India’s caste cauldron is beginning to boil once again. The caste currently in action mode is the numerically strong and politically dominant Marathas of Maharashtra, who have been organising street protests (but, thankfully, without violence) in the state, demanding reservations and a repeal or reworking of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.
The trigger was, apparently, the rape of a Maratha girl, allegedly by three Dalits, at Kopardi, a village in Ahmednagar, which then morphed into demands for the abolition of the Act to punish atrocities against Dalits and finally for reservations in jobs. The Marathas, who have often treated Dalits badly, believe false cases are being lodged by Dalits against them, and want the Act changed. But it is unlikely to happen, for there will be huge Dalit resistance to this, as most of the victims of caste violence have been Dalits.
The numerically strong Marathas, who constitute about a third of the state’s population, have always dominated state politics, with most chief ministers coming from this caste group. The late YB Chavan, SB Chavan, Vasantdada Patil and Vilasrao Deshmukh, apart from Sharad Pawar, Ashok Chavan and the last Congress CM, Prithviraj Chavan, were (or are) all Marathas. Given their political dominance, the Maratha agitation – which appears leaderless, for no major political party seems to be behind it, though some of them may be fanning it quietly – is difficult to explain except in terms of broader underlying causes.
In fact, the best way to see this agitation is to link it to similar protests by the Patidars in Gujarat and the Jats in Haryana, who too have demanded job reservations. The interesting thing is the Patidars, Jats and Marathas are not backward castes in any sense of the term, and, in fact, many of them were part of the anti-reservation agitations that gathered steam when VP Singh sought to extend quotas to OBCs in the late Eighties. Another thing common to these three castes is that they are mostly landed agriculturists.
That they are now demanding reservations suggest that something fundamental has changed in the economic structure which is inimical to their interests.
Three things are likely to have fuelled their angst:
First, as land gets fragmented, with every succeeding generation, there is less land to till per family and earnings from agriculture are not enough. This means some members of the family have to get off the land and seek jobs. The rural distress following two years of poor monsoon could not have helped.
Second, Haryana, Maharashtra and Gujarat are among the relatively urbanised states. This means the physical distance from farm to town is not high, and the young see better prospects in migrating to cities. The internet has fuelled aspirations, and these youth are unlikely to want to return to farms, with all the accompanying income uncertainties.
Third, the economic slowdown of the last few years, starting 2012, and lack of labour reform has ensured that job growth is slowing down. The nature of jobs has also become contractual, with few companies in the organised sector willingly expanding employee strength.
Where possible, companies are replacing labour with automation. For example, in the automobile industry, Maruti uses more than 1,000 robots, and other car-makers are doing the same. Most manufacturing jobs are turning contractual. Even the IT industry is automating lower-end jobs. Compared to six years ago, every $1 billion of exports now uses only half the number of software employees as before. In short, manufacturing is not creating quality jobs, and jobs growth in the IT sector, once the big hope, is tapering down.
The only places for stable jobs are the organised private sector and government. Little wonder that those looking for jobs are demanding reservations.
But here’s the problem: With OBCs already getting reservations up to 27%, adding more castes to the OBC bundle means existing castes listed as OBCs will get squeezed in the competition.
To combat this, state governments have been trying to add additional reservations for so-called economically-backward castes, as has been attempted for the Patidars in Gujarat now, and the Jats before the last Lok Sabha election. The same was done for Marathas in Maharashtra, but the last two were struck down by the courts.
Given the 49% Supreme Court-set limit on total job reservations, the only way to include more castes in the reservations quota is to expand the total quota to above the limit through a constitutional amendment, as was done for Tamil Nadu, which has 69% reservations. But in Tamil Nadu, almost 90% of people have been made eligible for reservations, which make even the 69% seem inadequate.
The Maratha problem has been compounded by the perceived loss of power in Maharashtra, where the Maratha-led Congress-NCP coalition was ousted, and Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, was installed as BJP chief minister.
The Marathas have had a prickly relationship with both the Brahmins and Dalits, both ends of the caste spectrum.
There are going to be no easy answers to the Maratha demand for reservations, even though the state government will try and cobble up something. The only thing that will work is faster growth that will create jobs, but that is not going to happen anytime soon. But some respite is possible as rural growth revives this year on the back of a good monsoon.
R Jagannathan is a senior journalist and editorial director of Swarajya magazine