Mumbai: After the unrest of the Patidar community in Gujarat for reservation, neighbouring Maharashtra is on the boil as the Marathas have hit the streets for a similar demand. While the Patidar stir led to the sacking of Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel, the series of agitations by Marathas in Maharashtra has become a cause for concern for the BJP leadership.
What's worrying the state government more as the Marathas have, in addition, asked for various other things, including scrapping of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (PAA) 1989 to rein in Dalits.
The rape and murder of a teenage Maratha girl at Kopardi village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra has polarised the Maratha community. What started as a local outrage to demand death penalty for the Dalit accused after the incident in July was nurtured into a show of strength almost a month later in Aurangabad on 9 August, triggering a series of silent processions in various districts. The demands include scrapping of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (PAA) 1989 and reservation for Marathas in education and employment.
New demands are being added as the response for the stir grows, like asking the state to take back the Maharashtra Bhushan award conferred on a Brahmin bard Babasaheb Purandare for allegedly insulting Jijamata, mother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The indignation has come at a time when the 16 percent quota granted by the state is in litigation and the powerful Maratha leaders are in political wilderness with a Brahmin Devendra Fadnavis becoming the Chief Minister after the BJP swept the polls in 2014.
The protesters claim that the community has been neglected by its ruling elite, Dalits are misusing the PAA, Maratha farmers have become paupers and their progress has been stalled by the reservation system. This is despite the fact that 10 out of the 18 chief ministers have been Marathas and in rural Maharashtra, Maratha leaders dominate socio-economic and political activities through cooperative empires in several sectors like sugar, dairy, banking, credit societies and educational institutions situated mainly on government land obtained at a nominal lease.
It is true that a section of Marathas engaged in traditional farming for decades is yet to come to terms with the changing world. Taking pride in lineage, landholdings and socio-political dominance, the emotionally secure Maratha neglected education as well as the changing scenario in agro-business. This is in sharp contrast to Dalits who had little or no land, but got educated and employment, guided by BR Ambedkar, who asked them to migrate to cities and get educated to counter caste apartheid. The Marathas attribute the success of Dalits to the quota system and want to shed their traditional opposition to caste-based reservation. The community feels further challenged by the Kopardi incident, which is viewed as caste arrogance of Dalits, especially after the success of a recent Marathi blockbuster Sairat (in which a Dalit boy falls in love with a Maratha girl). The community apparently feels helpless, with its powerful leaders in wilderness, the Maratha quota challenged in the court and constitutional provisions giving an edge to Dalits.
The moot question is whether the community is so naïve on both issues (of PAA and quota) as not to understand the implication of their demands. The PAA is a Union law and the state government can neither repeal nor amend the Act, under which the conviction rate in the state is just six percent. Also, can a legislation be scrapped even if some people are misusing it? Many laws, like section 498 (a) of the IPC (against dowry harassment) and the PCPNDT Act (against sex determination tests) have been misused by some people, but overall, they still provide protection in genuine cases and nobody demands that they be scrapped.
The demand for Maratha quota had been rejected by the Girish Bapat committee, after which the previous government in the state rejected the committee’s report and appointed the Narayan Rane panel in the run up to the last elections. Since the OBCs were up in arms to share their quota with Marathas, the Rane panel granted a separate 16 percent reservation to Marathas. The percentage of reservation in the state, which was 52, went up to 73, violating the maximum limit of 50 percent set by the Supreme Court.
The major issue now for the Fadnavis government is how to accommodate the Maratha quota within the stipulated limit. The Dalits have traditionally voted for the Congress and NCP. The BJP is struggling to build its base among Dalit voters in Maharashtra and its prize catch has been Republican Party of India leader Ramdas Athawale, who has been accommodated in the Rajya Sabha and made a minister of state in the Modi cabinet. Athawale was an ally of Sharad Pawar till 2009 when the former was defeated in the Lok Sabha polls in Shirdi, attributing his defeat to local Maratha leaders from Congress and NCP. Athawale eventually formed an alliance with the Shiv Sena and later, became an ally of the BJP.
The BJP is trying to prevent a caste flareup in Maharashtra with the help of Athawale. A joint rally of Marathas and Dalits has been planned in Ahmednagar district to pacify raging tempers from both sides. Dalits have opposed scrapping of the PAA and blamed Maratha leaders for misusing Dalits to settle scores with their rivals in rural Maharashtra.
A veiled demand is now being made by Maratha protesters that the entire reservation system should only be based on the economic criterion, so that only the poor get benefits. Since the OBCs already have a creamy layer criterion, the demand hints at scrapping the caste-based system altogether, or applying creamy layer to quotas for SCs and STs.
The current fury of Marathas is largely silent and constrained, but has the potential of a casteist flare up in the state. On both the demands (quota and PAA) the Marathas may find takers in other states, making it a national issue.
The whole exercise is not just for economics, but a battle of socio-economic-political supremacy by appealing to sentiments of Marathas. Or else, why would the demand to strip Purandare of the state award be on the list of the protesters? It is reminiscent of the traditional rivalry between Marathas and Brahmins, especially Brahmin historians who wrote on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, influencing James Laine’s controversial book on Shivaji.