The Kunbi twist in Maharashtra could hurt the BJP

Maratha community’s demand for OBC reservation has sharpened caste politics in Maharashtra and changed the sociopolitical landscape of rural areas.

Published : May 25, 2024 17:09 IST - 13 MINS READ

Activists of the Sakal Maratha Samaj wearing Manoj Jarange-Patil masks participate in a hunger strike to press for Maratha reservation, in Solapur, on October 30, 2023.

Activists of the Sakal Maratha Samaj wearing Manoj Jarange-Patil masks participate in a hunger strike to press for Maratha reservation, in Solapur, on October 30, 2023. | Photo Credit: Karad-Raju Sanadi

A group of Maratha youths was returning to Pathardi (Ahmednagar district) from Ashti (Beed district) after attending a rally of Chhatrapati Udayanraje Bhosle, a BJP Rajya Sabha member and the 13th descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji. Udayanraje had come to Ashti to address a rally in support of Pankaja Munde, the BJP’s candidate in Beed. The young people had travelled about 60 km from Ahmednagar just to listen to their “Maharaj” even though it was held in a place where they did not have a vote. So, would they vote for the person or party that Udayanraje asked them to?

Vaibhav Ghogale, one of the youths, replied with an emphatic “No”—“This time, Marathas are not voting for the BJP.” When Frontline pointed out that the BJP candidate in South Ahmednagar, Sujay Vikhe-Patil, was from the Maratha community, Vaibhav reiterated that the “common Maratha won’t vote for Pankaja or Sujay”, adding: “They are there only for power.” So, while they respect Udayanraje, the youth are not swayed by his appeal to vote for the BJP. This is the new reality of caste in this Lok Sabha election in Maharashtra, which promises to be unlike any that the State has seen to date.

The Jalna protest

To understand how this situation came about, one has to go back about 10 months, to Antarwali Sarati, a nondescript village in Jalna district of Marathwada. It was here that Manoj Jarange-Patil, of Shivaba Pratishthan, an organisation working for the rights of Marathas, was on a fast demanding the grant of the Kunbi certificate to the Marathas of Marathwada region so that they could become eligible for reservation in jobs and education.

The Kunbis are OBCs engaged in farming. Jarange-Patil’s argument was simple: The Marathas of Bidar in Karnataka and in parts of Telangana had been given the Kunbi status on the basis of documents they produced from the period when the Nizam ruled the princely state of Hyderabad, of which these areas and Marathwada were a part. Therefore the Marathas in Marathwada should also be categorised as OBC Kunbis.

Also Read | Maratha reservation issue takes a troubling turn

On September 1, 2023, the police broke up Jarange-Patil’s fast with a lathicharge on him and his supporters and later claimed that it was the protesters who resorted to violence first. But videos of police action against the protesters, especially women, went viral and came as a shock to the community. Such an incident had not happened since the community first began protests for reservation in the late 1990s. It has organised peaceful marches of millions of supporters over the years. The lathicharge led to the hardening of the Marathas’ stance on OBC status for the community and contributed to shaping the politics around caste in the State.

Fearing a Maratha backlash, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde accepted Jarange-Patil’s demand and announced the formation of a committee to verify and grant Kunbi certificates to Marathas from the Marathwada region. Jarange-Patil set a deadline of October 24, which the government did not meet. The Marathas then returned to the path of protest, and for the first time it turned violent.

On October 30, 2023, a mob set fire to the houses of two MLAs of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP): Prakash Solanke of Majalgaon, Beed, who is with Ajit Pawar, and Sandeep Kshirsagar of Beed city, who is with the Sharad Pawar faction. Also, private and government properties were vandalised in Beed and the adjoining Jalna district. A curfew was announced in Beed and Jalna for eight days, and Internet services were shut down.

The government announced a special investigation team to probe the violence in Beed. By then, the protests, under the leadership of Jarange-Patil, had spread to all parts of the State. Jarange-Patil started a tour of the State, and people came in huge numbers to listen to him. Be it in western Maharashtra, Marathwada, north Maharashtra, parts of Vidarbha, or in Mumbai, his meetings drew large crowds from the Maratha community. By the end of November, an emboldened Jarange-Patil demanded Kunbi OBC status for all Marathas in the State.

This put the government in a difficult situation. The Kunbi community is spread across the State and is dominant in the Vidarbha and Konkan regions. In Vidarbha, Kunbis have been the backbone of the BJP for the past 20 years. Expanding the community to include Marathas is unacceptable to Kunbis, who fear that this will cut into their reservation quota.

The State government, therefore, tried to find a middle path. It announced that those Marathas who could produce documents of their ancestors that mention they are Kunbi would be able to get the Kunbi certificate from the District Collector. But this only made both the Kunbis and other OBCs furious, with several OBC leaders organising public meetings against classifying Marathas as Kunbi.

Caste calculus

Maharashtra implemented OBC reservation in 1992.

