The Maratha agitation may rewrite the rules on certifying caste - Hindustan Times

The Maratha agitation may rewrite the rules on certifying caste

Feb 09, 2024 06:06 PM IST

The Marathas seeking OBC reservation under the Kunbi caste are appeased for now. But the draft notification introduces a new way of establishing caste identity

The grand Maratha march culminated over the weekend in Navi Mumbai with Maharashtra chief minister Eknath Shinde announcing other backward classes (OBC) reservation for those Marathas who have records of Kunbi caste identity through a “draft notification”. The assurance may have pacified the agitators for now, but it raises more questions than answers.

Maratha activist Manoj Jarange Patil and his supporters during their march for reservation, in Navi Mumbai (PTI) PREMIUM
Maratha activist Manoj Jarange Patil and his supporters during their march for reservation, in Navi Mumbai (PTI)

The Marathas demand for OBC status

Since the 1990s, as socio-economic inequalities widened due to a shrinking formal sector, agrarian distress, fragmentation of land, and the onslaught of neo-liberal economic policies, the Marathas sought OBC status and began strategically (re)claiming their Kunbi origin. In response, the Maharashtra government introduced an exclusive quota (13%) for Marathas, over and above the total backward classes quota (32%, which comprises VJ/NT: 11%; SBC: 2%; OBC: 19%) in jobs and education. This claim was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2021 as it surpassed the 50% cap on reservations.

Following this setback, the Marathas shifted their strategy, moving away from the exclusive quota and seeking Kunbi status within the OBC quota (19%). Manoj Jarange-Patil, with little political backing, mobilised the ‘garajwant’ (needy) Marathas. Last August, Jarange-Patil commenced a hunger strike to press for Kunbi status for Marathas from Marathwada, who held Kunbi records from the Nizam era. This demand garnered support across Maharashtra, eventually evolving into a broader call for a place in the OBC quota for sarsakat (entire) Marathas across the state.

A brief history of the Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster is due here.

Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster

The broad Maratha category representing a polity (the Maratha empire) transformed and consolidated into an exclusive caste identity. Initially, when the British identified them as a race or a tribe, they saw two classes among the Marathas: The upper class of Shahannava Kulis (96 families) of royal heritage and the lower class constituted by the shepherd castes and the peasant caste of Kunbis.

Sociologically speaking, Kunbi is an occupation, a class and a caste — all three at the same time — of agriculturalists. Since agriculture is an occupation followed by many castes, Kunbi as a caste identity was/is highly porous.

The same holds true for the Maratha caste. Entry into the Maratha category granted upward mobility in the local caste hierarchy mainly to the Kunbi caste. The struggle for entry into the Maratha caste gained momentum in the early part of the 20th century after the British began census operations and after the vedokta-puranokta controversy between the Maratha king Shahu Maharaj and the Brahmins of Maharashtra, when the former claimed Kshatriya status as a descendant of Shivaji and the latter refused to concede it.

Then onwards, the Maratha identity was consolidated and it initially aligned a huge chunk of the peasant population as non-Brahmins. However, gradually, the aspiration for Kshatriya status came to dominate the Maratha-Kunbi non-Brahmin political mobilisation and they deviated from the anti-caste politics. In fact, during the early 20th century, the elite Marathas mobilised Kunbis to identify themselves as Marathas and not as Kunbis in the census (very much like the current Maratha leaders who are asking their caste fellows to report as Kunbis). Post-independence the Marathas became the ruling class and in this process, many Kunbis identified themselves as Marathas. However, the Shahannava Kuli Marathe are only a minority. There is a section at the bottom of the internal hierarchy of the Marathas, whose socio-economic conditions are precarious. Yet, even this section accrues much social power and political clout through their caste network. Thus, despite these differences, the Marathas have emerged as a substantial political force in the state, primarily driven by a shared historical consciousness of 'Kshatriya-hood,' a peasant identity, but sans earlier non-Brahman stance.

In response to Jarange-Patil’s demands, in September last year, the Eknath Shinde-led coalition constituted the Shinde committee to identify Kunbi references of Marathas across the state. In addition, the Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission was given the task of verifying the claims of backwardness of those Marathas whose Kunbi records were not available. However, the recent morcha forced the government to bring out the notification even before the committee and the commission could complete their tasks.

Sage soyare: A contentious trope

The “draft notification” introduces a new category — sagey soyare — and states that the sagey soyare of the Kunbis are eligible for a Kunbi caste certificate. The Marathi term, sage soyare, includes blood relatives as well as relatives through marriage. The caste-based affirmative action policies recognise blood relations through patriline and not through marriage. In India, caste certificates are issued on the basis of caste identity proofs of a certain category of “relatives”.

According to the Maharashtra SC, D/NT, NT, OBC, SBC (Issuance and Verification) of Caste Certificate Rules, 2012, a relative refers to “a blood relative from the paternal side of the applicant as per the genealogy”. Thus, legally, a person’s caste identity is derived from his/her father and therefore, caste identity proofs of paternal relatives only are accepted.

Thus, marital ties as an indicator (or possible proof) of caste is a new idea and a tricky one at that. It implies that Kunbi caste certificates can be issued to relatives of the husband based on his wife’s — or her relatives’ — caste identity proofs, or vice versa. Though most marriages are endogamous unions, the legal document, i.e., the caste certificate, as explained above, is only issued based on one’s patrilineage, and not the caste identity proofs of relatives related through marriage.

Caste privileges and proscriptions based on which the caste system functions, follow the logic of paternal blood relations. Why a child should not acquire the caste of his/her mother is a valid question and sage soyare category poses as a solution in favour of the mother. But the criterion of sage soyare is not just about deriving caste identity from one’s mother — it is about issuing Kunbi caste certificates to all those who are related through marriage. Many Maratha ideologues and activists see this as a victory and for good reason. Their detractors worry it will give a free hand to the powerful and corrupt.

Unanswered questions

Though the draft notification lays out the condition that the marriage should be endogamous/intra-caste and not inter-caste, it presents a number of questions.

One, will a Maratha-Kunbi marriage be considered endogamous? The Maratha reservation supporters argue that Marathas and Kunbis are one and the same given the history of the Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster. But even then, how does one establish, in the absence of written proof, that a marriage is endogamous? Or is it that if one of the parties in a marriage is Kunbi and the other Maratha, the marital tie itself proves that both families belong to the Kunbi caste?

Two, how is the verification of the marriage — about whether it is endogamous or not — possible through a home visit?

Three, will self-declaration be taken as proof of one’s caste?

This notification is going to be highly contested in the upcoming session of the state legislature and later in the courts. Not surprisingly, OBC leaders and organisations have condemned the draft notification unequivocally.

The claims of the Maharashtra government about the identification of 5.7 million Kunbi records and the distribution of 3.7 million certificates appear to be false. Balasaheb Sarate, a prominent Maratha reservation scholar, in an interview with Max Maharashtra, contends that these are not newly discovered records. He points out that in the last three months, the government has distributed only around 3,000 new Kunbi certificates. Sarate dismisses the exercise of collecting data as "just a waste of time and public money." In short, the government's inflated figures of Kunbi records and initiation of fresh data collection to measure the backwardness of Marathas are to placate the Marathas.

A genuine solution to this issue lies in a caste census, a step the current regime seems uninterested in pursuing.

Sai Thakur is an assistant professor, the 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.

The article has been amended. An earlier version mistakenly stated that the backward classes quota of VJ/NT is 13%, and the total quota to backward classes is 34.5%. The correct numbers are 11% and 32%, respectively. The error is regretted.

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