Contours of growing caste disharmony in Maharashtra
The tension between the Marathas and the OBCs is diametrically opposed to the idea of social solidarity, the basis of the 19th century anti-caste movement
Marathas first sought to be treated as Kunbi in Marathwada, which is one of the most backward regions in India, besides being notorious for the history of Dalit-Maratha/OBC conflicts. The first Maratha Kranti Morcha, which aggressively demanded reservation of the Marathas, was organised in Marathwada in 2016.
Marathwada was part of the Hyderabad State until 1948 and remained mired in socio-economic destitution, predominantly because of the feudal mode of social relations, lack of modern industry and vigorous anti-reformist sentiment. Pre- and post-independence local feudal magnates and political elite only sought to keep the status quo, and in fact, attributed every possible sin to the erstwhile Nizam.
Marathwada, which has been a bastion of caste-war for long, is an officially declared backward region in Maharashtra. Per capita income is nearly 40% less than that of the rest of Maharashtra, which includes two backward regions, Vidarbha and Konkan. Regretfully, Marathwada reported 1,023 farmer suicides in 2022.
What made the millions throng Manoj Jarange’s rallies in Marathwada? When subjected to close scrutiny, the massive participation of the destitute Marathas in the rallies reveals that reservation in government jobs will not adequately solve the problems of the millions of reservation-seeking Marathas.
Reservation-centric politics will have certain inherent limitations. Only a tiny section of the population is usually absorbed in state services, signifying that government jobs do not necessarily help much in eradicating larger problems of unemployment, poverty, etc.
Competitive electoral politics based on caste has given rise to division among the peasant castes as well as the marginalisation of the artisan (non-peasant OBC) castes. The OBCs predominantly involve middle-caste peasantry and a host of small-sized artisan castes such as carpenters, tailors, butchers, etc. However, it is a truism that the OBCs neither have been unambiguously defined nor are they a monolith. The repeated suspension of a caste census has also left this issue unresolved.
Some social scientists divided OBC castes on the basis of numerical strength and political clout. The minor OBCs involve many numerically smaller and relatively less disadvantaged castes. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has shown great political astuteness by establishing the Rohini Commission to sub-categorise the OBC castes, but it’s also true that the BJP has tended to divide caste groups and remained unmindful of the subsequent fragmentation of the society, as seen in the case of division among the Dalits in the name of a 'quota within a quota’ in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, etc.
The present tension between the Marathas and the OBCs in Maharashtra is diametrically opposed to the idea of social solidarity and the development of this middle block of society. Any kind of distrust in the similarly placed groups and simplistic but flawed ideas of societal development through reservation will add to the chaos.
Is reservation a panacea?
The current Maratha movement in Maharashtra has its roots in a very well-organised peasant movement initiated by the Satyashodhak Samaj established in 1873. The Satyashodhak movement, very appropriately, described the peasantry as ‘shudra’ — the lowermost in the caste hierarchy — and further hoped to achieve peasant unity against caste exploitation under imperial domination.
The Satyashodhak movement was premised upon the unity of the shudra community, which was divided into various peasant and artisan castes, which included the Kunbi. This anti-caste unity of various peasant castes was first threatened by the non-Brahmin movement in the first few decades of the twentieth century as the non-Brahmin movement was soon taken over by powerful Maratha leaders.
The Satyashodhak movement tried to provide ideological homogeneity to the otherwise stratified cluster of the middle and lower castes. This ideological unification provided a sense of oneness to the fractured community and also gave rise to several protest movements. However, a slow erosion of this unity showed how the peasantry was subjected to ideological manoeuvering and induced to act against its own interests. In this process, the long-touted anti-caste politics was replaced by involuntary caste pride and the common spiritual identity of Hinduism. The tension between the OBCs and the Marathas had its mooring in the early 20th century. Recently, the upper castes tried to thrive upon this growing cleavage and introduced the MADHAV (Mali-Dhangar-Vanjari) formula in Maharashtra. This was an attempt to solidify the anti-Maratha sentiment among the OBCs.
Eventually, the peasantry in Maharashtra was politically mobilised initially by the non-Brahmin movement, followed by the Indian National Congress, the Peasants and Workers Party, peasant fronts of the Left parties and, during the heyday of economic reforms, the Shetkari Sanghatana.
The 19th-century Satyashodhak understanding that the peasantry in Maharashtra was subjected to the double whammy of caste and imperialism was slowly lost sight of, and the Shetkari Sanghatana supported the imperialist position of state-withdrawal from welfarism. However, the Shetkari Sanghatana, which was the last independent non-caste peasants’ organisation in Maharashtra, made many significant interventions such as the demand for minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural produce. In the current Maratha agitation, such fundamental demands are missing under the magical rubric of “reservation”, leading Maratha politics to reductionist identity politics.
As the anti-caste fervour of the peasant movement withered away, various peasant castes entered into competitive electoral and quota-based politics, creating further ruptures in the drought-debt-ridden multi-caste peasant community. Globalisation has already worsened the case by exposing Indian farmers directly to market volatility, leading them to pauperisation. A weakened welfare state makes reservation irrelevant, and in it, reservation-centric caste politics becomes detrimental to the long-standing demand to do away with caste itself.
Dilip Chavan teaches at the SRTM University, Nanded