Another Maratha Reservation Bill: Is history being repeated? - Hindustan Times
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Another Maratha Reservation Bill: Is history being repeated?

Feb 28, 2024 04:25 PM IST

The agitators are at a crucial juncture. Their demands must go beyond reservation – for a caste census, a scientific study, and against caste and patriarchy

Every politician who was worried about Manoj Jarange-Patil's declining weight breathed a sigh of relief on Monday as Jarange-Patil, the face of the Maratha reservation movement, called off his 17-day hunger strike.

The Maratha community has been protesting against the state government for several years regarding the issue of Maratha reservation. (PTI)
The Maratha community has been protesting against the state government for several years regarding the issue of Maratha reservation. (PTI)

On February 20, a bill providing exclusive 10% reservation for Marathas was passed unanimously in a special session of the assembly and the council. As the opposition voiced its apprehension about the act's legality, it is clear that the law — this is the third time in the past decade that such a law offering reservation to the community has been passed — is a political and election-oriented manoeuvre; no political party wants to incur the wrath of the Marathas. The 10% reservation is over and above the reservation in place in Maharashtra for SCs, STs, and OBCs (NT/DNTs and SBCs).

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The Marathas have not welcomed this decision. They have opposed the bill, and Jarange-Patil remains adamant in his demand that all Marathas should be counted as Kunbis and receive a share of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota. While calling off his hunger strike (which he resumed on February 10), he said that four agitating youth would go on a "chain hunger strike" to keep up the demand of "sagey soyare" (relatives through blood ties as well as by marriage).

This may lead to a stand-off considering that the government received nearly 6.5 million objections to the sagey soyare clause in the draft notification. This is unprecedented considering that OBCs as a group have never been so vocal. For instance, even when the political reservation for OBCs was scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2022, there was hardly any mass mobilization of the OBC communities. The humongous support of OBCs for public rallies in support of reservation this time and the massive number of objections tell us about the changing nature of the political consciousness of the OBCs in the post-Mandal era.

History of the demand for Maratha reservation

The demand for OBC status by the Marathas was rebuffed by several Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commissions (MSBCC). However, neoliberal policies increased the economic disparity and led to mounting pressure for reservation. Both the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party and Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena-led governments responded to this pressure.

In 2014, based on a recommendation given by a committee led by the then-minister Narayan Rane (which was not a statutory committee as these rights come under the jurisdiction of MSBCC), the state government recommended 16% reservation for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions, but this was struck down by the Bombay high court.

A similar attempt was made through the MSBCC under the leadership of MG Gaikwad, a retired judge, in 2018 which provided a separate 16% reservation for Marathas. Accordingly, the state created a separate category, the Socially and Educationally Backward Class (SEBC), to provide reservations to the Maratha community. Initially upheld by the Bombay high court (which, however, downsized it to 13%), it was later overturned by the Supreme Court on account of the breach of the 50% reservation limit.

Thus, the Eknath Shinde government's latest move follows a line of similar legislation. This time, however, in order to provide reservations to the sarsakat (entire) Marathas, they have opted for a two-pronged strategy: First, to claim Kunbi identity through colonial records; and second, for those Marathas who do not have Kunbi records; the government directed the MSBCC to carry out an inquiry regarding their social and educational backwardness. The current chair of the MSBCC, Sunil Shukre, took charge after Anand Nirgude, the previous chair and four members of the commission resigned. There were allegations that the chair and the members were pressurised. Clearly, the Commission is facing a lot of political coercion.

Shukre Commission's study on backwardness

The Commission completed its survey in 9 days between January 23 to January 31, 2024. They gathered data from 15,820,264 families across the state through a questionnaire consisting of more than 150 questions. Since the report is not available in the public domain, we know nothing about the sample design, the questionnaire, or the data analysis.

A survey of this magnitude requires trained personnel. For instance, the NSSO's 64th round survey on Employment, Unemployment and Migration took an entire year (June 2006-July 2007) for a sample of 125,578 households and a questionnaire with 103 questions. NSSO is one of the oldest and the most experienced government organisations which carries out such surveys regularly and is known for its meticulousness and accuracy.

The inferences drawn by the commission in the report are that 84% of the Marathas fall in the non-creamy layer, 21.22% of Maratha families are below the poverty line, and 94% of the farmers who have committed suicide are Marathas. All three are contentious claims, as explained below.

The bill declares Marathas to be socially and educationally backwards, but the details available from the Shukre Commission’s report — and mentioned in the bill — seem to primarily emphasise the community's economic backwardness. Almost nothing concrete is available about their social and educational backwardness. The bill notes that the report has shown that over the last two decades, the Marathas have been marginalised from the mainstream, but it does not provide any data from the report in support.

The report attributes the impoverishment of Marathas to the agrarian crisis. According to the commission, low incomes have affected the Maratha community’s access to higher education and consequently to dignified employment. Thus, the report unwittingly attributes the deprivation of Marathas to economic factors rather than social ones.

In contrast, the Mandal Commission, in line with Article 340 of the Constitution, placed due emphasis on social and educational backwardness. Thus, establishing whether the Marathas are socially and educationally backward or not requires a scientific, meticulous and serious inquiry which the Shukre Commission’s survey — or what's available of it in the public domain at present — does not seem to offer.

The Gaikwad Commission was constituted in 2017 to study the socio-educational status and economic conditions of the Marathas. It submitted its report in November 2018. The Commission collected data from various sources, including archival material, representations from Maratha organisations, public hearings, and a sample survey of OBCs, Marathas, and other upper castes, totalling 43,629 families from five divisions of Maharashtra. It reviewed the proportion of Marathas in public employment and educational institutes/universities. However, the Supreme Court challenged the inferences drawn by the Gaikwad Commission and subsequently struck down the reservation.

Way forward

The demand to be accommodated within the OBC quota seems untenable, not least because the OBC community itself is against it. If the Marathas are to be granted reservation, it has to be over and above the 52% total reservation in the state, but then it will not stand the scrutiny of the court.

Jarange-Patil and his followers should prepare for a protracted battle with a two-fold demand. First, the removal of the 50% cap, and second, alongside the caste census, a qualitative study done in a scientific and rigorous manner on the state of the community.

This will provide a solution for the Maratha reservation stalemate and make a strong case for the removal of the cap.

The elite Marathas have since long sold the dream of a hyper-masculine, moneyed, powerful, warrior-cum-feudal lord, Kshatriya, savarna manhood to their low-class and low-caste brethren. In their pursuit of this dream, much power has accrued even to the most mofussil of the Maratha men. Jarange Patil and his supporters should be prepared to relinquish this casteist masculine dream that fuels the claims their spokespersons make. Are the Marathas ready to do so? Will they join the Dalit, OBC and Adivasi communities in their fight against caste and patriarchy beyond the struggle of reservation? Only through such collective struggle will the emancipation of all subalterns be achieved.

Sai Thakur is Assistant Professor, Center for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, TISS, Mumbai. Yashwant Zagade is a PhD research scholar at TISS, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal

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