Has the government decision to grant quotas to the dominant Marathas and Muslims opened a Pandora's box? Seems so, judging by the demands for reservations now being aired by various caste and social groups.
While Dhangars (shepherd) have begun an agitation across Maharashtra demanding that they be placed in scheduled tribes (ST) category, groups like Lingayats, Banjaras, Kolis, Wadars and Matangs have also been seeking more benefits. Ironically, Brahmins who top the caste hierarchy, also want reservations (on economic grounds). And with Marathas and Muslims being granted quotas, these long-pending demands have received an impetus.
Not surprisingly, such demands are being opposed by other caste groups. OBC Muslims object to reservations for Muslims at large as they fear it could lead to backwards in the community, which already have quota benefits, being sidelined by economically stronger upper-caste Ashraf Muslims.
Tribals oppose including Dhangars—who form around 18% of Maharashtra's population next only to Maratha-Kunbi caste cluster (32%)—in ST category. And they have begun retaliating against the aggressive protest by Dhangars.
Surendra Jondhale, professor, department of civics and politics, University of Mumbai, pinned down such demands to the lopsided development models in place.
"There is a phenomena of upward, social and economically mobile demanding reservations... caste assertion can be seen here," he said, pointing to the inherent irony and contradiction in these demands—while social groups agitate for reservations in govt jobs and educational institutions, the share of the state in creating jobs and providing for education is on the decline.
Communities now seek downward mobility in the caste pyramid for quota benefits in an almost competitive manner, turning on its head the Sanskritisation theory put forth by eminent sociologist MN Srinivas wherein lower castes seek upward mobility.
"Dhangads (mispronounced Dhangars) have to be included in ST category," said Lalit Bandgar, convenor, Mumbai Dhangar Arakshan Kruti Samiti. "Despite this being a six-decade-old demand, it has been neglected."
The community is presently in VJNT category with 3.5% quota. Including them in ST would grant them reservation in 25 tribal reservation seats. They will also be entitled to more funds, and better education and employment opportunities.
State sports minister and tribal leader Padmakar Valvi, who met president Pranab Mukherjee with tribal legislators cutting across party lines, opposes this demand. Dhangars can be given reservation as a separate category, they should not figure in ST list," said Valvi. If they are included, other tribals would be deprived of benefits, he added.
Wadars (VJNT) and Kolis (special backward classes) also want state to declare them as STs. Matangs are demanding a separate quota, as SC benefits are being "appropriated" by others.
Brahmins (estimated 8-10% of state population across linguistic divisions and sects) also want such benefits. And to form a larger social coalition against the dominant Marathas, OBC communities, which are upwardly mobile and compete with Marathas, are supporting the Brahmin demand. They point out that though reservations are not a garibi hatao programme, it had been extended to the socially dominant Marathas and hence, the economically weak Brahmins too need such benefits.
"Those who come to power exploiting caste and religion have no idea how to use it (power)," said Dr Babasaheb's Ambedkar's grandson and former Lok Sabha MP, Prakash Ambedkar, adding that social conflicts and divisions were rising due to competing interests and demands.