Police crackdown on Maratha protesters in Antarwali Sarati ignites a fierce political battle, putting the government on the defensive.
The nondescript village of Antarwali Sarati, in Jalna district of Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, shot into the limelight on September 1 for all the wrong reasons. There was a police crackdown on Maratha protesters who were agitating to be included in the Other Backward Class (OBC) category. News of the police using lathicharge and tear gas and injuring several people, including women and old men, caused Statewide outrage and put the government on the back foot. Since the Marathas are numerically the largest and one of the most powerful communities in Maharashtra politics, the issue has already snowballed into a political slugfest.
Antarwali Sarati is a small village by the roadside on the Dhule-Solapur highway in Ambad tehsil where Manoj Jarange Patil, a leader of the Maratha community, started an indefinite fast on August 29 demanding the Kunbi certificate for the Maratha community of Marathwada.
Kunbi is a generic term used to denote agrarian communities in western India. Kunbis belong to the OBC category all over the country, including in Maharashtra. The Marathas, traditionally considered a martial community, have been demanding reservation for the past two decades and claim to have been Kunbi more than two centuries ago, much like the Patidars of Gujarat claim to be.
Marathwada is one of the six revenue regions of Maharashtra and consists of eight districts. As per the 1931 caste census, the Marathas accounted for 31 per cent of the State’s population. More recently, Census 2011 showed that Marathwada’s total population was 1.88 crore. It is believed that the community is 60-lakh-strong in the region. As of now, the Marathas of Maharashtra come under the general category.
Also Read | The Maratha influence in Maharashtra politics
Before Independence, the Marathwada region was under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Marathas were then presumed to be Kunbi. Also, in Karnataka and Telangana, the Marathas are classified as OBCs. Citing these, Manoj Jarange has been demanding that the Marathas be certified as Kunbi, and in pursuit of this demand, he and his supporters began the indefinite fast on August 29.
As his fasting entered the fourth day on September 1, the administration was worried about his health since Manoj already suffers from kidney ailments. Horticulture Minister Sandipan Bhumare appealed to him to end the fast, but Manoj was firm, stating that he would do so only after the State government issued a Government Resolution (GR) bringing the Marathas of Marathwada under the Kunbi community.
On September 1, the administration reportedly made all arrangements to shift him to hospital. Jalna Superintendent of Police Rahul Khade and his team reached the venue of protest. Seeing a sizeable number of policemen arrive, the villagers reportedly panicked. A confrontation broke out, with both sides claiming that the other started it. BJP MLA Nitesh Rane shared a video on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), where protesters could be seen throwing stones.
At the same time, at least two videos went viral in which the police were seen launching a heavy lathicharge on the protesters. Manoj Jarange even claimed that the police fired on the protesters, but this has not been confirmed by the authorities. The next day saw calls for protests, agitations, and bandhs all over the State. In Jalna, the protests turned violent and a few State transport buses were set on fire.
It did not take long for political leaders to arrive at the scene and exploit the situation. The first to reach Antarwali Sarati was Rohit Pawar, an MLA of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and grandson of its chief, Sharad Pawar. Rohit has stood by his grandfather in recent times even as his uncle Ajit Pawar rebelled against Sharad Pawar to join hands with the BJP. Rohit was accompanied by the local MLA Rajesh Tope, also of the NCP.
The next day, Sharad Pawar himself reached the venue and slammed the police for their actions against the protesters. He said: “There is gross disrespect against some communities in the mind of the State’s Home Minister. This has reflected in the police action. He should resign taking moral responsibility.”
This was a direct attack on Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who holds the Home portfolio. The BJP countered, saying that Pawar was trying to exploit the situation by instigating the Marathas against Fadnavis. State BJP chief Chandrashekhar Bawankule said: “Fadnavis is Brahmin by birth. That’s why Sharad Pawar is trying to target him.” (In Maharashtra, the Brahmins are a tiny community, accounting for only 3.5 per cent of the population as per the 1931 caste census.) However, the charge against the State government for the police lathicharge resonated across the State, with every rally held by the Maratha community blaming the government for it.
Realising the gravity of the situation, the government immediately transferred SP Rahul Khade, and Shinde announced an inquiry into the incident. Apart from Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray also visited the venue and met the protesters. Uddhav Thackeray slammed the State government and equated the incident to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. BJP MPs and MLAs also rushed to the spot to pacify the agitators.
Also Read | Maratha reservation: quota confusion
Speaking to media persons in Mumbai on September 4, Fadnavis extended an apology to the Maratha community for the lathicharge. At the same conference, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar denied that someone from the government gave the lathicharge order.
- Maratha protesters clashed with police in Antarwali Sarati, Maharashtra, demanding to be included in the Other Backward Caste (OBC) category.
- The protests quickly escalated into a statewide outrage, thrusting the powerful Maratha community into the center of a fierce political battle.
- The incident has exposed deep-rooted social and political tensions and raised questions about the government’s ability to handle critical issues.
