The Maratha caste agitation seeking blanket inclusion in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) list in the run up to elections has once again put the Maharashtra politics on a boil.
After Supreme Court revoked the provisions made for Maratha Reservation in 2021, agitators led by Manoj Jarange in the renewed season of protest have claimed that Maratha and Kunbi are the alternate names of the same caste. Since the Kunbi grouping has been already listed as an OBC in the state list, the agitators have been demanding that all Maratha applicants be given certificates stating that they are Kunbis.
In response to the Maratha demand and protest rallies, the OBC leaders across party lines from the state had joined hands to conduct OBC mahamorchas.
However, apart from the caste tensions, the recent claims made by the Maratha agitators has not only brought up the issue of ambiguous caste nomenclatures and policy loopholes, issuance of a resolution by the state government ostensibly in favour of the community, has divided the otherwise cohesive all-party OBC leaders front into two.
While the faction led by the OBC leader and cabinet minister Chhagan Bhujbal believes that the government's recent decision will only embolden the existing Maratha hegemony in all areas of polity and governance, the other faction represented by Rashtriya OBC Mahasangha chief Babanrao Taywade believes that this will not be the case.
Who Are Marathas And What Are Their Demands?
Reservation for Marathas, a numerically as well as socio-politically dominant landed caste in Maharashtra, has been a long standing demand. The community is said to account for nearly 35 per cent of the state's population, thus making their demands for any political party hard to ignore.
The agitation initially started in 1982 with the Annasaheb Patil-led Akhil Bharatiya Maratha Mahasangha issuing a list of nine demands. Patil had then demanded that reservation be given to eligible candidates only on the basis of ‘economic backwardness’ and not on the basis of ‘caste’.
However, in the subsequent decades, with the OBC reservation recommended by the Mandal Commission coming into force, the demand for reservation for Marathas based on caste grounds, gained momentum.
The previous season of Maratha agitation saw lakhs marching on the streets in Maharashtra during the leadership of Devendra Fadnavis from 2014 to 2019. This was seen as a challenge by the Sharad Pawar-led Maratha dominated Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to the young ‘Brahmin’ chief minister.
Fadnavis had then managed to ensure a smooth path for Maratha reservation through the Bombay High Court in 2019 by creating a separate category for Marathas titled Socially and Educationally Backward Caste (SEBC). However, the reservation failed to withstand the objections raised in the Supreme Court and thus was declared null and void by the apex court in 2021.
The community has now demanded issuance of Kunbi certificates to all Marathas on the basis of ‘sage soyre’ (meaning relatives of same caste inter-related by marriages). This is apart from other demands such as setting up government hostels for Maratha students in all districts of the state and free education up till post graduation for the community's youth.
Who Are Kunbis ?
Kunbi is a generic term used to describe several agrarian castes in western and central India. Prior to the enlisting of Patidars, a dominant landed cum trading caste from Gujarat, as Leuva and Kadva Patidars, the community members were known as Kanbis.
In Maharashtra, Kunbis are considered by the Marathas to be a sub-caste of the latter’s larger community which is divided into several clans and sub-groups.
However, since the Kunbis of the coastal Konkan region were found to be socio-economically backward by several commissions and because the landed Marathas rarely established marital relations with the former, Kunbis were included in the OBC list of the Mandal Report.
Bhujbal Faction’s Fear Of All-Round Maratha Hegemony
The faction led by the prominent OBC leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who belongs to the Ajit Pawar led faction of NCP, has consistently opposed the Maratha agitation leader Manoj Jarange’s demand for considering Marathas as an OBC in its entirety.
“I am not opposed to the idea of giving reservation to Marathas. However, that shouldn’t be through the OBC reservation route. The government should make separate provisions,” Bhujbal said in a recently conducted interview.
The leader who belongs to the influential Mali community believes that issuing ‘Kunbi certificates’ to all Marathas, would definitely endanger the interests of the other smaller castes within the OBC.
“Handing out Kunbi certificates to all Marathas who seek it, will not only lead to overcrowding within the 27 per cent reserved seats meant for OBCs in education and government jobs in the state, but will also hurt the political representation of other smaller OBC caste (referring to the OBC reserved seats in local self-government bodies),” Bhujbal added.
Apart from this, in his several interviews given in the past few months, Bhujbal also said that he had come across many instances of individuals "bribing revenue officials attached to the Tehsildar's office to make forged 'Kunbi' entries against the name of their paternal ancestors".
What Does The Babanrao Taywade Faction Say?
Babanrao Taywade, the chief of the Vidarbha based Rashtriya OBC Mahasangha was seen sharing platform with Bhujbal and other OBC leaders in the OBC mahamorchas before the Maharashtra government issued a government resolution (GR). However, now his stance stands changed.
The resolution issued on 26 January 2024 states:
1. That those applicants from the Maratha caste, whose ancestor on paternal side until three generations back has been registered as ‘Kunbi’ in revenue records, will be eligible to seek Kunbi certificate and OBC reservation benefits.
2. It also states that if an individual doesn’t have an ancestor listed as ‘Kunbi’ he can still seek the certificate by proving his/her relation with a relative who has the Kunbi certificate.
According to Taywade, there is ‘nothing new’ in this GR and that those who had their ancestors registered as ‘Kunbi’ have already received the certificates for the same.
Taywade also said that this will not affect the OBC reservation for other smaller OBC castes in any way, not even in terms of political reservation.
What Do The Experts Say?
Most academicians and political observers are of the view same as that of Taywade.
Professor Nachiket Paradkar, Assistant Professor of History at Mumbai’s Patkar-Varde College and a researcher of the early modern and colonial society in western India, is of the view that the recent GR simply reiterates the procedure previously laid down for issuing OBC caste certificates.
“Even though it (GR) mentions that ‘sage-soyre’ of Maratha applicants be also considered eligible for Kunbi Certificate, in the past too, applicants from the Maratha caste who had a relative on paternal side registered as Kunbi, have secured certificates without much trouble,” Paradkar said.
“If an applicant for Kunbi certificate neither had his/her father or grandfather registered as Kunbi in records, he/she could still seek the same by producing a family tree consisting of any distant relative from the previous generation who is noted as Kunbi, provided that the relative is from the paternal side,” he added.
Another academician on condition of anonymity said that Bhujbal’s allegation of attempts to make forged entries into revenue records to show any paternal ancestor as Kunbi is not ‘entirely false'.
“I have come across several acquaintances who publicly claimed that they belonged to the elite 96 Kuli-Maratha grouping, which is in the general category, but had sought ‘Kunbi certificate’ for admissions into colleges and government jobs by subverting existing procedures,” he said.
“However, with increased scrutiny and vigilance, such malpractices have been curbed. Thus, I don’t feel that this will affect other OBC castes. Bhujbal’s rhetoric seems to be politically charged. More importantly, he is with NCP. So, even though he is with the Ajit Pawar faction, this might also be an attempt to wean away BJP’s OBC support base through fear mongering,” he added.
What's the road ahead?
The state government has placed its recently issued resolution for Maratha-Kunbis in public domain and has invited objections if any until 16 February, 2024.
Post this date, if the resolution survives any petitions challenging its validity in the Bombay High Court or further in the Supreme Court, the government in order to pacify other OBC groups might possibly increase the present 27 per cent reservation for the category to 42 per cent. This will increase the overall reservation in the state to 77 percent.
As of now, the overall reservation in Maharashtra stands at 52 per cent along with the 10 per cent quota for the economically backward from unreserved category.
Staff Writer at Swarajya
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