The flavour of the season is the demand for quotas from Haryana's Jats to Gujarat’s Patidars to Kapus of Andhra Pradesh. The Marathas are the latest to go on a war path in Maharashtra demanding reservation. They have resorted to peaceful silent marches but have threatened to escalate it soon. Even as the Fadnavis-led BJP government in Maharashtra is struggling to face the unprecedented silent marches, there is unrest among other caste and religious groups like OBC, Muslim, and Dalit.
The gruesome rape and murder of a young Maratha girl in July triggered the protest marches from August. The girl was raped allegedly by three Dalit men in the Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district. Since then the Maratha uprising is picking up without the presence of politicians, although powerful Maratha leaders of the state including Sharad Pawar and Ashok Chavan have given their tacit support to the silent movement.
The Marathas have three demands. Those are: reservation for Marathas, a modification of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and punishment for the Kopardi rape accused. Under the said Act, stringent punishment including a prison sentence is given to those who hurt the sentiments of a Dalit through actions or words, or both. The Marathas claim that this act is being misused.
The “Muk morcha” is picking up since the first rally on August 10 in Aurangabad, which turned out to be far beyond expectations. The novelty is that almost every rally since then (40 such rallies) is led by women and school-going girls carrying placards demanding justice for the Kopardi victim. They account for almost 30 percent of the protesters. The politicians are keeping away avoiding responsibility in case the movement becomes a failure.
Why are the Maraths angry? The demand for quota dates back to the 1980s with the late Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and NCP chief Sharad Pawar tacitly supporting it ahead of 2009 polls. In 2014, the Congress-NCP government led by Prithviraj Chavan passed a law providing for 16 percent reservation to Marathas in education and jobs to appease them. However, within a year, the Bombay High Court scrapped the quota stating that the community is neither socially nor educationally backwards. The final order is pending.
The Fadnavis government is facing a catch 22 situation. The Marathas account for 34 percent of the population and have played a dominant role in the socio-economic and political ethos of the state. They have adequate representation (33 percent) in the present Assembly and 13 of the 18 Chief Ministers of the state were from this community.
The creamy layer among them holds land, money, political power, educational institutions and industries. They control the rural economy by holding co-operative bodies including banks and sugar co-ops. Interestingly, while OBCs and other castes have made progress in education, the Marathas have not found the edge here, which they attribute to lack of reservation.
Politically the agitation has shaken the ruling BJP-Sena combine. The Chief Minister, who is a Brahmin, understands that caste politics can work against him as Brahmins comprise only 3.5 percent of the state population. Already there are speculations that these rallies are a ploy to ensure his ouster. The BJP did well by getting 24 percent of the Maratha votes in 2014 Assembly polls. Fadnavis understands that the demands of the community are hard to meet. The major issue is how to accommodate them within the stipulated limit without annoying other castes.
On the other hand, BJP’s coalition partner Shiv Sena is openly siding with the Marathas. Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has even demanded a special session to discuss the SC Atrocities Act.
Like in the BJP, Marathas in the Congress and its off-shoot, the NCP, are equally restless. Both the parties lost their Maratha base in the recent Assembly polls and also fear a rout in the forthcoming local bodies polls. Pawar is a tall Maratha leader and is trying to make the Fadnavis government the villain. He wants to make sure that the NCP does well in the ensuing 110 Municipal Corporation, 26 Zilla Parishad polls, and 297 panchayat as well as 206 municipal councils polls. So does the Congress.
The recent mobilisation of Marathas is opening up other fronts. It has pitted them against the Dalits. The two have an uneasy relationship for decades. There is a growing resentment among the young Marathas that the Atrocities act empowers the Dalits to act against the upper caste. The BJP is caught in the middle because the Dalits have supported the BJP in Assembly polls.
Secondly, it has provoked the OBCs to mobilise their community to start similar marches. The Dalits (10.8 percent) and OBCs (26 percent) are trying to forge a new alliance to tackle the Marathas. In the past, the OBCs have vehemently opposed the inclusion of Marathas in the OBC category. Thirdly, the opposition parties are using the agitation as a weapon against the Fadnavis government.
All this brings us to the basic question of reservation. Is it possible for every caste to get reservation defeating the very purpose? How is it constitutionally viable? The vote-bank politics will only further harm the social fabric.
The time has come to review the reservation policy and find other ways of meeting their genuine demands. The economically weaker sections in all castes and communities certainly deserve quotas and the political parties and the community leaders should move towards this goal or else the social fabric will be damaged further.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)