970s, at the height of the Dalit Panther movement, fights erupted between the Chawl’s dominant Maratha population and the Neo-Buddhists living in 20-odd buildings resulted in full-scale riots. Violence between the communities continued through the 1970s to the early 1990s.
Other incidents of caste related violence
Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute
Sambhaji Brigade is a branch of "Maratha Seva Sangh"(a Maratha caste organization) and has committed acts of violence. In 2004, a mob of 150 Maratha activists attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute - the reason being a book by James Laine. The vandalism led to loss of valuable historic documents and an estimated loss of Rs. 1.25 crores. Sanskrit and religious documents dating back to the 16th century were destroyed, translation of the RigVeda by the Shankaracharya was thrown on the road. A woman who tried to call the police had bricks pelted at her by the goons.
Ram Ganesh Gadkari Statue
In 2017, the statue of Ram Ganesh Gadkari, a noted playwright and poet who showed Sambhaji in a poor light in his 1919 play 'Rajsanyas', was uprooted and thrown in the river by Sambhaji Brigade. The Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu(CKP), the community to which Gadkari belonged later organized a meeting to protest this incident at the "Ram Ganesh Gadkari Rangayatan"(a theater named after Gadkari) in Thane. Indian National Congress leader Nitesh Rane later rewarded the vandals and made inflammatory remarks claiming that he had announced a reward earlier in 2016 for removing the bust, and was proud of the act carried out by the accused.
Violence related to inclusion in the Other Backward Caste(OBC)
Recently, several incidences of violence were reported due to agitation over delay in the inclusion of the Maratha caste in the Other Backward Class category. The agitations were started by the Maratha Kranti Morcha. In June 2018, the Marathas threatened violent protests if their demands were not met. In July, Maratha protests turned violent as the protesters attacked cops and torched their(police) vehicles. Several incidents have been reported in other places as well - including violence towards cops, deaths and burning private cars and police vehicles. Several cops have been injured by the mobs, public property has been damaged and private cars have been torched. In Navi Mumbai itself, hundreds of vehicles have been torched and Buses have been set on fire in cities like Mumbai and Pune. Some Marathas have also committed suicide citing lack of inclusion in the OBC Quota(reservation).
Other inter caste issues
Medha Khole Incident
In a widely publicized 2017 incident, a Brahmin scientist by the name of Medha Vinayak Khole(Deputy Director-General for the weather forecasting section) filed a police complaint against her Maratha domestic worker, Nirmala Yadav, for hiding her caste and “violating ritual purity and sanctity". Khole even insulted the latter's Gods Khandoba and Mhasoba - a Hindu God worshiped by the pastoral communities of western India and very popular in the Maratha community. Yadav alleged that "she [Khole] discovered I was a Maratha and not a Brahmin. Following this, she barged into my house and began assaulting me, while stating that our God was of the streets while theirs was in the heaven". The "Akhil Bhartiya Bramhan Mahasangh" initially came out in support of Khole. However, there were widespread protests not just by Maratha caste organizations but also by non-caste organizations like Domestic Workers Unions and Women's organizations and Khole was widely criticized.
The 1919 Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms of the British colonial government called for caste based representation in legislative council. In anticipation a Maratha league party was formed. The league and other groups came together to form the non-Brahmins party in the Marathi speaking areas in the early 1920s under the leadership of Maratha leaders Keshavrao Jedhe and Baburao Javalkar. Their early goals in that period were capturing the Ganpati and Shivaji festivals from Brahmin domination. They combined nationalism with anti-casteism as the party's aims. Later on in the 1930s, Jedhe merged the non-Brahmin party with the Congress party and changed the Congress party in the Maharashtra region from an upper-caste dominated body to a more broadly based but Maratha-dominated party. Apart from Jedhe, most Congress leaders from the Maratha /Kunbi community remained aloof from the Samyukta Maharashtra campaign of the 1950s. However, they have dominated the state politics of Maharashtra since its inception in 1960.
