Maharashtra: Of prize asses and jailbirds, casuistry and wine
Maharashtra has been witnessing an unprecedented caste war ever since chief minister Eknath Shinde grossly mishandled the Maratha reservation issue by offering the entire community Kunbi certificates
Caste strata persist in the Maratha question
There are Marathas and then there are Marathas. Maharashtra has been witnessing an unprecedented caste war ever since chief minister Eknath Shinde grossly mishandled the Maratha reservation issue by offering the entire community Kunbi certificates as an easy solution to the Constitutional cap on reservations.
The Kunbis are a unique community of farmers who seek the advantages of being both a listed backward class (OBC) and a Hindu upper caste. They are a subsect of the Marathas, yes, but as deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar once said, “When they want to marry off their daughters, they claim to be ‘Marathas’. A few years later, when they want admission into schools for their sons, they declare themselves OBCs.”
At the top of the heap amongst the Marathas, there are six blue-blooded ‘royal families’ that consider themselves above all others. These are the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars (originally shepherds) of Indore, the Scindias of Gwalior, the Bhosales, the Jadhavs and the Deshmukhs.
The first three dynasties were sardars under Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, while the Bhosales claim direct descent from the Maratha warrior king himself. The Jadhavs trace their lineage back to Jijabai, Shivaji’s mother.
The Deshmukhs used to be the chief mukhiyas in Shivaji’s kingdom (hence desh-mukh). Apart from these, there are 90 other kuls, or clans, who trace themselves back to the Chauhans and Sisodias of the Rajputana. They too hang on fiercely to their ‘royal’ origin stories.
But then there is a vast population of Marathas—including NCP stalwart Sharad Pawar—who can lay no claim to royal blood. These clans might not find it as problematic to be ‘downgraded’ to Kunbi status.
Indeed, within the last two months, so many of these Marathas have acquired Kunbi certificates that others in the OBC category are now getting quite agitated that these new Kunbis will cut into their share of the quota.
And so an unprecedented war of words has broken out between Chhagan Bhujbal, food and civil supplies minister in the Maharashtra government, and Mahesh Jarange Patil. Bhujbal fancies himself a tall OBC leader—he even tried to go national with his ambitions, but failed to establish common cause across the diverse OBC communities.
Patil now fancies himself a leader of the Marathas, toppling stronger claimants like Sharad Pawar, former Congress minister Amit Deshmukh (son of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh) and Jayant Patil, the Maharashtra president of the Nationalist Congress Party.
The kind of abuse deployed by both Bhujbal and Patil each against the other has never been witnessed in Maharashtra’s public discourse before. The latest volley, last week, began when Bhujbal called for a stay on the issuance of Kunbi certificates to Marathas and Patil warned that the agitation would intensify if this happened. Among the colourful words used by Bhujbal for Patil were gadwa (a gadha, or ‘prize ass’) and akkal se divyang (intellectually disabled).
“First win a gram panchayat election and show me,” said Bhujbal. “I was a corporator, a mayor and an MLA all at the same time as I entered politics, but what are you if not a prize ass?” He continued, saying that Patil did not understand that at this rate the Marathas would all disappear into oblivion, leaving none but the Kunbis.
Patil snapped back, “You are a jailbird. I have nothing more to say to you.” Bhujbal had been implicated in a corruption case by the Devendra Fadnavis government in 2017, but was later acquitted by the court.
Adding ignominy to insult, Patil also addressed Bhujbal as ‘tu’ instead of the more respectful ‘tumhi’ or ‘aapan’ (the equivalent of tum vs aap in Hindi). Tu is considered apt only for very near and dear ones—or for the lower classes, with definite pejorative intent. With Bhujbal belonging to the OBC category and Patil coming from a ‘higher’ caste, the ignominous appellation might even be considered a bit of a cudgel to Patil’s own cause.
Meanwhile Bhujbal’s association with the BJP seems to be paying off—he and his nephew Sameer Bhujbal have been freed of all cases against them.
But who is Nawab Malik?
Another imbroglio that seems to only get deeper and deeper is the one surrounding Nawab Malik. And he has proved quite the conundrum for the Maharashtra government.
Malik has been out on bail on health grounds following his arrest by the ED (Enforcement Directorate) for alleged financial transactions involving property allegedly owned by notorious don Dawood Ibrahim. However, the charges have not yet been substantiated by the ED in the courts; no court has thus held Malik guilty of any crime so far.
