After milking it for political gains in successive elections, the decision to grant reservations to the dominant Maratha community may become a zero sum game for the Congress-NCP-led state government. While other backward classes (OBCs) activists are up in arms against the move, Maratha leaders too are doubtful if this will stand the legal test.
The state had set up a cabinet sub-committee under industries minister Narayan Rane to examine reservations in jobs and education for Marathas and is expected to declare the quota after June 21. Adding to the sense of urgency is the electoral debacle of Congress and NCP in the Lok Sabha elections.
However, the increasingly assertive OBCs fear that Marathas, who dominate socio-political economy in Maharashtra and account for a majority of chief ministers and elected representatives, would elbow them out in the battle for upward mobility. The state backward classes commission in 2008 rejected the demand for Marathas to be included in the OBC category.
OBC activists point to how the decision will violate the Supreme Court judgment in the Indira Sawhney case, which said reservations were not to exceed 50% and that this populist measure could lead to similar demands from other socio-religious groups. Though the quantum of quotas in Tamil Nadu is 69%, this is pre-Mandal and no upper castes like Marathas are covered. While Maharashtra has a 2% quota for the special backwards category (SBC), it has managed to stay out of legal trouble through some deft manoeuvring.
"Perhaps, the government wants to commit suicide. It does not know how many social sections it has hurt in the process," said author-activist Sanjay Sonawani, adding that the quota decision will be challenged legally. "Maratha youths are being cheated for votes," charged Sonawani, adding that this was creating a rift between Marathas and OBCs.
Reducing the open quota would shrink the space for castes like Brahmins and even OBCs, who fall in the "creamy layer", and SCs and STs who want to compete from the open category.
"Politicians have created an impression that reservations are the panacea for backwardness," noted Sonawani, pinning it down to a mentality which seeks "simplistic replies for difficult questions".
The 356 OBC castes get 19% reservation, followed by 11% for 51 VJNT communities and 2% for 11 castes included in the SBC. OBCs point out that though Maratha-Kunbis were estimated at around 31.5% of Maharashtra's population (based on the 1931 census), Kunbis, who have large numbers in Vidarbha and the Konkan, are already in the OBC category, leaving out only a small percentage of Marathas outside the reservation net. OBCs are estimated at over 52% of the population, including 43.70% Hindus and 8.40% non-Hindus.
"We are happy our struggle has borne fruit. However, we doubt if a separate quota only for Marathas will stand the legal test," said a Maratha leader, admitting to grey areas. He noted that Kunbis (agriculturists) and Marathas (warriors) were interchangeable terms, with the warrior class being identified with the term 'Maratha' otherwise used to denote people of Maharashtrian origin. "It's not possible to grant quotas to just one caste," he said, adding that instead, this could cover intermediate castes engaged in dryland farming.
"There are too many contradictions. On what basis is the decision being taken?" questioned Nitin Choudhari of the OBC Mukti Morcha, pointing out that to be included in the OBC list a community needed to fulfil 12 criteria. "This is a Maratha nation, not Maharashtra," said an incensed Choudhari.
"We want quotas not just in job and education but also in politics," said former BMC additional commissioner Vijaysinh Patankar, Mumbai chief of the Maratha Arakshan Samanway Samiti, demanding all benefits under which OBCs were covered. "Marathas need to be mainstreamed... (Otherwise) it will create social strife," he said, claiming that contrary to popular perception, only a fraction of the community were part of the ruling class.
An OBC activist pointed out that reservations were not 'garibi hatao' measures but were given to overcome centuries of social and educational backwardness and sought that the Rane committee report be made public.