Reservation Quota Agitation by Marathas

NewsBharati    13-Sep-2023 15:04:32 PM   
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Sharad Pawar of the NCP and Uddhav Thackeray of Shiv Sena have seized the opportunity of the ongoing “Reservation Quota Agitation by Marathas”. By doing so, they have only added: “Fuel to the Fire”.

The Congress Party is demanding a special session of Maharashtra State Assembly to be convened knowing full well that all they can do is to pass a resolution and submit it to the Central government for action. And, its reason is to apportion the blame on the BJP-led NDA for not enacting an Act. In turn, the BJP-led NDA will invoke the case in the Supreme Court.
maratha reservation 

All political leaders and parties know very well that providing the “Reservation Quota for the Marathas” will open a “Pandora Box” of agitations in other States from different castes. In retrospect, what were all the political parties doing for the past 75 years to resolve the Quota issues?

Ipso facto, the Marathas dominated the politics from the village level to the Assembly and Lok Sabha seats with their control over cooperative institutions and rural economic power. The state has had many Maratha government ministers and officials, as well as in local municipal councils, and Panchayats. For example, the Marathas had many towering political figures of the Congress party from Maharashtra such as Panjabrao Deshmukh, Keshavrao Jedhe, Yashwantrao Chavan, Shankarrao Chavan, and Vilasrao Deshmukh. Today, Sharad Pawar is the towering figure in Maharashtra and national politics.

Thus, the blame for the failure to provide “Reservation Quota for the Marathas” squarely lies on all towering leaders of the Congress party? Isn’t it true that they failed to overcome the constitutional-cum-legal hurdle – 50% limit for reservations during their rule?

Let me briefly review the key developments in the past. The demand for reservations for Marathas first came in 1981, when Mathadi Labor Union leader Annasaheb Patil took out a Morcha (demonstration) in Mumbai. However, the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in late 1980s revived the demand for Maratha quota in jobs and education.

In 1991, the Maratha Seva Sangh demanded an OBC status for the Marathas. In 1997, the Maratha Seva Sangh had held one of the first large-scale demonstrations for the demand. In 2000, the issue was once again raised by some NCP leaders. Some of the political parties included it in their election manifestos. By 2009, even former Chief Ministers Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh had lent support to the cause – pursuit of vote-bank politics.

In 2018, several incidents of violence were reported due to agitation over non-inclusion of the Maratha caste in the OBC category. The agitation re-erupted in July, when the Maratha Kranti Morcha protests turned violent - protesters attacked police and torched police vehicles. In Navi Mumbai itself, hundreds of vehicles were torched and buses were set on fire in Mumbai and Pune.

From time to time, different commissions were appointed to study the issue without any conclusive results. In 2013, CM Prithviraj Chavan constituted a committee, which conducted a survey and concluded that Marathas were a backward class. On July 9th 2014, the Governor was advised to pass the Maharashtra State Reservation for Educationally and Socially Backward Category (SEBC) Ordinance, 2014. It granted 16% reservation for Marathas in public employment and higher education. Five percent was also reserved for some Muslim communities based on a 2013 report by Rahman Committee.

The ordinance was immediately challenged at the Bombay High Court. The petitioners argued it exceeded the 50% ceiling on reservations set by the Supreme Court. Also, they failed to provide quantitative data indicating backwardness. In its interim order on November 14th 2014, the Court partially stayed the Ordinance, until full arguments could be heard. The new Government, led by CM Devendra Fadnavis, passed the Ordinance on 9th January 2015 as an Act. However, the provision for Muslim communities was dropped. In April 2016, the Bombay High Court stayed the Act.

The Government then constituted a statutory commission to look into the issue. The Commission submitted a report on November 15th 2018. The report recommended 12% reservation in higher education and 13% in public employment. Promptly once again, on 30th November, the SEBC Act, 2018 was made law. However, it provided for 16% reservations overall.

To cut short the legal battle in 2021, the larger Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the 50% rule. Also, it noted that Marathas were politically dominant. Therefore, it held that there was no justified exception to breach the limit. Further, in a 3:2 split, the Supreme Court struck down the SEBC Act, 2018 for violating the 50% ceiling and the 102nd Constitutional Amendment. The Central Government has already filed a review petition.

Following the verdict, CM Uddhav Thackeray requested the Prime Minister and President to provide for Maratha reservations. He sought to revisit the Court’s interpretation of the 102nd Amendment in particular. This verdict has now left not just one, but two legal hurdles to granting Maratha reservation.

Next, a brief review of the real status of the Marathas. They composed 96 clans, originally formed in the earlier centuries from the amalgamation of families from the peasant (Kunbi), shepherd (Dhangar), blacksmith (Lohar), and carpenter (Sutar), Bhandari, Thakar castes in Maharashtra. The Marathi-speaking warrior group from the western Deccan Plateau (present-day Maharashtra) rose to prominence by establishing Hindavi Swarajya (meaning "self-rule of Hindus"). Many of them took to military service in the 16th century for the Deccan sultanates or the Mughals. Kunbis served the Muslim rulers, prospered, and over time adopted different customs like different dressing styles, employed genealogists, started identifying as Maratha, and caste boundaries solidified between them. Shivaji's father, Shahaji, originally served in those Muslim armies. Many Marathas were granted hereditary fiefs by the Sultanates and Mughals for their service.

