Two major groups in Maharashtra are agitating for quota in government jobs and educational institutions. The Marathas constitute a third – in the absence of a caste census the numbers are an estimate – of the state’s population while the Muslims are about a ninth.
There are several similarities in the two groups. Muslim and Maratha dynasties had, between them, ruled over the territory that is now Maharashtra for more than seven centuries. These communities are not homogenous: among Muslims there are sects and groups identified by their occupation, language and origins. Marathas also have various sub-castes and some groups in these communities already access reservations as Other Backward Classes (OBC). While both groups are demanding reservation of some kind, their demands have not been clearly laid out.
Though they want a quota in both government jobs and education, Muslim groups are currently pursuing a demand for 5% reservation in educational institutions that the Bombay high court has allowed. The court had rejected a demand for a quota in jobs. “We are only asking for what the courts have approved. The government of Maharashtra should allow Muslim students to get reserved seats,” said Dr Moinuddin Raut of the Muslim Kranti Andolan which has been holding meetings to raise public support for the demand. “We cannot expect the government in power, which has ignored the court’s approval for reservation in educational institutions, to even discuss job quota.”
The Marathas, who have been holding large ‘silent rallies’ across the state, are also demanding changes in the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 – a legislation created as part of the affirmative action programme – to prevent its misuse. They have said the legislation is used as a tool to harass upper castes with false cases, though newspaper reports have said there has been no increase in the number of criminal cases filed under the law.
One of the principles that guide the national policy of reserving jobs in public services, public representative bodies and educational institutions is social discrimination and the lack of political power. The country’s affirmative action programme covers groups now classified as scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, OBC, nomadic tribes and several other categories. Can these two groups, which enjoyed historical advantages, claim that they were socially and politically disadvantaged?
The Maratha Kranti Morcha – the group leading the protests – agrees that the caste has a stronghold in the state. A majority of the state’s chief ministers were from the caste and the main agricultural community in the state – the Kunbis – is part of the community. While they agree that they have enjoyed political power and economic success, in the form of sugar and finance co-operatives, they have said the majority needs government jobs and educational reservations to prosper. The Maratha Kranti Morcha agrees that since the caste has enjoyed historical benefits, it will not be possible for them to claim a “backward’ tag. Inclusion of the entire group in the OBC category would anger the Kunbis subgroup that already has access to some reservation. The quota will also eat in the share of the other OBCs. Creation of another category of quota will be difficult as it will require a constitutional amendment.
While Maratha kings ruled the state between the 17th and 19th centuries, Muslim kings from the north came to the Deccan in 14th century, displacing Yadav rulers. They were supplanted by local sultanates and later by Maratha kings who held power till the 19th century. Can they claim to be politically disadvantaged historically? Muslims have an argument that is similar to the Marathas’.
“It was Muslim dynasties that ruled the state. Their rule did not help every Muslim,” said Raut. “Three different committees – the Rajinder Sachar, Mehmood-ur-Rehman and Ranganath Mishra – have said that the community is backward and needs help. Muslims are now economically and educationally backward than OBCs who have benefited from decades of quotas. We want a similar opportunity.”