Maratha agitation not likely to subside soon

Only a Constitutional amendment or caste census can cool tempers but Centre is inimical to both solutions.

 A Maratha quota protest in Maharashtra (photo: Getty Images)
A Maratha quota protest in Maharashtra (photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

No government in Maharashtra is going to find it easy to resolve the Maratha reservation problem. There is but just a single solution to the fractious issue that has troubled every single government belonging to every political party in the state – a Constitutional amendment by the Centre that raises the cap on reservations. But there might also be another - a caste census that establishes the population of each community and then doling out reservations proportionately.

The current dispensation is bitterly opposed to the latter but has shown no inclination to amend the Constitution for this either. Because, in both cases, the upper castes will be outnumbered by the others and probably the central government will end up with more than just three OBC officers who might then control more than just a quarter of the resources in the country.

So where does that leave the Eknath Shinde government in Maharashtra? It is between a rock and a very hard place because: 1) its association with the BJP makes the Marathas, already inimical to the RSS and Brahmins, suspicious of the government and 2) after Devendra Fadnavis's footwork during the previous agitation where, as chief minister, he offered them various sops that were struck down as unconstitutional, they have lost faith in the BJP.

However, there is a qualitative change to the Maratha reservation agitation this time compared to 2016 when they led silent morchas through different parts of the state, made peaceful speeches and then dispersed, even cleaning up all the litter they had left behind. They set an example to other similar agitators but it is an example even they are not following this time round. That is because in 2016-17 there was a clear leadership of the agitation with the Maratha Kranti Morcha setting the ground rules. Now, except for Mahesh Jarange Patil, who erupted out of nowhere to sit in a dharna in Jalna in June this year, there is no clear leadership to the agitation and even Jarange Patil is not accepted by all as their leader.

The government made a serious mistake at the time by lathi-charging him and his fellow agitators and that brought thousands of Marathas from all districts on to the streets. The government used Sambhaji Bhide, a former RSS pracharak, to quieten down Jarange Patil’s supporters but soon the Marathas with a long lasting suspicion of Maharashtrian Brahmins saw the sinister design and took to the streets again.

Now each district has a different leadership and the violence and arson, including the targeting of government property and state transport buses, seems to have gone out of hand. So why did the agitators set fire to the house of NCP MLA Prakash Sonawne and an NCP office in Beed? 

Sonawne belongs to the Ajit Pawar camp in the NCP and he was heard saying contemptuously in a viral video, that such agitations and reassurances by the government were becoming “like a child’s game”.

Recognising that the government was perhaps not serious about addressing the issue, the agitators took to arson necessitating the imposition of a curfew in several districts in Marathwada, which is now emerging as the epicentre of the agitation. Following the shocking resignations of two of his MPs and reacting to the criticism that the Shinde government was paying scant attention to the agitation, Shinde is reported to have called up Jarange Patil and assured him that the government would address the issue in two phases – by filing a curative petition in the Supreme Court, and issuing caste certificates to Kunbis, a subsect of the Marathas and almost wholly farmers, to distinguish them from the rest of the community.

But Jarange Patil seemed not impressed – the community wanted no half measures. He is reported to have told Shinde who requested he withdraw his fast unto death and asked Shinde to return when there were more sustainable measures they had undertaken.

Meanwhile, noting the torching of some of their offices, the NCP was quick to blame Fadnavis for the arson and violence given that he is home minister and should not have allowed the agitation to reach such proportions in the first place.

But while Supriya Sule, Sharad Pawar’s daughter, might blame the government for allowing the agitation to get out of hand, the fact remains that even the Congress–NCP government which first tackled the issue in 2014 by giving a 16 percent reservation to Marathas and a five percent reservation to Muslims, knew it would not stand the test of the Supreme Court. While Devendra Fadnavis went through a more formal procedure by setting up a judicial committee before once again awarding them a 16 percent reservation, this too was knocked down by the Supreme Court during the MVA’s tenure in government.

But toppling that government has now proved catastrophic to the BJP in terms of the Maratha reservation. Abhay Deshpande, a veteran political analyst, says, “The MVA government was overloaded with Marathas and knowing how any new agitation might get out of hand, they kept the potential agitators suppressed by a mixture of dialogue and assurances.” 

But the breakaway NCP also harbouring many Marathas have not had similar control and Sonawne’s viral video has complicated issues for Ajit Pawar’s faction as well as Eknath Shinde’s breakaway group. 

Maharashtra already has a 52 percent reservation for various groups – the additional two percent added after the Central government brought in reservations for the economically weaker sections. But the Centre insists that those with caste reservations cannot avail of EBC reservations. “So it remains an upper caste reservation and that has angered the Marathas more because many of them are poor and yet categorised as OBCs who cannot avail of EBC reservations.

The Rohini Commission had suggested that new aspirants like Jats, nomads and perhaps even Yadavs may be accommodated in the OBC quota but that has been violently opposed by both the OBCs and Marathas in the state. Chhagan Bhujbal, a leading OBC leader, has already firmly stated that while they are not against reservations to Marathas, this should not be sliced out of the OBC quota. So has Jarange Patil – we do not want any charity. We want our own right, he has said.

Faced with such intransigence, the government has now pressed Shambhu Raje of the Kolhapur seat of the Chhatraptis to meet Jarange Patil to persuade him to call off his fast, in the hope that he will trust one of his own where he didn’t Sambhaji Bhide. But even if he is persuaded, the agitation is not likely to cease soon. It is a cross this government must bear going into the next election. Having already alienated Dalits (22 percent of the population) and Muslims (15 percent), further alienating 33 percent Marathas and the six percent Kunbis is not a very happy prospect for the BJP.

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