The INC was the preferred party of the Maratha/Kunbi community in the early days of Maharashtra and the party was long without a major challenger, and enjoyed overwhelming support from the Maratha dominated sugar co-operatives and thousands of other cooperative organizations involved in the rural agricultural economy of the state such as marketing of dairy and vegetable produce, credit unions etc. The domination by Marathas of the cooperative institutions and with it the rural economic power allowed the community to control politics from the village level up to the Assembly and Lok Sabha seats. Since the 1980s, this group has also been active in setting up private educational institutions. Major past political figures of Congress party from Maharashtra such as Keshavrao Jedhe, Yashwantrao Chavan, Shankarrao Chavan and Vilasrao Deshmukh have been from this group. Sharad Pawar, who has been a towering figure in Maharashtrian and national politics, belongs to this group.
The state has had many Maratha government ministers and officials, as well as in local municipal councils, and panchayats. Marathas comprise around 32 per cent of the state population. 10 out of 16 chief ministers of Maharashtra hailed from the Maratha community as of 2012.
Marathas were declared a non-martial race by Lord Roberts but latter added back to the list in the early twentieth century although it was unclear whether this categorization referred to the Maratha caste or a subset of some Marathi castes. The British, despite praising the Military prowess of the Marathas, considered them inferior to Sikhs and Gurkhas in terms of other masculine traits due to prevailing Christian notions of manliness in battlefield as well as in practices. They disapproved of Maratha raiding tactics at war. However, racial theories have been discredited.
Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the Indian Army 1885–1893, who came up with the "martial race" theory, stated that in order to improve the quality of the army, there was a need to use "more warlike and hardy races" instead of the current sepoys from Bengal, the Tamils, Telugus and the Marathas. Based on this theory, Gurkhas and Sikhs were recruited by the British army and they were "construed as marital races" in preference to other races in India. Historian Sikata Banerjee notes a dissonance in British military opinions of the Maratha, wherein the British portrayed them as both "formidable opponents" and yet not "properly qualified" for fighting in the western manner, criticising the Maratha guerrilla tactics as an improper way of war. Banerjee cites an 1859 statement as emblematic of this disparity:
There is something noble in the carriage of an ordinary Rajput, and something vulgar in that of the most distinguished Mahratta. The Rajput is the most worthy antagonist, the Mahratta the most formidable enemy.
The Maratha Light Infantry regiment is one of the "oldest and most renowned" regiments of the Indian Army. Its First Battalion, also known as the Jangi Paltan ("Warrior Platoon"), traces its origins to 1768 as part of the Bombay Sepoys.
The battle cry of Maratha Light Infantry is Bol Shri Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai! ("Hail Victory to Emperor Shivaji!") in tribute to the Maratha sovereign and their motto is Shatrujeet (victory over enemy).
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Second, we have that Marathas regularly served in the armies of the Muslim Deccan kingdoms.
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- Haynes 1992, p. 65The prohibition of widow remarriage, Steele reported, served also to mark a ranking within caste groupings, distinguishing Maratha families claiming a Rajput descent and Kshatriya status from ordinary Kunbi communities of agriculturists: "such of them are the high Mahratta (as the families of the Satara Raja, and other houses of pure Mahratta descent) do not allow their widows to form Pat'. In the absence of any sort of statistical evidence, it is hard to know how accurate Steele's report was.
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The traditional caste hierarchy was headed by the brahmin castes-the deshasthas, chitpawans, karhades saraswats and the chandraseniya kayastha prabhus.
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High castes include all the Brahmin jatis, as well as a few other elite jatis (CKP and Pathare Prabhus).Low castes include formerly untouchable and backward castes (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Castes, as defined by the government of India). Medium castes are drawn mostly from the cultivator jatis, such as the Marathas and the Kunbis, as well as other traditional vocations that were not considered to be ritually impure.
- Bidyut Chakrabarty (2003). Communal Identity in India: Its Construction and Articulation in the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press.
Of the six groups, four are Brahmins; one is high non-brahmin caste, Chandraseniya Kayashth Prabhu (CKP), ranking next only to the Brahmins; and the other is a cultivating caste, Maratha (MK), belonging to the middle level of the hierarchy.
- V. B. Ghuge (1994). Rajarshi Shahu: a model ruler. kirti prakashan. p. 20.
