Falling Over Backwards (Marathas & Reservation)

Falling Over Backwards (Marathas & Reservation)A Maratha Rally
Snapshot
  • Why the Marathas are demanding reservation, and why they are unlikely to get it 

Why are the Marathas, who once called for the scrapping of caste-based reservation, demanding it now?

In July this year, a 14-year-old girl belonging to the Maratha community was gang-raped, brutally murdered and her body mutilated in Kopardi, in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. Three Dalit youths accused of the murder were arrested immediately. The incident served as a trigger for a massive mobilisation by Maratha organisations across the state, culminating in a huge protest meet that was held in Navi Mumbai on 21 September.

Among the major demands of what has been described as a leaderless, 'faceless' mass protest movement included:

- Rigorous punishment to those accused of the heinous murder in Kopardi

- Reservation for the Maratha community in educational institutions and government jobs

- Scrapping of the draconian Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act

Over the last few years, Maharashtra has seen several agitations demanding reservation for the Maratha community under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota. However, the demand for reservation has been categorically rejected by various commissions set up by both the state and central governments. This includes the Kalelkar Commission (1955), the Mandal Commission (1980) and the Central Backward Classes Commission (2004).

Several reports of the state backward classes commissions, including most recently that of the Bapat Commission, have also rejected the Maratha demand for reservation. Justice Bapat was of the opinion that including the Marathas under the OBC category would be against any semblance of social justice. Ignoring the repeated dismissal of this demand by various committees, the Maratha-elite-dominated Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government, with an eye on its electoral fortunes, went ahead and appointed yet another committee, led this time by Narayana Rame, to examine this matter.

In a desperate attempt, in the run up to the 2014 elections, the Congress-NCP government (after vacillating for 15 years in power) granted the community 16 percent reservation in education and jobs (and along with it, also introduced 5 percent quota for Muslims). However, the Bombay High Court on Friday (23 September) quashed the decision to give 16 percent reservation to the Marathas. The bench headed by Chief Justice Mohit Shah at the Supreme Court had already laid down the law that reservation cannot exceed 50 percent of the total seats.

The Maratha-Kunbi Identity

The composite Maratha-Kunbi caste constitutes about 32-33 percent of Maharashtra's population. Various castes numbering over 350 are currently categorised as OBCs and account for 26 percent. The Dalits are estimated to account for around 11 per cent.

The Maratha-Kunbis are a highly stratified caste cluster, largely comprising the peasant cultivators but reaching up to feudal aristocrats and rulers. It must be noted at this point that reservations already exist for a section of the Maratha community. The Mandal Commission has included the Kunbi section in the OBC category. Kunbis are viewed as marginal land-tilling peasantry, in contrast to the aristocratic Marathas.

The inclusion of the Kunbis in the OBC category by the Mandal Commission had posed a considerable challenge to the Maratha vanguard, who found themselves in a dilemma as this had posed a threat to the carefully constructed omnibus caste identity. This even led to the formation of an organisation called Maratha Mahasangh, which pleaded for the adoption of an economic criterion in granting reservations. The Mahasangh, under the leadership of Annasaheb Patil, had in fact agitated for the total revocation of caste-based reservation, including for Dalits, and advocating adopting an economic criterion.

Ironically, the current demand for reservation by the Maratha community rests on the contention that the Maratha and Kunbi communities are the same. This, prima facie, appears to be a false claim, as several commissions have repeatedly established that they are different groups; for instance, Maratha elite always opposed Kunbis' attempts to gain upward mobility and developed a strict internal hierarchy within. Also, the Marathas and the Kunbis don't intermarry. Historically too, the Marathas differentiated themselves from the Kunbi peasants by virtue of their links with the ruling dynasties. It was only in the twentieth century that the Kunbis were subsumed into the larger Maratha identity to establish numerical preponderance and political supremacy.

