The Maratha agitation for reservation was running out of steam last year, but now it seems to be gathering storm by the day with lakhs of agitators in Osmanabad and Beed in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra coming together this week to demand quota in jobs and education.
The alleged misuse of a law called Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act against upper castes is generally believed to have triggered the agitation, but there is also growing restlessness in the community, comprising by and large of farmers, about being left behind by other groups who have benefitted from reservations. Marathas are one-third (34%) of the state’s population and so far have been considered as a privileged group which has given many chief ministers to Maharashtra.
The Congress-NCP government in the state had set aside 16% reservation for the community in 2014, but that was soon after struck down by the courts. Professor Prakash Pawar, who teaches at the Shivaji University in Kolhapur, says the agitation is only likely to be intensified as resentment takes root among the masses that they have got a raw deal over the years.
One must distinguish between the Maratha ruling elite and the masses, says Pawar. There has been widespread discontent among the Maratha middle classes against the rural elite for years: a fact that resulted in the defeat of he Congress and the NCP in the 2014 elections. “But now with the current dispensation somewhat indifferent to their demands and the massive social churning underway in other states like Gujarat and Haryana, where Patidars and Jats have agitated violently for similar reservation, Maratha masses do not see why they should be left behind in any manner,” he says.
The current agitation has landless Marathas as well as the privileged ones, but it is the middle classes among the Marathas who have the most at stake in this agitation, says Pawar.
In the last two years there has been a considerable shift in the socio-economic dimensions of the state and Marathas are now greatly restless as they see other communities, particularly Dalits, secure jobs and other privileges on the basis of the reservations granted to them and are determined for a slice of the same. “In the years past, Marathas and Kunbis (who are 19% of the overall community of Marathas) were either rulers or farmers. Farming was a respectable profession but now, given the rural distress in large parts of the country and the state, they are coming off worse than those communities and groups who were traditionally on the lower rungs of the social ladder, says Dr Bhalchandra Kango, a Communist activist.
“Rich or poor, they were once on the higher rungs of the social ladder. But now they see Dalits and other classes they have traditionally considered socially inferior get jobs in government and return to the villages as talatis and tehsildars (revenue officials) whom they must defer to. That is causing much resentment in an atmosphere where farming is considerably un-remunerative these days. The youth only want government jobs to sustain themselves and without these reservations they come off second best and that causes greater resentment,” says Kango.
Both the Congress and the NCP are once again making a bid to consolidate the Maratha vote bank. Narayan Rane, who headed the committee that recommended reservations for the community in 2014 says “There should be no reason why this should not be granted to them. We are not asking for a portion of the reservation already granted to other groups. We are asking for an independent quota for the Marathas.”
Maratha chief ministers didn’t perceive the need to give reservations to Marathas. During the Mandal agitation of the late 1980s when Sharad Pawar, who is now eyeing this vote bank again, had declared that Marathas were not as underprivileged as other Other Backward Classes. Rane rejects this argument, saying: “One Maratha chief minister or two does not bring anything to the large masses of population. If a particular leader is chief minister, does that then mean that the whole community are automatically privileged?”
That is as bold an argument as it goes but it is also an admission of the failure of past governments to factor in the growing aspirations of the people in a milieu of farming debts, crop failures, resultant suicides and the pressures of a global market. The agitation, then, is only likely to grow.