Fadnavis also tried to corner Uddhav Thackeray over the reservation issue, saying that his government had given reservation to the Marathas in 2018. “But Uddhav Thackeray’s government could not protect it in the Supreme Court,” Fadnavis said. “They did nothing to make the case of Maratha reservation stronger. So, they [Uddhav and Sharad Pawar] have no right to talk about the issue.” This is the first time that the Maratha reservation issue has been wracked by violence. The Maratha community, which has been holding protests over the past 20 years, held 107 long marches in 2016 and 2017, with their main demand being reservation. Some of the marches had lakhs of participants, but there was not a single untoward incident.
The legal battle in the Maratha reservation issue is a long story of struggle and complications. In 2013, the Congress-NCP government of the day formed a committee under the then Industry Minister, Narayan Rane, to take a decision on granting Marathas reservation in the education and employment sectors. The committee submitted its report in February 2014, recommending 16 per cent reservation to the Marathas. It also recommended a 5 per cent quota to the Muslim community on the basis of backwardness.
The State government issued an ordinance in 2014 allowing both quotas in education and employment, but the Bombay High Court stayed it in November that year. Around that time, the State government changed, and the BJP came to power. The new government under Devendra Fadnavis asked the State Backward Class Commission to study the Maratha community’s backwardness. In 2018, after receiving a detailed report from the commission, the Fadnavis government announced 16 per cent reservation to the Maratha community and passed a Bill famously known for granting Special Economic Backward Class (SEBC) status to the Marathas.
In June 2019, the Bombay High Court cleared the Bill with 13 per cent reservation for Marathas in government jobs and 12 per cent reservation in education. In November 2019, the State government changed again, with the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) under Uddhav Thackeray coming to power. On May 5, 2021, the Supreme Court struck down the Bill, following which the MVA government filed a curative petition. In April 2023, the court rejected this too.
Speaking to media persons on September 4, both Shinde and Fadnavis raised the point that the Uddhav Thackeray government should have issued an ordinance when the Supreme Court rejected the Bill. Uddhav Thackeray’s response was that the right to issue an ordinance on a Supreme Court order lay with the Centre and not the State. From a legal perspective, the Maratha reservation issue now lies in the Centre’s court. It is up to the Centre to bring a Bill in Parliament in this regard, as giving 16 per cent reservation to the Marathas would exceed the Supreme Court- mandated 50 per cent limit on reservation.
There are already similar demands by communities across the country, such as the Gujjars in Rajasthan and the Patidars in Gujarat. Sharad Pawar said that if the BJP is serious about resolving the issue, it should increase the reservation limit by 15 per cent in Parliament. “By making the reservation limit 65 per cent, the demand for Maratha reservation could be met. This is in the Central government’s hands,” he said.
In the particular case of the Kunbi demand for Marathas, the State government has already formed a committee under the Revenue Secretary to study it. But this committee has not met even once in the past four months.
To pacify Manoj Jarange and his supporters, Shinde announced that the Marathas of Marathwada would be given Kunbi certificates, but only if they can show records proving they are Kunbis. But Manoj Jarange rejected this, saying: “We are farmers. We are not known for keeping papers. If government wants us to produce a document as old as a century, how will a poor Maratha farmer be able to provide it? Instead, the government should announce that all Marathas from the region will get the Kunbi certificate.”
Accepting Manoj Jarange’s demand has the potential to create more problems for the State government because it will result in Kunbis across the State immediately rising up in protest. The existing Kunbi community is strong in the Vidarbha and Konkan regions. Almost 16 Lok Sabha constituencies from these two regions have a strong Kunbi presence. They do not want Marathas to be considered as Kunbis since that will result in Marathas competing for the seats reserved for them.
Also Read | Uddhav Thackeray: Down but not out
After an all-party meeting on September 11, the State government told Jarange that it needed time to make a legally strong provision to give Kunbi status to the Marathas and that until then he should stop his fast. The government also agreed to suspend the three police officers responsible for the lathicharge. Shinde said: “It was agreed in the meeting that Marathas should get reservation without affecting other reservations, especially that of OBCs. Manoj Jarange has proved his point well, and the State government is committed to meeting his demand.”
This statement, of course, does not answer whether and how such an eventual decision will stand up in court. But it pacified Manoj Jarange, who called off his fast on September 12. He said, however, that he would continue his sit-in protest. “I will sit here for the next one month. This is the deadline to you [government]. Take the decision and give me GR where Maratha will get Kunbi certificate. If this does not happen within a month, I will again start the fast,” he said.
Meanwhile, even as discussions were on, Kisan Mane (30) died by suicide for the cause of Maratha reservation at his village, Madaj, in Osmanabad district’s Umaraga tehsil. This is not the first case of suicide based on the highly charged issue of Maratha reservation. In July 2018, Kakasaheb Shinde from Aurangabad took his own life for the same cause.
Maharashtra is a politically sensitive State. Since the Maratha reservation case has the potential to significantly impact social harmony and peace, the political leadership will have to handle the issue very carefully in the days to come. It is safe to say that as of now the people of the State are not very confident about the sensitivity of today’s political leadership.