Later in the 17th and 18th centuries, they served in the armies of the Maratha Empire, founded by Shivaji, a Maratha Kunbi by caste. The top layer of the Marathas—with surnames like Deshmukh, Bhonsle, More, Shirke, Jadhav—claim that they are the Kshatriyas (warriors), the rest belong to a predominantly agrarian sub-caste called Kunbi. The leading Maratha families—Sindhia, Holkar, Bhonsle, and Gaekwar—extended their conquests in northern and central India and became more independent and difficult to control. The Holkar family originally belonged to the Dhangar (shepherd) caste but was given an "arch-Maratha" identity. The other example is of the Bhonsles who originated from the Deccan tiller-plainsmen. Add to them, the Shinde (also known as Scindia Maratha clan) originated from the Kunbi caste and the Scindia's founder was a servant of the Peshwa.

Modern research has revealed that the Marathas and Kunbi have the same origin. In the nineteenth century, economic prosperity rather than martial service to the Muslims replaced the mobility into Maratha identity. The term Maratha became a marker of an endogamous caste for them.

As per Iravati Karve, an anthropologist, 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.

In the Thane District Gazetteer of 1882, the term was used to denote elite layers within various castes: for example, "Maratha-Agri" within the Agri caste and "Maratha-Koli" within the Koli caste. 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.

From 1900 onwards, the Satyashodhak Samaj movement defined the Marathas as a broader social category of non-Brahmin groups. 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. These non-Brahmins gained prominence in the 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 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.

Less known is the fact that 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.

Shiv Sena's strength mainly came from the Maratha support which it drew away from the Congress. In 1990, 24 MLAs elected from Shiv Sena were Marathas which increased to 33 in 2004 (more than 50%). Thus, researcher Vora concludes that the Shiv Sena has been emerging as a "Maratha Party".

As per observers, Maratha Seva Sangh and its youth wing Sambhaji Brigade is trying to divide the Hindu community. The group distances itself from the Hindu nationalist parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena and invokes a secular anti-Brahmin genealogy from Shivaji, Tukaram, Jyotirao Phule and B. R. Ambedkar.

Their early goals were capturing the Ganpati and Shivaji festivals from Brahmin domination. They combined nationalism with anti-casteism as the party's aims. The organization has been described as having an anti-Brahmin caste stand and has been repeatedly criticized for its extremist views.

Sambhaji Brigade demands reservation for the Maratha community and wants inclusion of Marathas in Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. They also demand free education for Maratha children and registered marriages instead of religious ceremonies.

Known for its controversial and often violent agitations like the attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune in January 2004, the Sambhaji Brigade came into limelight. In late 2004, Maratha Seva Sangh announced that they had established a new religion called Shiv Dharma to protest "Vedic Brahmanism" and oppose Hinduism. The details of this are published in Jijau Brigade VA Sambhaji Brigade Sanskarmala, Maratha Sanskarmala I.

Sambhaji Brigade protests/attacks include: protest to remove the statue of Dadoji Kondadev from Lal Mahal in Pune; protest and attack against a dog's (Waghya) statue located on Raigad Fort next to Shivaji's memorial; In January 2017, four Sambhaji Brigade followers pulled down a bust of celebrated Marathi playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari which was located in Sambhaji Park in central Pune; in December 2018, Ambedkarite lawyer Gunaratna Sadavarte was attacked; and on 5 December 2021, ink hurled at a journalist and writer Girish Kuber in Nashik.

The recent outbreak of protests in Maharashtra and the postures of political parties need to be viewed from the above historical background. The “Reservation Quota Agitation” is a sensitive political issue that cannot be set aside lightly by all political parties knowing full well the legal hurdle to overcome – a la Pandora Box at the national level. For the sake of votes, all political parties would champion to increase the “Reservation Quota” ceiling beyond 50%.

Brig. G B Reddy (Retd)

G B Reddy, former Brigadier has seen frontline battles in India-China War in 1962, India-Pakistan War in 1965, and India-Pakistan War in 1971 (Liberation of Bangladesh). He has served in various insurgency areas to include Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and West Bengal at the height of Naxal problem; Punjab, J & K and IPKF in Sri Lanka.

Author of seven books and numerous articles covering national security strategy, international, national and local political and social developments, he participated in international and national seminars whilst serving as Consultant/Senior Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad. He also served in Corporate Assignments of Vice-President, Kitply Industries and C.E.O, Hilton Tobacco Ltd.

He is a Graduate of National Defense College, New Delhi, Command and Staff College in Canada, Long and Senior Defense Management Programs at College of Defense Management in Hyderabad. He has served on the faculties of Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, College of Combat, and Infantry School, Mhow.

He was awarded Ati Vishist Seva Medal for Distinguished Service of an Exceptional Order in Nagaland 1986. Menitoned-in-Despatches for gallantry in 1971 war. Chief of Army Staff Commendation Medal in 1977 for exceptional contribution for faculty development.

Seven books published: 1) Rising Dragon – China’s Holistic Security Strategic Perspective; 2) Nation in Crisis – Dimensions of National Security and Terrorism; 3) In Search of National Values - Withering Democracy, Secularism and Socialism; 4) India’s Nuclear Dilemmas; 5) Fight Against Corruption and Leadership Decay; 6) Democracy in Peril; and, 7) Cost Effective Rural Housing Technologies.