Maratha quota: A double-edged sword for Maharashtra government

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Last Tuesday, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray along with a group of ministers called on Maharashtra governor B S Koshyari and submitted a letter addressed to President Ramnath Kovind. Thackeray’s letter referred to Supreme Court (SC)’s May 5 judgement scrapping the quota given to the Maratha community in 2018. In its order, the apex court pointed out that the powers to create a new category of socially and economically backward communities and give it reservation rest with the President. In his letter, Thackeray has requested the President and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to restore the quota for the Maratha community in government jobs and education. He also announced that he will take an all-party delegation to meet Modi seeking a decision on the same by the Centre.

The move is political and aimed at sending a message to the Maratha community, which is unhappy with the SC verdict. It puts the onus of giving them the reservation on the Centre. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the state’s principal opposition party, has called the verdict a failure of the state government in convincing the Supreme Court that the Marathas needed the quota.

“The previous BJP government in the state gave the reservation to Marathas but the MVA [Maharashtra Vikas Agadi] government failed to defend it,” said state BJP chief Chandrakant Patil on Saturday as he announced that his party will participate in agitations of the Maratha community for the reservation.

The Centre has now filed a review petition in the SC urging it to revisit the part of the order in which it has said that states have no right to decide reservation following the 102nd amendment in the Constitution. Politically, it will help the BJP as it can argue that its government at the Centre is doing everything possible for the Marathas while the MVA government in the state has failed.

If the SC accepts the Centre’s contention, then the ball will be back in the state government’s court. It will have to then make a fresh bid for the Maratha quota.

Only other option?

Maratha outfits have threatened to launch a state-wide agitation in support of their demand. One of the community leaders, Vinayak Mete, who aligned with the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 elections, has announced a march from Beed in central Maharashtra from June 5. With the Maratha outfits getting restless, Thackeray does not have many options. Broadly, he seems to have two options as of now. First, to get the Centre to give the Marathas reservation, and second to include Marathas on the list of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and adjust their quota accordingly.

In the current political scenario, nobody believes the Centre will bail Thackeray out. The MVA has started petitioning the Centre, but it is not clear how far the Modi government would go on this issue.

“It is difficult for the Centre to take an initiative to give reservation to Marathas. If we do it, there will be similar demands from other states. Patidars in Gujarat or Jats or Gujjars too will demand similar decisions by the Centre. Besides, if the apex court accepts the stand that states do have powers to give reservation, the entire responsibility will be of the MVA government in the state. However, convincing the apex court to reverse its May 5 order and again give reservation to Marathas will be a very difficult task,” said a BJP leader, requesting anonymity. “Why should the Centre step in and save the face of the Thackeray government, especially when the Maratha community forms a significant support base of the ruling coalition?”

Legal experts said the judgement makes it pretty clear that Marathas do not need the reservation. The SC has rejected the findings of the state-appointed M G Gaikwad Commission, which had made a case for the backwardness of Marathas. Many think the chances of the state being able to provide a separate quota is almost zero. As such, the only viable option left is to include Marathas in the OBC category.

“The Supreme Court order is clear. All judges [of the five-member bench] agreed that Marathas do not need the reservation,” said Shrihari Aney, a former advocate general of Maharashtra. He said the states cannot exceed the limit of 50% quota. “My suggestion before the Bombay High Court [when the issue was heard there] was that the caste could be included on the OBC list. The state government did not want to disturb the existing OBC then and hence created a separate class which has now been struck down by the Supreme Court. Still, within the framework, there could be a way out by way of inclusion in the OBCs,” Aney said.

Balkrishna Renake, the former chairman of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi Nomadic Tribes, said the state government can include Marathas in the OBC group. “There is a procedure to do it by getting the State Backward Class Commission to submit a report on the same. In fact, when the Maratha agitation began initially, the demand was to add them to the OBC quota. However, OBC community leaders strongly opposed the same. It was political decision to provide a separate quota.”

Renake said the SC is unlikely to reverse its order if one considers the grounds on which the Maratha reservation has been scrapped. “That leaves the state government with the option to include Marathas in the OBCs.”

