Amidst rising tensions over Maratha OBC reservations in Maharashtra, the State’s BJP government finds itself in a quandary. On the one hand, it was compelled to announce the issuance of Kunbi caste certificates to Marathas from the Marathwada region, but on the other, the move has displeased its core voter base, the OBCs across the State, particularly in Vidarbha.
The resurgence of the reservation controversy close on the heels of the Lok Sabha election has compounded the BJP’s woes in the State. It all started on August 29 when Manoj Jarange Patil, a Maratha community leader from the Marathwada region, initiated an indefinite fast to demand Kunbi certificates for all Marathas in the Marathwada region. On September 1, Patil brought the tri-party government to its knees as the police unleashed a brutal lathi charge at his protest site, resulting in videos that shocked the entire State.
Diverse OBC umbrella
Faced with mounting pressure, the government yielded to Patil’s demand and formed a committee led by a retired High Court Judge to find a solution to the reservation problem. Kunbi in Maharashtra falls under the OBC category, which encompasses over 400 macro to micro castes in the State. Granting Kunbi certificates to Marathas from Marathwada would add a significant caste to an already diverse OBC umbrella.
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The OBCs in Maharashtra currently enjoy a 27 per cent reservation in local bodies (zilla parishad, tehsil samiti, municipalities, municipal councils, and gram panchayats), educational institutions, and government jobs. Marathas have been seeking reservation for the past three decades, with protests intensifying over the last decade.
The decision to grant Kunbi certificates to Marathas in the Marathwada region has stirred discontent among the OBCs in the State, especially among Kunbis in Vidarbha. They are concerned about sharing the reservation in education and government job opportunities. Vidarbha is home to seven prominent sub-castes of Kunbis, each with political influence in different parts of the region.
With 11 Lok Sabha MPs out of the 48 in the State and 62 of the 288 Assembly seats, Vidarbha has traditionally been a stronghold of the BJP, which emerged as the dominant political force in the region, particularly after the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hails from an OBC community. In 2014, the BJP won all Lok Sabha seats in Vidarbha, and in 2019, it secured 10 out of 11 seats in alliance with the Shiv Sena. In the Assembly elections, the BJP won 34 seats in 2014 and 28 seats in 2019, while its alliance partner, the Shiv Sena, secured four seats.
It is in this stronghold that the BJP is now facing severe criticism following the State government’s capitulation to Patil’s demands. Deputy Chief Minister and the BJP’s top leader in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, had to rush to Nagpur in mid-September to meet with OBC protesters. He reassured OBC community leaders that the OBC reservation would remain intact and unaffected for any reason.
“OBC reservation will be preserved. There will be no changes. The State government is working on legal measures to provide reservation to Marathas without impacting the quotas of other communities, especially the OBCs. I assure you that the BJP will do everything to protect the interests of the OBCs,” he stated during the Nagpur meeting.
Uproar in Vidarbha
However, this has not appeased the OBC members. Since mid-September, OBCs, particularly Kunbis in Vidarbha, have been staging daily protests across the region, garnering significant support from community members. On September 26, after a protest in Nagpur, OBC leader Babanrao Taywade said, “Kunbis and OBCs in Maharashtra are already demanding an increase in the OBC quota. To achieve this, the government will need to conduct a caste census similar to the Bihar government’s approach. Including Marathas in the OBC quota feels like adding insult to injury. This is unacceptable to OBCs and will have political repercussions in the future.”
On September 25, another OBC leader, Sudhakar Adbole, addressing a rally in Chandrapur, said, “OBC communities have consistently faced discrimination. The government is disregarding the sentiments of OBC youths. There are 400 smaller castes within the State’s OBC category. To safeguard their rights, they will unite and fight.”
When the Congress-NCP government led by Prithviraj Chavan granted a 16 per cent quota to the Maratha community in the State, they based their decision on the 1931 caste census, which showed that 32 per cent of castes and groups identifying as Marathas. However, this decision became embroiled in legal disputes, and subsequent efforts to provide reservation to the Maratha community repeatedly failed.
The Supreme Court rejected the demand, citing that total reservation exceeded 50 per cent. Thus, the only way to accommodate a sizeable caste like the Marathas into the reservation category while preserving the OBC quota is through a constitutional amendment to revise the Supreme Court-mandated reservation limit. This path represents a protracted political and legal battle for the community.
However, politics does not come to a halt during this process. The Lok Sabha election is fast approaching, and the BJP is striving to maintain its 2019 tally of 23 seats. In this context, the party faces stiff competition primarily from the Congress in Vidarbha. Recent developments have indicated the BJP’s vulnerability in the region, with surprising defeats in the Amravati Graduate and Nagpur Teachers’ constituencies, both of which were won by the Congress. Additionally, the Congress secured a victory in Nagpur zilla parishad a year and a half ago. These outcomes serve as warnings to the BJP, suggesting that its grip on Vidarbha is loosening while the Congress experiences a resurgence in the region.
This political backdrop in the region compounds the challenges facing the BJP. As a senior BJP leader from Vidarbha confided to Frontline on the condition of anonymity, the BJP’s situation can be likened to “Ek Taraf Aag hai aur Ek Taraf Khai” (One side there is fire, and on the other side, a deep valley). The only option is to either jump into the fire or fall into the valley.