According to the 1931 caste census, Marathas constitute about 32 per cent of the population. The OBCs make up around 50 per cent of the population. Maharashtra implemented OBC reservation in 1992. (The Centre implemented the Mandal Commission report in 1990) At that time, 27 per cent reservation was given to all castes and subcastes as well as nomadic tribes in the OBC category (see Table).

This table shows the division of the 27 per cent quota within OBCs in Maharashtra. Communities such as Kunbi and sub-castes such as Mali (gardener) and Nabhik (barber) and many other smaller groups are included in the 346 castes that get 19 per cent reservation in jobs, education, and local body elections. Chhagan Bhujbal is from the Mali community. Pankaja Munde is from the Vanjari community. It is claimed that Vanjari is the biggest OBC caste, making up 12 per cent of OBCs; the Mali community makes up 11 per cent; and the Teli community is the third largest OBC caste in Maharashtra with 9 per cent.

These numbers have never been authenticated, but the politics of the State has evolved on the basis of these numbers. So, OBCs, mainly the Mali and Kunbi community leaders, oppose the inclusion of Marathas in the 27 per cent quota on the grounds that giving reservation to a caste that forms 32 per cent of the population would affect the chances of other groups who benefit from the 19 per cent reservation within the overall 27 per cent OBC quota.

Leading this group was Cabinet Minister Chhagan Bhujbal of the NCP (Ajit Pawar). Between Jarange-Patil’s rallies and Bhujbal’s counter-mobilisation, friction of a level never seen before was created between the OBCs and the Marathas. The formalisation of this divide is being played out in the Lok Sabha election.

On his part, Jarange-Patil first announced that his group would contest all 48 seats. When it was pointed out on social media that this would result in a division of the anti-BJP alliance votes, Jarange-Patil announced that his movement would not get into electoral politics. He also said, “Marathas know whom to defeat for their benefit.”

This announcement came on the heels of a meeting he had with Prakash Ambedkar of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi where the possibility of Jarange-Patil launching a political party and forming an alliance with the VBA to defeat the BJP was discussed. While that was not to be, the meeting helped firm up the objective, which was to defeat the BJP even if the Marathas and the Scheduled Castes fight separately. This meeting of minds could have an impact in more than 30 constituencies.

In Beed, Jalna, and Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar districts, which were the epicentres of the Maratha protest in October-November 2023, the sociopolitical impact of Marathas and the SCs fighting on the same side, though separately, could be huge in electoral terms. The two communities had been at loggerheads since the controversy broke in the early 1990s over Marathwada University being renamed Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University. When the then Congress government of Sharad Pawar decided to rename the university, the Marathwada region saw a major social uproar as the Maratha community rose in unison against it.

Riots broke out in parts of Marathwada. Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (then Aurangabad) witnessed mammoth rallies of both communities, and many incidents of atrocities were recorded across the eight districts of Marathwada. Finally, to placate both sides, the government decided to name it Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University. The “Namantar Andolan”, as the movement was called, created a rift between the two communities that only widened over the next two decades.

  • The demand by Maratha leader Manoj Jarange-Patil for Kunbi OBC status for Marathas across Maharashtra has created unprecedented friction between the OBC communities and Marathas, hardening their stances on reservations. 
  • This caste polarisation has led to Marathas, Muslims and Dalits positioning themselves against the BJP in this election, though fighting separately, reviving the old “MMD formula” that once helped Congress win elections..
  • The rise of intense caste politics is seen as a counter-strategy to the BJP’s attempt at religious polarisation through issues like Ram Mandir, renaming cities etc., pushing the religious narrative to the backseat in this election..

This Lok Sabha election can be seen as a turning point where, after a long time, the youth of both communities have come together in much of Marathwada and the rest of Maharashtra. However, Jaydeo Dole, a political observer, hesitates to read too much into the alliance and calls it an adjustment between the communities. He explained: “The BJP regime at the Centre has taken enough steps to unsettle Dalit youth across the country. Maratha youth are against the BJP because of their unmet reservation demand. So, right now it seems that both communities have positioned themselves against the BJP. The political compulsion that has brought them together has the potential to go further and become an example of social harmony.”

The MMD formula

The other reason for Dalits moving closer to the opposition camp is the BJP’s election slogan: “Ab ki baar, 400 paar.” Statements of BJP leaders that the NDA needs the 400-plus seats to change the Constitution has had a negative impact on Dalit voters. Later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to convince Dalit voters that as long as “he is alive, nobody will be able to change the Constitution”. This has had the effect of toning down the anti-BJP campaign among Dalits, especially Hindu Dalits, but the damage had been done in the first two phases when 13 constituencies voted.

The Marathas and Dalits were soon joined by Muslims in what is called the “MMD formula”. Back in the 1970s, the Congress used to win elections in the State with this formidable combination. Later, with the splintering of the Maratha votes and the rise of Hindu right-wing politics, the combination eventually collapsed.

Manoj Jarange Patil pays tribute to B.R. Ambedkar on his birth anniversary on April 14 in Mumbai.

