On October 30, protesting members of the Maratha community set fire to the house of Prakash Solanke, MLA of the Nationalist Congress Party (Ajit Pawar faction), at Majalgaon tehsil in Beed district of Marathawada. The provocation was said to be an audio clip in which Solanke is allegedly heard criticising Maratha leader Manoj Jarange-Patil, who is on a fast on the issue of reservation for Marathas. “He [Jarange-Patil] himself can’t be a member of a village panchayat. But these days he has become a hero and speaks anything he wants,” says the voice said to be Solanke’s, in the audio clip. Hundreds of Maratha protesters ransacked his bungalow, and set it on fire.
Anger and frustration are running high among the Maratha youth over the reservation issue. According to local media reports, within a span of three days until October 30, seven youths from Jalana, Beed, Osmanabad, Aurangabad, Latur and Hingoli died by suicide in connection with the protest.
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The Marathas, who come under the general category, form one-third (31 per cent according to Census 1931) of the State’s population, and in the Marathwada region alone they number an estimated 60 lakh. Their demand for reservation in jobs and education is three decades old. On August 29, Jarange-Patil revived the demand, this time seeking the Kunbi certificate for Marathas, by going on an indefinite fast at Antarwali Sarati village in Jalna district. The Kunbis belong to the OBC category. According to him, all Marathas are Kunbis.
The protest at the fast site turned violent on September 1, and the police resorted to a lathi charge. Several people, including women and children, were injured. Fearing a backlash from the community, the government yielded to his demand but sought 30 days time. On September 14, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde visited Jarange-Patil at Antarwali Sarati. There Jarange-Patil put the government on notice, saying, “if the government fails to give us reservation by Dussehra [October 24], Marathas will restart the protest”. When the government failed to keep its word, Jarange-Patil resumed his fast on October 25.
Marathas have given a call for “Gaon Bandi”, preventing leaders of any party from entering their villages. Hundreds of villages have put up banners conveying this message.
The pressure is mounting on public representatives, too, to resign from their positions. Hemant Patil, a Member of Parliament (Shiv Sena-Eknath Shinde camp) from Hingoli constituency, resigned on October 29 due to community pressure. Two Lok Sabha MPs, one from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the other from the Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde camp), told Frontline that they were under pressure from the community to resign. “Marathas, especially youths, keep calling continuously to ask whether I am resigning in support of Jarange-Patil or not. I try to tell them that without our presence in the House, the reservation issue won’t get political support. But they are not ready to listen,” said a senior BJP MP from western Maharashtra.
The opposition leaders are also feeling the heat. Four days into a yatra he had embarked on from Pune to Nagpur highlighting the issue of unemployment, Rohit Pawar, NCP (Sharad Pawar camp) MLA, had to suspend it because of pressure from the community. NCP chief Sharad Pawar is also said to be avoiding public functions in rural areas. Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray group) leader Sanjay Raut was forced to cancel his programmes in Daund, Pune.
On October 30, Shinde chaired a Cabinet subcommittee meeting, which decided to grant Kunbi certificates to Maratha families whose records were found in old government documents. The Shinde government had appointed a committee led by Justice Sandeep Shinde to look into the Marathas’ demand to consider them as Kunbis. “The committee has submitted the primary report. It has gone through the records of 1.73 crore Maratha families and found that 11,530 families records had mention as Kunbi. So we have decided to give them Kunbi certificates immediately,” the Chief Minister said after the meeting.
A government resolution on September 7, too, said that all Marathas from the Marathwada region who possess ‘Nizam-era’ documents such as revenue, education, and other records, and those with who had “Kunbi” mentioned in their family history, would be given Kunbi certificates. Before Independence, the Marathwada region was under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
But Jarange Patil rejected the government proposal and said that he would continue the fast. “The government is offering nothing. There should be Kunbi certificate for all Marathas. The decision for some Marathas is not enough. If I have to die for this, I don’t care. But I won’t stop the fast until the government keeps its promise.”
- Recent torching of NCP MLA’s house in Marathawada renews demand for Maratha reservation amid mounting tensions. The protest is the latest in a series of demonstrations by Marathas.
- Marathas are the largest caste group in Maharashtra but are not considered to be backward classes. They have been demanding reservation in jobs and education for decades.
- The violence raises concerns about the stability of the government in Maharashtra, which is led by a coalition of parties that includes the NCP.
The demand for Kunbi certificates to all Marathas is a sensitive issue. Kunbi is an agrarian caste. In Maharashtra, Kunbis, as OBCs, get 27 per cent reservation in local body elections and in jobs and education. Kunbis are also a dominant caste in the Vidarbha and Konkan regions. In electoral terms, the BJP has the upper hand in the Vidarbha region: it won all 11 Lok Sabha seats there in 2014 and 34 of the 62 Assembly seats in the elections held later that year. In 2019, the BJP won 9 Lok Sabha seats and 28 Assembly seats.
The Kunbis supported the BJP mainly because it promised to conduct a caste census if it came to power at the Centre. Nine years later, they are still waiting. The government decision to accommodate the Marathas in the Kunbi tent has only made matters worse, more so after the publication of Bihar’s caste census on October 2.
Following the government’s assurance to Marathas, the OBCs erupted in protest across Vidarbha, forcing Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to rush to Nagpur to meet the protesters. He assured them that the Kunbi certificate for Marathas would in no way affect their reservation quota. But they were not convinced.
The Congress is possibly gaining in the region out of this tussle. The Congress, once a formidable force in Vidarbha, has been trying to regain its foothold in the region since 2021. With Congress strategists giving prominence to leaders from Vidarbha in the party and with the party having voiced its support for a caste census nationally, the BJP is well aware that the breeze could quickly change in this belt.
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Meanwhile, the fate of Maratha reservation lies in the Supreme Court. In 2013, the Congress-NCP government formed a committee, led by Narayan Rane. It recommended 16 per cent reservation to Marathas and 5 per cent to Muslims.
The State government issued an ordinance to this effect in July 2014, but the Bombay High Court stayed it in November that year. The Fadnavis government that followed asked the State Backward Class Commission to study the Maratha community’s backwardness. In 2018, it passed the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, 2018, recommending 13 per cent reservation for Marathas in jobs and 12 per cent in education.
On May 5, 2021, the Supreme Court struck down the legislation, following which the Maha Vikas Aghadi government under Uddhav Thackeray filed a curative petition. It is pending in court.
The Marathas, on their part, have been demanding 16 per cent reservation. Adding them in OBCs will hurt the already reserved classes. If the Marathas have their way, the total reservation will exceed the 50 per cent quota limit as per the Supreme Court guidelines. Maharashtra already has 52 per cent reservation quota on the basis of Census 1931. Also, OBCs believe that the 27 per cent quota for them (encompassing subcategories such as Vimukti jati and nomadic tribes) is not in proportion to their population.
Only an amendment Bill raising the reservation limit seems to be the solution. This will need scientific data of the population. It is against this background that Marathas and OBCs are demanding the caste census.
The BJP’s new political friend, NCP, has also made this demand publicly. “We also think that there should be a caste census. Everyone will get to know the strength and because of that the allocation of funds can be done easily,” its leader Ajit Pawar said in a rally in mid-October.
In the October 30 meeting, the government responded to the demand for caste census subtly. The subcommittee on Maratha reservation has decided to take the help of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, to study the backwardness of the community. “We will take the help of these research institutes so that the accuracy of numbers will have credibility,” the Chief Minister said.