With an eye on assembly elections after severe drubbing in Lok Sabha polls, the Congress-NCP government on Wednesday approved 16% reservation for Marathas and 5% for Muslims in government jobs and education institutions.
With the additional 21% quotas for the politically influential Maratha community and Muslims cleared by the Cabinet on Wednesday, reservation in jobs and educational institutions in Maharashtra will go up to 73%.
"Maratha community is being treated as educationally and socially backward and 16 per cent quota has been fixed for them. The quota for Muslims is not religion-based but on the criterion of social and economic backwardness," Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan told reporters after the Cabinet meeting.
He said the provision would come into effect "immediately" and would not impinge upon the existing 52% quotas for various other sections.
Replying to a volley of questions about whether the new quota would stand legal scrutiny in view of the Supreme Court judgements of 50% cap on reservations, Chavan said,"If anyone approaches the court we will explain our stance." Rubbishing that fresh quota were aimed at wooing Maratha and Muslim voters following the poll debacle, he said," The process for this started in 2004. There have been recommendations of Sachar Committee and Rangnath Mishra Commission on social, educational and economic backwardness of Muslims."
Reservation already exists among OBCs for a section of Marathas known as Kunbis. Maratha Kunbis, who are largely agriculturists, constitute 31.5 per cent of the total Maratha population and have a large presence in Vidarbha and Konkan.
A section of the ruling alliance had been demanding reservation for Marathas and Muslims and the move gathered momentum after the Lok Sabha poll defeat when Congress-NCP's joint tally plunged to an all-time low of six seats.
Opposition alliance 'Mahayuti' that included BJP, Shiv Sena and three other smaller parties clinched 42 of state's 48 seats.
A cabinet sub-committee headed by Industries Minister Narayan Rane had submitted its report to the government earlier this year in which it had recommended 20 per cent reservation for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions.
Some leaders of Maratha community had insisted on a decision on the contentious issue before the assembly polls.
Sambhajiraje Chhatrapati, descendant of Maratha king Shivaji who heads Maratha Aarakshan Mahamorcha, an umbrella group of 23 organisations demanding reservation, had even issued an ultimatum to the state government.
"Maratha communities had not taken any stand to support or oppose the NCP-Congress in Lok Sabha elections. If the Maratha quota is not announced, we will take an anti-government stand in assembly polls," he had warned.
Some prominent Maratha leaders like Vinayak Mete had deserted the NCP and joined the opposition 'Mahayuti' alliance, which had assured it would consider demands of the Maratha community.
Meanwhile, opposition BJP has termed the decision to provide reservation for Muslims as "politically motivated" and "unconstitutional".
"The decision is politically motivated and unconstitutional as there is no provision in the Constitution for religion-based reservation," Eknath Khadse and Vinod Tawde, leaders of opposition in legislative assembly and legislative council respectively, told reporters.
They said the government had "fooled" the Maratha community by whittling down 20% reservation recommended by the Rane committee to 16%.
The BJP leaders, however, said they would support the government if its decision on quotas for Marathas was challenged in the court.