Nevertheless, Malik is facing the BJP’s firing line for two reasons: his exposè of the connections between various BJP leaders and assorted drug cartels, and the manner in which he exposed Sameer Wankhede, the former Narcotics Control Bureau chief of Mumbai, for framing Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, in a drug possession case (Aryan was later held innocent by the courts). Add to that the fact that Malik is Muslim, and he is anathema indeed to the BJP.
Now both the NCP, led by Sharad Pawar, and former Congress chief minister Prithviraj Chavan have come to Malik’s defence, lambasting deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis for his casuistry and specious reasoning in humiliating Malik.
Supriya Sule, NCP MP and Sharad Pawar’s daughter, minced no words in accusing Fadnavis of being an administrative cripple (pangu in Marathi), who had—she said—failed to probe Malik’s drug charges because he was shielding influential people in the BJP connected with those cartels.
“We will not tolerate any insult to Nawab Malik, who built his career the hard way through the years,” she added. She was referring, of course, to Malik being mocked as a bangarwala by the Shinde Shiv Sena. (Malik used to be a scrap dealer in Mumbai.)
But why is Sule defending Malik when, since his release from custody, Malik has actually rooted for Ajit Pawar, leader of the rival NCP faction? Indeed, Malik offered Ajit Pawar a letter of support as he took his seat on the treasury benches that first day of the winter session of the Maharashtra legislature on 7 December.
Perhaps Malik thought he would make use of the BJP’s favourite washing machine to be rid of the stain from the cases against him? But then Fadnavis wrote a letter to Ajit Pawar, saying that the government would not tolerate an alleged criminal connected to Dawood Ibrahim in the ranks.
Speculation is now rife that Malik in fact sided with Ajit on Sharad Pawar’s advice—after all, there are several cabinet ministers in the government whose cases have been put on hold—and that is why Sule is defending him.
Prithviraj Chavan, however, was the one who asked the more relevant question of Fadnavis: “Are you insulting Malik just because he is Muslim? If you had any objections to Malik occupying the treasury benches, you could have discreetly taken Ajit Pawar aside and brought him up to date on your reservations about Malik. Why write a letter and widely circulate it on social media when no charges have been proved against him and no court has held him guilty?”
Ajit Pawar too gave Fadnavis a lesson on Constitutional protocol: “I, as leader of my party, cannot decide where my MLAs sit. That is the Speaker’s prerogative. The Speaker currently belongs to the BJP.”
But then it was the Shiv Sena (UBT) which has really created a piquant situation for Fadnavis and the BJP, pointing out that rebel NCP leader Praful Patel too faces similar (also unproven) charges of money laundering and association with (associates of) Dawood, yet they seem to have no problem with Patel hobnobbing with the BJP’s top brass.
And so the upshot is that Malik has friends in all the unlikely places, cutting across party lines. For Fadnavis, he might find this googly difficult to field.
All for wine, wine for all
Once upon a time, Sharad Pawar had created a major controversy in Maharashtra by declaring that wine should be sold from supermarkets for easy accessibility and not be restricted to liquor stores. He was actually attempting to democratise the wine industry and simultaneously promote farmers in Nashik, India’s grape country that won accolades at several grape shows in London, Paris and other European and Latin American capitals.
Since then, Indian wines too have made it to London, Paris, Sydney and New York restaurants. Yet in India, wine remains the drink of the elite only, resulting in a small share only in the liquor market.
While 25-year-old Sula Vineyards in Nashik holds a regular wine-tasting at its cellars every year, now Indian wines have found a new home base in the unlikeliest of places—Nagpur, better known for its oranges and cotton. For a few years now, connoisseurs of wine have been holding an annual wine show in the winter capital of Maharashtra and thrown open the wine tasting to the general public.
Director of the Nagpur Wine Club Deepak Khanuja, and his friends equally passionate about wine, travelled all over the world to vineyards and wine clubs to learn how it’s done. When they began their own in a small way in 2011, they had to keep reminding wineries to send in their product for the stalls on time. But this year, within an hour of sending out invitations, all stalls were booked, with enquiries still pouring in.
The Nagpur Wine Club has taught the common people how to pair their own Indian food with different wines—an exercise so popular that the Nagpur Agro Development Corporation has now taken this modest wine club under its wing. As a result, the first ever exclusive building for wine festivals will come up in Nagpur by the end of 2024.
Someone once said wine is bottled poetry, the best thing to drink between crisis and catastrophe: “It can make the sage frolic and the serious smile.” Nagpurians can certainly smile about their vinery expertise in a land where no grape grows.