Years ago, when I was a college student in Nagpur, an old Brahmin came knocking at our doors. “I am poor. My son needs to get into medical college. We do not have any government help because we are Brahmins. But as Brahmins we are allowed to beg and so I have come here to ask for whatever you can give me towards paying my son’s fees. I do not want him to end up a pujari like me and face the same problems later in life,” he said.
We gave him generously but the people in that building also dined out on that story for years. My uncle insisted this was an anomaly of Independence — the poorest house in any town or village anywhere in the country would usually belong to a Brahmin, he said.
Years later, when I made the acquaintance of former Prime Minister VP Singh and recounted this story to him, he was not impressed. “A poor Brahmin will still be better off anywhere than a poor Dalit. That priest came begging for his son’s fees and you helped him. Under similar circumstances, a Dalit would have been asked to leave empty-handed and would have been banned from entering the building again,” he said.
I have always wondered then how much reservations really benefit the targeted sections. I have always been an advocate of reservations on the basis of economic backwardness — that is only fair and just — alongside that for other deprived classes.
Now some Maratha groups in Maharashtra, among the most privileged in the state, have been agitating for reservations for their community. Many of them are neither deprived nor backward by any yardstick. Most of them continue to be modern-day rulers — Maharashtra’s ruling dispensation is almost always peopled by Marathas ever since Independence. Even the less fortunate among them are landed people who cannot be labelled as deprived by any measure.
But with elections around the corner, Vinayak Mete of the NCP has revived his agitation for Maratha reservations. This time he has thrown the gauntlet at party president Sharad Pawar who, as a progressive socialist, was always against reservations for Marathas. As the chief minister of Maharashtra at the peak of the Mandal agitation, Pawar had categorically declined to place Marathas in the OBC category saying they were socially and financially well-off.
However, the fight here now seems to be between blue-blooded Marathas and Kunbi Marathas (Pawar belongs to the latter) who are mostly farmers and may, in substantial numbers, come across as poor in comparison to their royal country cousins. Socially, Kunbi Marathas are far better off than Dalits for whom reservations were introduced in the country. Dalits, even six decades after Independence, continue to be a deprived class throughout the country.
I am not sure then if such well-off farmers (there are poorer ones in other communities) deserve to cut into reservations meant for people who need to be socially uplifted and may not even have the political awareness to agitate against the attempt to cut into their share of the cake.
In any case, it is interesting to see that the issue deeply divides the NCP — a party which has a strong Maratha base. While Mete is putting leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal, an OBC along with Pawar, on notice, Gopinath Munde of the BJP, who is a fellow OBC, is also opposing reservations for Marathas along with Bhujbal.
The government is already studying the demand but I wonder if in this global world where government jobs have lost their premium and market forces reign supreme, people should be entitled to reservations on the basis of their caste alone.
No one should be deprived of opportunities just because of poverty and like VP Singh said, most of them might not be as fortunate as that old pujari in successfully collecting alms for their children’s education. Nevertheless, what happened to the pujari was deplorable and it should not happen to anyone else in progressive India, Dalit, Brahmin — or even Maratha!