When the Congress-NCP government was making provisions for reservations for Marathas and Muslims in 2014, I know as a matter of fact that several of its own Muslim legislators and office bearers warned then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan of the resentment that would create against their community. However, electoral compulsions dictated that decision but, nevertheless, both ruling parties lost resoundingly to the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
Marathas had voted in large numbers for the saffron allies and Muslims were split between the Congress and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-e-Muslimeen (AIMIM). Two years later they are somewhat disillusioned by the AIMIM. Among the many reasons for that disillusionment is that the party did not raise much voice when the BJP-led government in Maharashtra allowed the ordinance proclaiming a five per cent reservation for the community to lapse without being passed into law. The Bombay high court had dismissed the then government’s 16 per cent reservation to Marathas who are now agitating for its restoration. But the court had allowed the Muslim reservations to stand. However, it was not likely that the BJP would seek to appease the Muslims or even look into their interests.
According to most intellectuals from the community that I have spoken to, they are far outnumbered by Marathas to the ratio of one to five and just do not have the strength to mobilise in the numbers that the Marathas have done. And even if they do get together in large numbers, they know the present dispensation will not even begin to consider their demand.
Yet Muslims across Maharashtra have indeed mobilised last week – from Mumbra to Aurangabad, Beed and Ambejogai in Marathwada and Akola in Vidarbha, they have, for whatever it is worth, held silent marches just like the Marathas and OBCs did before them. But, says Zishan Husain, a young doctor and leader from Akola, it is not likely that the government will even take a ‘footnote’ of it. The government has promised to look into the Maratha demand, though. But I do not think it has understood all its nuances and complexities. As Husain told me, “This is a Pandora’s box,’’ and no one will put his hand into this bee hive and hope to get away without being roundly stung.
Reservations being a subject for the Centre, if the state government must legislate, it will have to take a portion out of the OBC quota to hand it to Marathas. Apart from enraging OBCs who have already spotted the danger, once this precedent is set, the Dhangars (shepherd community) will hold the BJP to its electoral promise to offer them reservations and will demand a similar adjustment – the next mobilisation on a large scale could soon come from this community. The possibilities are endless.
However, many social scientists I spoke to who were earlier befuddled by the Maratha morchas now think they might have a clue. All the marching communities might be hiding behind the mask of reservations but they are actually agitated by something else – the failure of the government to deliver on various grounds. The present dispensation is overtly urban and just does not understand rural distress. So far as the Marathas go, they are by and large farmers – rich, middle class or poor - and all are troubled by failure of crops (even a good monsoon proved excessive and washed away most of their produce) and lack of support prices by the government. The OBCs are troubled by an overtly Brahminical domination of government and society and Muslims and Dalits, of course, who are reeling under majoritarianism and cow vigilantism also have security as an additional concern.
“Reservations will soon prove to be the Lokpal of the BJP,’’ says Husain. “People knew there could be no end to corruption but anger against the Congress incumbency brought them to the streets for fasts. That same anger is manifesting itself in morchas today under the guise of reservations. When even the Jats, Gujjars and Patidars who, like the Marathas, should be better off demanding reservations, it shows a frustration at the failure of various governments at all levels of society.’’
Never before has the urban-rural divide in this country been sharper and the series of local bodies elections due from next month will be a test for the government. The Sena-BJP might well win the big cities. But the towns and the villages may no longer be theirs for the taking.