Maratha quota row in Maharashtra: Why do politically powerful and relatively rich communities need reservations?

Those familiar with the Constituent Assembly debates know that “equality of opportunity” for all citizens was one of the core principles which guided the framing of the Constitution of India. Among others, Dr BR Ambekar stood for this and if he agreed to the reservation for “backward” communities for ten years, it was to reconcile the different stands of views that emerged during the debate – “equal opportunity”; “no reservations of any sort for any class or community” and a “massive opinion” that there must be a provision “for the entry of certain communities which have so far been outside the administration”.

Without going into the merits of the latest report of the State Backward Class Commission on the basis of which the Maharashtra government has declared its intention to announce reservations for the Marathas, here is some food for thought.

The State Backward Class Commission had, in 2008, said that “Marathas are both economically and politically a forward caste…They had never faced social stigma to invite a backward class status”. The Marathas have always dominated state politics; out of 17 chief ministers since 1960, 10 have been Marathas, starting with the first one, Yashwantrao Chavan (Devendra Fadnavis is a Brahmin). About half or more of the MLAs have been Marathas in these years. Further, most of the educational institutions, sugar factories and cooperative banks are controlled by the Marathas.
Why are they seeking reservation then? It is interesting to look at a study by Ashwini Deshpande of Delhi School of Economics and Rajesh Ramachandran of Goethe University, published in December 2016. It examines the claims of three communities – the Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana and Patels in Gujarat – on their claims to be classified as OBCs for the purpose of reservations. Using data from the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), they compared the socio-economic indicators of these three with the Brahmins, other forward castes, existing OBCs and SCs & STs. Their conclusion: “Their (Marathas, Jats and Patels) claim to backwardness is not justified by empirical data”.

Maratha Community members holding a protest rally in Navi Mumbai. File image. PTI

Maratha Community members holding a protest rally in Navi Mumbai. File image. PTI

The study explains that there is discontent and anxiety in these three communities as they feel their power slipping away and that the real power rests with corporations, and the state covertly or overtly acts in the interest of these corporations. These communities are also ill-prepared to shift towards urban, formal sector livelihood opportunities. Thus, the study calls for addressing their anxiety, while firmly stating that giving reservations to these relatively richer and powerful communities would dilute the small and shrinking entitlement for communities that are truly disadvantaged and discriminated against.

It must, however, be said that the Maharashtra Backward Class Commission and government have found a clever way to overcome limitations on reservation (should not exceed 50 percent) or dilution of the stakes of the OBCs, which would lead to heartburns and protests, by inventing a new class altogether – describing the Marathas as “socially and educationally backward class (SEBC). This should give ideas to the Jats, Gujjars, Patels, Rajputs and Brahmins fighting similar battles in Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat for decades with little success and are finding the court hurdle difficult to circumvent.

This is not to say that some of the states don’t have more than 50 percent quota. They do. Maharashtra itself has 52 percent. So is the case with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which have 69 percent and 73 percent reservations respectively. From time to time, the apex court has desisted from striking down such reservations by giving the states time to collect caste-wise data to justify allocation of higher quotas to different groups. In fact, the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011 was as much about poverty count as about the caste compositions. While most of the findings of the SECC are in the public domain, the caste composition data has not yet been made public.

The Maharashtra government’s decision to grant reservations in education and jobs to the Marathas, who constitute about 33 percent of the population and are demanding 16 percent quota, is more in keeping with the political expediency of the time. There is a clear pattern to it. Politically powerful and relatively rich communities (like Marathas in Maharashtra, Patels in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana and Gujjars in Rajasthan) paralyse life through bandhs and violence. The state government succumbs and declares a quota which then runs into legal hurdles. The state governments are aware of the legal hurdle and yet seek to buy peace for the time with predictable results. This is a very lazy way of dealing with the issue and it is no wonder the demands for reservations keep surfacing every now and then.

In fact, it is surprising that there has been very little meaningful dialogue in the country. There have been sporadic comments now and then, from political parties and others, but no structured debate to frame an appropriate policy response. Should Parliament, for example, discuss it the way the Constituent Assembly did for days while deciding the issue – from the whos and whys to the time limits? Should leading political parties like the BJP and Congress lay out a clear policy framework to govern their state governments on the issue? The answer to both is undoubtedly in the affirmative. And the civil society and academics should be an integral part of such debates.

A very good starting point for this would be to release the SECC 2011 data regarding different communities – their number as well as their socio-economic conditions. This would make it easy to compare their relative status (or backwardness) and decide the issue on merit. Equally important would be to seek answers to several vexed questions like why the forward, relatively rich and powerful communities are demanding reservations, which really are the “backward” communities that need support and what economic or social policy responses needed to eliminate the need for such demands.

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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2018 21:39:43 IST

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