Maharashtra has always taken pride in its progressive tradition, with the state producing a slew of social reformers, such as Dr BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Karamveer Bhaurao Patil.
However, right now the state is facing the prospect of a caste war. Soon after the meeting of INDIA bloc got over, the Marathas revived their agitation for reservation in government jobs and education. They did this fully knowing that there is precious little that the state government can do in view of the Supreme Court’s judgment of 1993 fixing a cap of 50 per cent in reservations.
The apex court had also outright rejected on May 5, 2021, a plea by the state government for 12 per cent to 13 per cent reservation for Marathas. The government’s review plea was turned down by the court on April 11, 2023. Senior NCP leader Sharad Pawar and others backed the stir, which started in Jalna, with Maratha activist Manoj Jarande-Patil going on a hunger strike.
Several public transport buses were burnt and many policemen were injured in rioting by Maratha supporters. In several districts roadblocks were erected and bandhs were called. However, deft handling of the situation by Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who handles the home portfolio, prevented the situation going out of control. Jarande-Patil ended his fast, but threatened to revive it if no decision was taken in favour of Maratha reservation within a month.
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, a Maratha himself, has tried to find a way by deciding to include Kunbi Marathas, who are primarily agriculturists, in the Other Backward Caste (OBC) category. However, this has provoked a huge reaction from the OBCs, who do not want their quota to be disturbed in any way. Their leaders have categorically stated that Kunbi Marathas should not be included in the OBC category and have warned of severe repercussions if it is done.
Many OBC activists in Nagpur, Satara, Pune and other places have commenced agitations against including Kunbi Marathas in OBC category.
The BJP cannot afford to ignore the OBC agitation because the party has its social base among the OBCs. It was OBC leaders like the late Gopinath Munde who laid the foundation for the spread of the BJP in the state. Meanwhile, Union minister Narayan Rane of the BJP, also a Maratha, has added a new twist to the controversy by publicly stating that upper class Marathas do not need Kunbi caste certificates.
What is interesting is that despite the fact that Maharashtra has had several chief ministers belonging to the Maratha caste, not enough has been done to uplift poor Marathas, who are indeed a deprived lot. Even though the levers of power have been controlled by Marathas ever since 1960 when the state was formed, the community as a whole has remained backward in terms of several parameters. Marathas control most of the sugar factories and banks in the cooperative sectors and several educational institutions, but these institutions have only enriched the Maratha netas.
The other problem bothering the community is the large number of atrocity cases filed against them by Dalits under the stringent anti-atrocity law.
What is the way out of the situation? The only way is to increase the size of the economic cake. But of late Maharashtra has earned a dubious reputation of opposing big-ticket projects, which could have provided jobs to lakhs of youths. The Enron power project was buried in a slew of controversies, and so was the Jaitapur atomic energy plan, and the Aramco oil refinery project, which collectively had an investment outlay running into several lakh crore rupees.