The likely announcement of a quota for Marathas is drawing criticism from other backward castes (OBCs), who believe that the dominant community would take away the reservations for the weaker sections.
The Congress-NCP alliance government is considering the proposal of a cabinet sub-committee for 20% reservation for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions. But some leaders fear this would set off similar demands by other groups like Muslims. Critics of the move point out that, like the Brahmins, the Marathas too were at the apex of the caste system and were not seen as its victims unlike Dalits.
However, Maratha leaders insist that a majority of the community's members are socially and economically backward, so they require affirmative action in jobs and education and not politics.
The proposed reservation is clearly a populist move ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. The leaders argue this would defeat the purpose of quotas, meant to help sections like OBCs, Dalits and tribals and perhaps even lead to a legal battle.
Besides, reservations already exist among OBCs for a section of Marathas, known as Kunbis. "A large number of Marathas have got certificates as Kunbis. Then how can a 20% quota be justified? Moreover, if Marathas are eligible for reservations based on the size of population, OBCs, who constitute 52% according to the Mandal commission, should get a 52% quota," one activist said.
Maratha Kunbis, who are largely agriculturists, constituted 31.5% of the population counted in the state in 1931. They have a large presence in Vidarbha and Konkan.
The crux of the controversy is that Marathas dominate the political landscape in Maharashtra and OBCs feel they may be elbowed out by a new quota. Today, a total 356 backward castes get 19% reservations, 51 scheduled castes and tribes get 11% and 11 other castes in the special backward category get 2%.
An activist pointed out that such a large quota for Marathas would result in a violation of the Supreme Court order, which stipulates a limit of 50% on the total reservations. The state government is said to have sought legal opinion on this aspect.
He admitted that Tamil Nadu had 69% reservations. But he explained that this was decided before the implementation of the Mandal commission recommendations. The southern states has a 50% quota for OBCs, but this does not include Marathas.
Sanjay Sonawani, a writer and activist, thinks an unnecessary cleavage is being created between Marathas and OBCs. "This is an attempt to get political leverage before the polls. People across various social sections face economic problems, then should reservations be extended to all communities?" he asked and warned about possible social strife in a period of transition.
He underlined the need to move out of the ambit of reservations. "While government jobs are on the decline in an era of privatisation, the competition for jobs has risen," said Sonawani. He said government must expand its involvement in education and health care.