In the Hindu social hierarchy the privileged classes were Brahmins, CKP's and others. Similarly other elite classes were Parsis and Europeans.
- Richard M. Eaton. A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives, Volume 1. Cambridge university press. pp. 191,200.
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- Dhanmanjiri Sathe (2017). The Political Economy of Land Acquisition in India: How a Village Stops Being One. Palgrave Macmillan.
For Maharashtra, Karve(1968) has reported that the line between Marathas and Kunbis is thin and sometimes difficult to ascertain
- Irawati Karmarkar Karve (1948). Anthropometric measurements of the Marathas. Deccan College Postgraduate Research Institute. p. 14.
page 14:These figures as they stand are obviously wrong. The Marathas had not doubled their numbers between 1901 and 1911 nor were the Kunbis reduced by almost three- fourths. Either the recorders had made wrong entries or what is more probable, "Kunbi" as a caste-category was no longer acceptable to cultivators who must have given up their old appellation, Kunbi, and taken up the caste name, Maratha. In 1921 under the common heading Maratha and Kunbi, the figure 48,86,484 is given and a note added that this head includes Marathas, Cabit, Kunbi and Khandesh Kunbis. (Vol. VIII, Bombay, Part I, pages 185-189.) ...page13: The agricultural community of the Maratha country is made up of Kunbis, Marathas and Malis. The first two are dry farmers depending solely on the monsoon rains for their crop, while the Malis work on irrigated lands working their fields all the year round on well-water or canals and growing fruit, vegetables, sugarcane and some varieties of cereals
- John Vincent Ferreira. Totemism in India. Oxford University Press. p. 191.
191:Together with the Marathas, the Maratha Kunbi belonged originally, says Enthoven, to the same caste; and both their exogamous kuls and exogamous devaks are identical with those of the Marathas. Enthoven opines that the totemic nature of their devak system suggests that they are largely of a non-Aryan origin.page202:The Kunbi cultivators are also Marathas but of a somewhat inferior social standing. The Maratha claim to belong to the ancient 96 Kshatriya families has no foundation in fact and may have been adopted after the Marathas became with Shivaji a power to be reckoned with.
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The Ghorpade family was Maratha and almost certainly illiterate. Record keepers were Brahmin, literate families.
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For example, the families having Bhosale and Ghorpade as surnames are believed to belong to the same clan-stock namely the Bhosale
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page 1426:There is difficulty in using such Census data, particularly because the various categories tended to be defined in different ways in different years, and different criteria were used in different provinces for classifying the population. Nonetheless, the overall trend is clear...page 1416: Table 1: Literacy of selected castes(male and female). literacy caste(1921,1931): CKP(57.3%,64.4%); Chitpawan(40.9%,55.2%); Deshastha(40.3%,55.8%);sonar(22%,23.1%);shimpi(tailor)(21.2%,29.6%);koshti(weaver)(11.0%,17.5%);Maratha in Bombay(?, 11.3%), sutar(4.0%,7.5%), teli(oil presser): (3.8%,7.5%), Maratha in ratnagiri(2.9%,?), dhobi(washerman) (2.9%, 5.7%); Mali(2.3%,8.7%);Mahar(1.2%,2.9%); dhangar(shepherd) (1.2%,2.7%); chambhar(1.1%, 2.0%); kumbhar(1.1%,2.0%), Mang(0.5%,1.6%), Kunbi(0.6%,?),Bania-Berar(27.9%, 46.6%), Rajput-Berar(8.7%,11.4%);page 1419:Male literacy rates were much higher than the male and female together, but show the same pattern, as does the literacy in English. Not only were the Brahmans and CKPs overwhelmingly dominant, but maratha kunbi figures were amazingly low, especially for bombay province. Even allowing for the effects of sampling differences, the low rates for the marathas kunbis are striking, and it is noteworthy that many artisan castes were more literate. This also tended to be true in the central provinces-Berar.
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In 1875, in Maharashtra, in the regions of Poona and Ahmadnagar, moneylenders (sowcars), most often Marwaris, became the object of coordinated attacks by the local peasantry of the Maratha caste: this episode, known as the Deccan riots...
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