Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s visit to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 8 was something of a surprise. Ever since the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parted ways in 2019, they have had a cold relationship punctuated by some cutting ripostes once in a while. The surprise element was heightened when the reasons for the visit turned out to be largely State-level matters that were being put before the Prime Minister. Among these was the hanging issue of reservation for the Maratha community.
When the Maharashtra government cleared reservation for the Maratha community in education and government jobs in 2018, there was one question that was left hanging. Would the blueprint make it to policy? As expected, the courts have maintained that quotas have to be within the 50 per cent ceiling. If the plan for allowing 16 per cent for Marathas was allowed it would raise the community’s reservation in education and government jobs to 68 per cent.
The demand for reservation was prompted by the growing crises that the community found itself in. The Marathas are actually not a single community. The term covers many smaller sub-castes, and between them there has always been unease. The demand for reservation brought them together, at least temporarily. As a primarily agrarian community they have been faced with growing economic problems. But the problem goes deeper than that. They have problems built into their social structure—gender inequalities, a resistance to higher education for girls, and the custom of dowry, to name a few. Marathas saw immense political gain in uniting as a community, in much the same way that other communities across India had done before, such as Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana.
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Suddenly they were a monolith and of great interest to political parties. Maratha leaders were as quick to realise this and pursue the demand for short-term gains. While reservation has its place to extricate a community from inequalities, some long-term planning is also required if leaders are looking for real progress. Sadly, the almost single-minded focus on reservation is pushing aside many real issues that the community faces, such as the need to create earning opportunities for young people who do not wish to work in the rural economy and to improve prospects for those who choose to stay in the farm sector.
Maratha Kranti Morcha
For most non-Marathas, the demand for a quota is puzzling. Are not Marathas politically, economically and socially dominant in Maharashtra, they wonder. They are, but then the reservation demand grew out of an incident entirely unrelated to community well-being. It all started in 2016 when a Maratha teenage girl was raped and killed in Ahmednagar district. The community came together under the banner of the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM) and held silent rallies in protest against the crime. From 2016 to 2017, more than 58 silent rallies were held, demonstrating the impressive bonding the community was capable of. Every rally ended with a 10-point charter being presented to a local senior government official—at the top of the list was justice for the murdered girl, then loan waivers for farmers, and reservation.
As the movement gained momentum, it outgrew its origins and centred on reservation. Slowly, leaders emerged. By 2017-2018, it seemed as if there was nothing else on the agenda. Street protests were violent, and there were even a few suicides for the cause. The slogan “Ek Maratha—Lakh Maratha” ominously told the government of the power of the community.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena combine was in power at that time. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis was politically nervous about this en masse action. He defused the situation in June 2017 by appointing an 11-member commission led by Justice (retired) N.G. Gaikwad. In its report, the commission suggested that Marathas be given reservation under the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act of 2018. There was no mention of the quota percentage. The Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission sanctioned the Act in 2018, and in November 2018 Marathas were granted 16 per cent reservation under it. By enacting this legislation, the State took the first step to pre-empt any judicial query on reservation. Realising the political power of the now united Marathas, all parties were in agreement. But a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Bombay High Court challenged it.
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The court brought the percentage quota down, saying it should be 12 per cent in higher educational institutes and 13 per cent in government jobs. Then on September 9, 2020, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of this order and referred the matter to the Chief Justice of India. On May 5, 2021, the apex court quashed the reservation.
A five-judge Constitution Bench framed six questions in law on the issue. One of these was whether the Maratha reservation could be an exception to the 50 per cent ceiling of reservation. All the judges came out against this. Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice Abdul Nazeer said, “The Marathas are a dominant forward class and are in the mainstream of national life. The above situation is not an extraordinary [one].” The other three judge, Justices Nageswara Rao, Hemant Gupta and Ravindra Bhat, accepted their view.
The MKM’s reaction was predictable. BJP MP Chhatrapati Sambhajiraje, who has been at the forefront of the reservation demand, said, “The verdict is unfortunate, but the Maratha community will accept it as it has come from the highest court of the land.” But he also demanded that “the State and the Central government should find a way out of this”. The MKM blamed the State government for not being forceful enough in putting the matter across. It pointed out that in Tamil Nadu there was 69 per cent reservation despite the matter pending in court. Sambhajiraje has said that a fresh agitation will be launched on June16 from Kolhapur.
The State government appointed a committee headed by Justice (retired) Dilip Bhosale to study the Supreme Court judgment. Justice Bhosale submitted his report to Uddhav Thackeray on June 4. He recommended that the State should file a review petition in the apex court. If this failed the State should constitute a Backward Class Commission which would be directed to study the matter and present a report that, in turn, could be taken up by the National Commission for Backward Classes.
Uddhav Thackeray has instead directly approached the Prime Minister to initiate steps to resolve the issue. The State government has little option but to forge ahead with its commitment to reservation, but it seems too early in the game to be looping in the Prime Minister.
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It is not as if the State’s hands are tied. In fact, three weeks after the Supreme Court’s order, the State government issued a new order on May 31 stating that the Socially and Educationally Backward Class candidates can avail themselves of benefits of the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) depending on eligibility. The EWS quota is open to those not covered by any other quota and with annual family income below Rs.8 lakh. This was done to correct a procedural anomaly that came out of the SEBC quota granted by the State in 2018. In January 2019, the Centre enacted the EWS quota which allowed 10 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions to members of the EWS in the general category.
What happened then was that Marathas started availing themselves of benefits from both categories. So, in July 2020 the State government issued an order saying those availing themselves of benefits of the SEBC were not eligible to EWS benefits. However, when the Supreme Court imposed its first stay on the Maratha quota on September 9, 2020, the State reversed its order and allowed Marathas to enjoy EWS benefits. At that time, there was resistance to the idea by Maratha leaders who said it was a ploy by the State to get them out of the SEBC quota. The State government put the order on hold. It was passed only in December 2020 with the proviso that EWS benefits would be optional.
After the May 5 order of the Supreme Court, the State government reissued the EWS order saying it was no longer optional and Marathas were free to enjoy EWS benefits now. The MKM sees this as a ploy to defraud the Marathas.
The Maha Vikas Aghadi has made it clear that it is committed to the Maratha reservation issue. The State even has a Cabinet subcommittee for Maratha reservation headed by the Congress’ Ashok Chavan, who is a former Chief Minister. Politicians are keenly aware that Marathas form 32 per cent of the population. Indeed, in the 2019 Vidhan Sabha election, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) played up its own Maratha-ness and emphasised its commitment to the cause, which gave it significant gains in the election. The MVA knows that the reservation issue will be a major one in the coming months and could determine its future in the next election.