Many Kunbis themselves are fiercely opposed to the idea of Maratha inclusion in the OBC list, pointing out that the political and economic stranglehold of the Marathas will ensure that they usurp all the reserved seats and posts. Many other OBC groups who are engaged in a constant struggle with the Marathas, like the Vanjaris, Telis, Leva Patils and Agris are also bitterly opposed to the idea of extending the OBC status to the Marathas.

Why would a group that still dominates the socio-economic landscape of the state demand reservation?

Political observers attribute several reasons for this, but chief among them include:

1. Perceived loss of political power

In the 2014 assembly election, there were only 107 Marathas in the House of 288. To compare, the corresponding numbers of the Maratha contingent in the state assembly in 1962, 1990 and 2004 were 137, 140 and 135 respectively. Of the 18 chief ministers that have held office in the state, a majority of them have been from the Maratha community.

The steady decline in the Maratha hold over the state's political landscape has been accompanied by the rise of OBCs, thanks to the smart social engineering strategy by the Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially dating back to the days of Gopinath Munde. The strength of the OBC MLAs, who are spread across various parties, has steadily risen from a paltry 22 in 1962 to 51 in 1990 and later, 48 in 2004 to 63 in 2014. The BJP has nurtured several leaders from the OBC community, including N S Farande, Anna Dange, Pandurang Fundkar, Gopinath Munde, Eknath Khadse, Sudhir Mungantiwar and Vinod Tawde.

2. The decline in agriculture

Rooted in origin as an agriculturist kshatriya (warrior) caste, the Maratha community continues to remain largely agrarian, with a significant section of it continuing to be small and marginal farmers.

Not very different from the larger trend in India, agriculture in Maharashtra, while accounting for a low share of state GDP, continues to employ a majority of the workforce. As noted political commentator Suhas Palshikar observes, "While agriculture in the state’s income has gone below 12 per cent, more than half of the workforce continues to be engaged in agriculture. And though Maharashtra’s economy has picked up since 2000-01 (the growth rate of GSDP reached 10 per cent in 2007-08, slumped to 3.4 per cent in 2008-09 and was estimated to pick up again to over 8 per cent the next year), growth in agriculture remained at an abysmal 1.8 per cent for 2009-10."

He also adds that "in addition to the indebtedness created by agrarian distress, the changing character of agriculture in the state has further aggravated the internal differentiation within the farming community of Maharashtra. The growing phenomenon of contract-based cropping, mainly for cash crops, has left out the peasantry growing coarse cereals. Simultaneously, agrarian distress also pushes members of peasant and farmer families into migrating to urban centres, mostly as an unskilled or semi-skilled workforce."

3. Fadnavis's Political Moves

The Devendra Fadnavis government has been making a systematic attempt to dismantle the network of cooperatives which run various facets of Maharashtra's economy. These cooperatives have been a source of financial and political clout since the 1960s, and for most part have been dominated by Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) since 1990s. In areas of agriculture marketing, sugar factories, milk marketing and banks, these cooperatives have run like a parallel source of clout for the NCP, serving as the staging area for political machinations.

In the last few months, the Fadnavis government has been nipping at the heels of some of these cooperatives and other quasi-economic bodies like education trusts. The government took fruits and vegetables out of the purview of agriculture marketing committees or mandis in July this year. This segment has an estimated trade value of 10000 cr. Cutting the middlemen turns the tap off on political funding as well. This was followed by moves to make milk cooperatives free of intermediary controls. There have been raids on the famed 'edupreneurs' in the recent few weeks as well. These moves collectively were seen as an attempt to hit at the very root of the source of NCP power in Maharashtra.

The Way Forward

Given that the Supreme Court has ruled against granting more than 50 percent of the seats as reservation, there is limited room for maneuverability for the state government to press ahead with the Maratha demand for reservation. Even if the state government makes a strong case for reservation in the highest court, it would be impossible to make it for a hegemonic upper caste group that dominated the political and social sectors in the state. One possible option is to remove the 50 percent ceiling, but that would have to be initiated by the union government itself - something we don't foresee happening as yet.

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