Women and child development minister Pankaja Munde, political heir of Gopinath Munde — one of state’s most powerful Other Backward Classes (OBC) leaders — spoke to HT about the ongoing Maratha protests and the reactionary OBC mobilisation in Maharashtra. Munde denied rumours of a rivalry between her and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. She also denied having aspirations for the top job in the state.
How do you view the ongoing Maratha protests?
I see the protests as the people’s fight against the established leadership. The protests are silent, but convey a loud message of anger and disappointment against leaders from the Congress-NCP, who have ruled for decades but failed to give the fruits of development to a majority of Marathas, who have remained poor and economically deprived. The Marathas are not socially or politically backward but need a push in education and a share of the development pie. I am in favour of reservation for Marathas if it doesn’t affect the existing reservation for bahujans (people from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs).
One of the protestors’ central demands is an amendment of the Atrocities Act. Are you in favour of such a review?
Dalits have not been integrated into the mainstream of our society. There continues to be a stigma attached to the lower castes. Statistics show cases registered against Dalits in every region and perhaps every village of our state. Dalits will require protection under the Atrocities Act for decades to come. There cannot be an amendment to dilute the law or withdraw it. However, I agree that some people misuse the law. If a review can stop such misuse, largely prevalent in political circles, it can be considered.
The Maratha protests have led to a mobilisation of the OBCs, Dalits and even Muslims. How do you view this development?
It is unfortunate that our progressive state is witnessing such caste polarisation on the back of the 2014 mandate for development. The state has witnessed protests by farmers and teachers earlier, but this kind of polarisation has not been seen in a long time.However, this kind of mobilisation was inevitable as the Maratha protests have made other groups insecure.
Do you see these protests as anti-BJP, as your party is in power?
I think it is a bit premature to call it anti-government. Our government has been positive about the demands made by the Marathas. Recently, the chief minister decided to increase the family income criteria of the Economically Backward Category (EBC), which will benefit thousands of Maratha students. We are pursuing the reservation issue but need time as it is also a constitutional issue. The public expects us to deliver results in one year, when the Congress-NCP failed to do so for the past 15 years.
The OBC mobilisation is taking place in the absence of any big leaders. Your father Gopinath Munde is no more and NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal is behind bars. Do you see yourself taking up the mantle?
We should stop limiting leaders to their castes or communities. My father was not just the leader of Vanjaris — who constitute 2 to 3% of the state’s population — or even just of the OBCs. I too, am not just a Vanjari leader. But yes, I would like to lead the weak and deprived, across castes and communities.
There is a perception that you and CM Devendra Fadnavis are rivals and you are an aspirant for his post. Your recent Bhagwangad rally was seen in that context.
This is a perception created and nurtured by the media. I know my position in the party. How can I compete with the CM? I am not hankering after his post. We work well together and there is no bitterness between us at all. The Bhagwangad rally had little to do with the BJP. It was about the promise I made to my followers and my faith in the shrine.