Manoj Jarange Patil pays tribute to B.R. Ambedkar on his birth anniversary on April 14 in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the Namantar andolan, the Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray stood with the Marathas. In a show of gratitude, the Marathas of Marathwada shifted to the Shiv Sena in the 1995 Lok Sabha as well as Assembly elections. These were also the days of rath yatra politics. The NDA came to power in New Delhi and the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance won the Assembly election in Maharashtra. Marathwada, part of the erstwhile Hyderabad princely state, always had a sizeable Muslim population. So, the aggressive anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit rhetoric of Bal Thackeray made him popular in Marathwada. The demand to rename Aurangabad to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar and change the name of Osmanabad to Dharashiv was made for the first time during these days of the early 1990s. The Eknath Shinde-led government implemented the renaming, and their anticipation of a Hindu-Muslim polarisation as a result of this is up for the test.

One of the reactions to the formation of the MMD combine was a consolidation of the OBCs. In the 1980s when the BJP appeared on the scene in Maharashtra, its strategist, Vasantrao Bhagwat, came up with the “Ma Dha Va”, or Mali-Dhangar-Vanjari, formula. All three castes come under the OBC category. The BJP slowly expanded its base among other OBC communities as well. In 2014, BJP promised a caste census. That helped it in Vidarbha, where it won all 10 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2014 Assembly election, the BJP contested alone and won 44 of the 62 seats in the Vidarbha region owing to the polarisation of Kunbi votes in its favour.

This time, the government’s decision to accept the demand to include Marathas in the Kunbi category is bound to trigger an OBC backlash. In every rally, BJP leaders have repeatedly said that the “reservation of the OBCs will not be touched at any cost”. Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the BJP’s number one leader in Maharashtra, even said in the rally in Wardha that “the DNA of the BJP is of the OBCs”.

As a result, anticipating the possibility of Kunbi polarisation in favour of the BJP in Vidarbha, the Congress has fielded Kunbi candidates in all the 7 seats it is contesting of the 10 in the region. Of these, four are open seats and two are reserved for SCs and one for STs. Its alliance partners, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) and NCP (Sharad Pawar) are contesting two seats and one, respectively, and they too have nominated Kunbi candidates.

The strategy of the INDIA bloc in Vidarbha is simple. By putting up Kunbi candidates, it is hoping to get the community over to its side. Simultaneously, these parties are banking on the support of the SCs, the STs, and the minorities, all of whom are likely to vote against the BJP. Whichever strategy wins, the reason will be caste consolidation rather than religious polarisation, as has usually been the case.

Also Read | Maharashtra on edge as Maratha reservation protests turn violent

The Congress manifesto promises a caste census if the INDIA bloc wins, something its leaders emphasise in public meetings. However, Jarange-Patil is not impressed with the Congress’ assurance. He said: “They were in power for 60 years. Why didn’t they give us reservation that time. So, it is better to get from OBC quota instead of the long route of constitutional amendment.”

The rise of caste politics in Maharashtra is also being interpreted as a counterstrategy to the religious communalisation attempted by the BJP, whether it is via the Ram temple in Ayodhya or the renaming of cities: Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (Aurangabad), Dharashiv (Osmanabad), and Ahilyanagar (Ahmednagar). In the past two-and-a-half years since the fall of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government, incidents of communal violence have increased in the State. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Maharashtra recorded 8,218 cases of riots in 2022. It ranked second after Uttar Pradesh. According to the data of India Hate Lab, Maharashtra witnessed the highest number of hate speeches in 2023 in the country.

Caste taking centrestage seems to have pushed the religious narrative to the back burner. The political scientist Suhas Palshikar agrees that caste is at the centre in this election narrative but is not sure about its impact on the outcome. He said: “It is true that caste has played a major role in building up the momentum for the 2024 election in Maharashtra. But will it have a decisive impact on the results? That we will have to wait for June 4.”

He added: “People identify a topic with a party. Like the Green Revolution or the liberalisation of the economy is associated with the Congress, similarly the Ram Mandir is attributed to the BJP. So, if they want to vote BJP because of that, it is not necessary that it will be the talking point of the election. Only if people are thinking otherwise will issues such as caste have a decisive impact.”

A parallel to the current situation could be drawn from the 2004 Lok Sabha election. In 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress and the NCP, won 23 seats out of 48. The NDA won 25 seats. The UPA’s performance surprised many at the national level, but in the State it was attributed to three factors. The Marathas were strongly united against the “objectionable remarks” written in the controversial book on Shivaji authored by the American writer James Laine.

The second factor was the Gujarat riots of 2002. This consolidated Muslims behind the UPA. Dalits supported the UPA in large numbers over fears that the BJP would make changes to the Constitution. Ramdas Athawale, now Union Minister of State for Social Justice, was a candidate of the UPA. He had led the battle against the BJP back in 2004. After 20 years, Marathas and Dalits are back on the same side.

The MMD formula too has created a buzz again this time. Politics is not like a movie, where coincidences happen according to the director’s whims and wishes. But when 2024 matches with 2004 in the theatre of strategies and counterstrategies, will the results also match up? 

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