Some Maratha leaders, too, have been demanding the same.

“The demand is old, and we think it is an option if the reservation does not stand in the SC if there is a review of the May 5 order,” said Vinod Patil, a Maratha leader and a petitioner in the case.

“We want the state government to try really hard to get the decision reversed using all available options for legal recourse. If it does not happen it has to include Marathas in the OBCs. After all, Kunbis are already given the reservation under the OBC category.” Kunbi is a peasant sub-caste of the Marathas.

Aney said the government can talk to the representatives of the OBC castes to see if they agree to accommodate the Marathas.

That is where the government is facing a major problem. The OBCs are strongly opposing the inclusion of Marathas in their quota. The OBC leaders are demanding that there should be a revision in their quota since they want it to be increased. The OBCs in Maharashtra includes 346 castes and collectively their population is more than one third of the state’s population. Community leader have also been demanding a fresh caste-wise census to prove that their population is close to half of state’s population.

“We are about 45% of the population in Maharashtra but our quota is 32% for over 340 castes. We do not say Marathas should not be given opportunities, but we don’t want to sacrifice our meagre quota for them,” said Chandrakant Bavkar, working president of the OBC Jan Morcha. “If they are accommodated in the OBC quota, they will corner most benefits and due to their social backwardness most existing OBC castes cannot compete with them.”

Political tussle

In Maharashtra, OBCs, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes get quotas in the three-tier panchayat system and municipal bodies. OBC leaders say the quota will get badly affected if Marathas are included in their category. “There was a demand for a separate five percent quota within the OBC category for Marathas. Even if Marathas are given a one percent separate quota under the OBC category, they will be liable for OBC reservation in local government bodies which they already dominate. It will mean our representation will be wiped out,” Bavkar said.

In Maharashtra, it is largely a political battle between Marathas and OBCs for dominance. Marathas are the biggest caste (about 32%). In terms of numbers, OBCs too are a significant lot. They are not a well-knit group, but prominent OBC castes stick together in the political battle with Marathas. Even in state administration, there is a tussle between these groups.

The OBCs have created their space in state politics and gained weightage. In Maharashtra, Marathas traditionally formed the strong support base for Congress and later the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The OBCs backed the BJP and Shiv Sena. OBCs castes such as Vanjari, Mali, Teli supported them.

Following the split in Congress in 1999, both Congress and NCP started looking beyond Maratha votes and began wooing OBCs too. NCP succeeded in making inroads in the community by putting forth leaders such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Jitendra Awhad, and Dhananjay Munde. Congress managed to reaffirm its position among the Kunbi community which has a strong presence in the Vidarbha region. Congress’s current state unit chief Nana Patole comes from Kunbi community.

The three-party MVA coalition of Shiv Sena, Congress, and NCP face a dilemma. It wants to give quota to the Marathas, but it cannot antagonise OBCs.

“Frankly speaking, the MVA government is in an unenviable position now. There are major hurdles in restoring the Maratha quota scrapped by the SC. On the other hand, touching the OBC quota would mean inviting the wrath of a politically aware community that is a big chunk of the population…,” said Pratap Asbe, a political analyst. He added there is no immediate solution to the issue and the impasse could go on for some time.

Hemant Desai, another political analyst, said there will be a Maratha versus OBC battle if the government considers the option to include Marathas in the OBC quota. “If something like that happens, the BJP will be at an advantage.”

The MVA government is also looking at offering sops that could pacify the Maratha community. “We are looking at giving benefits such as waiving fees of Maratha students in higher education, offering them coaching for competitive examinations, free hostels, interest-free loans for setting up small businesses. Most of these have already been put in place. Some more sops too are being considered,” said an NCP minister. “But the problem is that these sops still would be less attractive as compared to a fixed quota in admissions to higher education courses or government jobs. Besides, the younger lot in the community has seen that few of them got admissions as well as jobs under the quota that was given in 2018. Now once they have seen the possibility of a quota, they don’t want to compromise.”

Source: HindustanTimes 

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