Reservation Row | A double-edged sword for Maharashtra government

Oct 04, 2023 07:58 PM IST

The Dhangars are seeking entry into a Central list for Scheduled Tribes saying a typo has kept them out so long. The Dhangads are opposing this move

For 21 days, Suresh Bandgar held an indefinite hunger strike at Chaundi in Ahmednagar of western Maharashtra for a demand that his community should be included in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. Bandgar comes from the Dhangar community which has 3.5% reservation in government jobs and education as a Nomadic Tribe (NT) community. However, the community believes that they deserve double the reservation quota – the ST category gets 7% reservation in Maharashtra.

File photo of the Dhangar community protest for reservation (HT File Photo) PREMIUM
File photo of the Dhangar community protest for reservation (HT File Photo)

They profess it comes down to a typo.

In Maharashtra, the community is called ‘Dhangars’ (Nomadic Tribes (C) category) in the state list of castes and communities. The Central government’s list of Scheduled Tribe (ST) category communities includes ‘Dhangad’, and not ‘Dhangar’. States like Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha give reservations to Dhangads under the ST category.

In Maharashtra, Dhangars enjoy 3.5% reservation in state government jobs and education under the Nomadic Tribes (C) category.

“Because of this typographical error, the Dhangar community has not been getting its due benefit for decades,” said Manikrao Dangde, Maharashtra chief of Yashwant Sena, one of the outfits from the community that has been raising the demand for years (Bandgar is a member of this outfit). “We want this mistake to be rectified by the government now,” he said.

The demand

The Dhangars have been demanding inclusion in the ST category in Maharashtra for decades. Traditionally, shepherds, the community has staged several agitations in the past and — with the Maratha agitation revived — decided to revive the protest again. Bandgar and activist Annasaheb Rupnavar (also a Yashwant Sena member) started a hunger strike in Ahmednagar on September 6, and the latter’s health started deteriorating 10 days later. Rupnavar was admitted to the civil hospital for a few days, but returned to the hunger strike after he was discharged.

On September 17, community leaders gathered at Chaundi to extend their support to the hunger strike and they also decided to intensify the protest following the same strategy adopted by the Maratha community to keep up the pressure on the government to get their demands fulfilled.

On September 21, a meeting called by chief minister Eknath Shinde along with both the deputy chief ministers, Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, remained inconclusive, and community leaders resolved to continue the strike. The leaders chose to harden their stand after the state government sought two to three months’ time to take a decision so that it would stand in a court of law.

The strike was eventually called off on September 26 after the state sought 50 days to complete the process to fulfil its demand. The government agreed to form a commission headed by a retired high court judge, as well as withdraw all cases filed against the protestors demanding Dhangar reservation since 2014. All assurances were given in writing. A letter signed by Anshu Sinha, secretary, OBC welfare department was given to the protesters promising that their demand would be fulfilled in 50 days. Following this, the hunger strike was called off.

Senior BJP minister Girish Mahajan who visited the protest site at Chaundi, Ahmednagar as well as Shinde’s efforts talking to the protestors paid off.

The larger issue

In the absence of up to date data on communities in Maharashtra, it is estimated that the Dhangars community forms 10% of the state population and their demands feed into a larger political demand being made across the state for two things: A relook at a 50% cap on reservations, and fresh, empirical data on castes so that the reservations can be proportioned accordingly. This is a crucial year for all political parties — next year, we go into parliamentary elections, and already the battle lines are drawn, with the opposition block, INDIA, making their views favouring caste census clear. The ruling BJP, with a stake in the Maharashtra government, cannot afford to come across as inimical to the idea of conducting a census and responding to demands for reservations. At the same time, the effort is fraught with political consequences: Communities will start seeking reservation in proportion to their population which is like opening a Pandora’s Box, politicians fear.

Meanwhile, the state government is already struggling to handle the politically significant Maratha community, which is firm on its demand for reservation in government jobs and education. At the same time, Other Backward Classes and Kunbi communities are concerned over the Marathas’ demands that community members should also be given reservations under the OBC category by declaring them as Kunbis — a sub-caste recognised as OBC. They, too, are also holding statewide agitations, concerned that their share in the pie will reduce.

Maratha community activist Manoj Jarange Patil, who was on an indefinite hunger strike that ran contiguous to the Dhangar activists’ strike, also brought the state government to heel. He called off his 17-day-long hunger strike on September 14 after CM Eknath Shinde promised that the community would get quotas. Jarange Patil has given a 30-day ultimatum to the government which will end on October 13. He also started a statewide tour on September 30 to mobilise the community.

The hindrance

The Centre has refused to recognise Dhangars as Dhangads. The community can get their demand fulfilled if the state government makes a recommendation to the Centre seeking this.

In the 27th report of the standing committee on labour and welfare with regards to SCs and STs order (Second Amendment) Bill, 2002, the ministry of tribal affairs stated that in Maharashtra there are two distinct communities having similar nomenclature, one is ‘Dhangad’ which is a sub-group of Oraon, a Scheduled Tribe (ST) appearing at entry number 36 of the list of Scheduled Tribes. Traditionally its occupation is cultivation while another community is known as ‘Dhangar’ whose traditional occupation is cattle rearing and weaving of woollens.

“The Dhangars who are shepherds have been notified as a nomadic tribe in Maharashtra. Therefore, there is no printing mistake in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Amendment) Act, 1976 through which the constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 was amended,” the report stated. The secretary, tribal affairs further stated that Dhangad are a subgroup of Oraon tribals. In the case of the 'Dhangar’ community, the state government has not recommended their case, it added.

Another hurdle is the opposition from the tribal community. They are arguing that the ST reservation is just 7 per cent, while the Dhangars already have a 3.5 per cent quota. If Dhangars are counted as STs, then they will take up their share of the quota.

According to political analysts, this demand is a double-edged sword for the state government — no matter what they do, one community will be annoyed. “In this case, the tribal community will be enraged, which the state government doesn't want to do as of now. In case the government goes ahead then the tribal community will also start protests the way the OBC community is holding the agitations across the state,” said Abhay Deshpande, a political analyst and a former senior journalist. The only way is to remove the 50% cap on reservations mandated by the Supreme Court, he said.

An unfulfilled promise

In the run-up to the state assembly elections 2014, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, promised the community to provide reservations in the first cabinet meeting once the BJP-led government was formed. Instead, the government appointed the Tata Institute of Social Studies (TISS) to study the backwardness of the community and check if Dhangars in the state are the same as ‘Dhangads’ that get reservations as tribals in other states. A year later TISS submitted its report reportedly saying that the two communities have no similarity.

On November 29, 2018, Fadnavis as the then chief minister said that the state government will soon make the recommendations to the Centre on giving reservation to the Dhangar community in jobs and education. The constitutional formalities for the same will be completed before the code of conduct for the general election sets in, he said while making a statement in the legislative council after tabling a bill proposing a quota for Marathas.

On March 2, 2019, the state government handed over the TISS report to the then-state Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni for advice and further action. A chief minister's office statement said the AG would advise the government regarding its recommendation to the Centre and on the case before the Bombay high court.

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    Faisal is with the political team and covers state administration and state politics. He also covers NCP.

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