Jalna and beyond: There's no winning on Maratha reservation

While agitators go on hunger strike and get lathi-charged in Jalna and deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis catches heat for it, what is Sambhaji Bhide's role in keeping this pot on a rolling boil?

Workers from APMC Market of the Maratha Samaj protest against Jalna administration and police over lathi charge on agitators sitting in hunger strike to demand Maratha reservation (photo: Getty Images)
Workers from APMC Market of the Maratha Samaj protest against Jalna administration and police over lathi charge on agitators sitting in hunger strike to demand Maratha reservation (photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

Who is Sambhaji Bhide? Why is he advocating for the Shinde–Fadnavis government in Maharashtra?

This right-wing ideologue has been known for many controversial statements in the past. He has also been accused by Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar and others of trying to drive a wedge between the Marathas and the Dalits at Bhima–Koregaon, near Pune, in 2017. The Dalits had then gathered there to commemorate 200 years of their victory in the Anglo-Maratha wars over the Peshwas.

The Peshwas were prime ministers to the Chhatrapati kings. But they were  Brahmins, not Marathas, and their discrimination against the lower castes has always been a point of resentment for the Dalits in particular.

Bhima Koregaon was representative of a three-way divide in Maharashtrian society, engineered by the BJP and fuelled by Bhide and his cohort.

Indeed, Bhide has been claiming to be Narendra Modi’s guru now for years.

The last Maratha agitation in 2018 was triggered, unsurprisingly, by the brutal rape of a Maratha teenager by three Dalit boys who were highly resentful of the discrimination they were being subjected to and could be labeled as a fallout of the Bhima–Koregaon violence the previous year.

This time, though, the revival of the agitation came out of the blue.

The government seemed entirely clueless as the police lathicharged the protesters and several agitators were injured. What might have been an isolated incident then suddenly erupted into another phase of the movement — with a key difference.

During the Devendra Fadnavis government in 2018, the Marathas held silent morchas district by district without violence or disrupting the peace. Now they are shutting down one district every day with bandh calls — and gaining considerable support.

With two Marathas (Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar) and one Brahmin (Fadnavis) leading the government, the ire of the Marathas — who are 33 per cent of the voting population in the state, and mostly farmers (so already upset with the BJP’s agricultural policies) — has been smouldering a while. And the present government cannot afford to alienate this community or the many others, including Dalits and Muslims, who are not on board with the BJP's stance or approach.

And so we have Bhide, who jumps in to the government’s rescue, telling the Marathas that the lathicharge in Jalna was not the fault of Fadnavis or Shinde but must be blamed on the ‘administration’!

But who heads the administration if not Shinde and Fadnavis and, to some extent, Ajit Pawar?

Now, Bhide knows this all well — and he knows that everyone knows it well too. So Bhide advocates for them further by saying they are very genuine and sincere, this trio — whom Uddhav Thackeray has taken to describing as "one full (chief minister) and two half (deputy chief ministers) ministers".

As proof of their sincerity, Bhide cites the fact that the government has decided to withdraw all cases against Maratha agitators and will now legislate for a 10 per cent quota for the community.

The first is possible, but the second is easier said than done.

All the state governments in recent years have thought they could legislate their way around the Constitutional restriction of 50 per cent reservation; but each one has had to take a beating from the courts.

Weeks before the 2014 Assembly elections, the Indian National Congress–Nationalist Congress Party government set up a committee under one of their ministers to examine the issue of reservation and came up with 16 per cent for Marathas and 5 per cent for Muslims. It did not help their electoral fortunes. In less than a year the Bombay High Court had struck it down.

Next, following the first massive Maratha agitation, Fadnavis as chief minister set up a judicial commission and legislated for a 12 per cent quota to Marathas.

The quota issue did not help the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral fortunes either. While the Maha Vikas Aghadi formed the government, the matter reached the Supreme Court, which knocked down the Fadnavis quota in 2021.

While it was convenient for the BJP to taunt the MVA then for failing to protect Maratha rights, now the boot is clearly on the other foot. It is the MVA alliance which is now egging on the Marathas and making hay at the BJP’s expense.

Shinde, Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar well know that even this next award will be knocked down by the courts.

But months before the Lok Sabha polls, they have no choice but to lure the Marathas with a promise they may well not be able to keep. And they are not even wasting any time going through the pretence of forming a commission.

Bhide has been pressed into action to divert the attention of the fasting Marathas, and it has not gone unnoticed by political parties in the state who have taken issue with him for his interference.

Expect the agitation to intensify and perhaps even blow up in the government’s face for its obvious lack of sincerity.

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