After a severe electoral drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections, it was time for the ruling Congress and NCP to fall back on a tested populist formula for the assembly polls — caste and religion based quotas for Marathas and Muslims.
This is for the first time in Maharashtra that reservations will be given on the basis of religion, provoking criticism from opposition parties like the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
The Maharashtra cabinet on Wednesday approved 16% and 5% quotas for Marathas and Muslims respectively. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said these reservations will be applicable in the government-run educational institutions and jobs, creating heartburn among other social sections and cries of these decisions being legally unsustainable.
This will take the quantum of reservations in the state to 73% from the earlier 52%, violating the Supreme Court judgment in the Indira Sawhney case, which said reservations were not to exceed 50%. 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.
Muslims form around 10.6 per cent of Maharashtra's population. The decision has raised the hackles of some Muslims who feel upper-caste 'Ashraf' Muslims will walk off with the benefits leaving backwards in the cold. Various Muslim classes fall in categories like other backward classes (OBCs), vimukta jati and nomadic tribes (VJNT), SC/STs.
"There is no space for religious reservations in our Constitution," said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari, pointing to how quotas for Muslims by other states like Andhra Pradesh had been struck down in the past. "The Congress is not respecting the Constitution framed by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar for the sake of vote bank politics," he charged. However, considering the huge numbers of Marathas, almost all political parties have supported quotas for them.
OBCs and social activists are also upset at the Maratha community being given quotas despite the community dominating the socio-political sphere in Maharashtra, accounting for a majority of elected representatives and chief ministers. Even Maratha community leaders are sceptical on the legal footing of the move. 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. The state backward classes commission had rejected the proposal to grant reservations to Marathas in 2008.
The state government had appointed a committee headed by state industrial minister Narayan Rane to study the social and economical condition of Marathas in the state, while the Mehmood-ur-Rehman committee had recommended 8-10% reservation for Muslim in education and jobs.
"These are not political reservations. We have given reservation on the basis of backwardness of these both Maratha and Muslim communities. The Rane committee has quantified all these data that will also stand in the court of law. We have taken the decision within the framework of law. Very soon, the GR will be issued and it will come with immediate effect," said Chavan, clarifying that the reservation was not religion-based.
He said they will also take care that giving reservation decision will not be challenged in court. "We are ready to back our decision in court as well. We will not disturb the existing 52% reservation. This reservation issue was in the pipeline for the past 10 years. It was a legitimate demand; therefore we approved it in today's cabinet meeting. It will help to uplift the poor Maratha and Muslim families," said Chavan.
Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar said they are not worried about their decision being opposed. "We felt there was a need for reservation, so it was given. And, we have fulfilled the promise, which was given in our election manifesto."
"This decision was taken in haste with an eye on the elections," Shabbir Ansari of the All India Muslim OBC Organisation, a veteran of the Muslim OBC movement, said. Upper-caste Muslims would edge out backwards from the community, he said. He added that the Constitution had no provision for reservations on religious and economic grounds, and noted that the best way to ameliorate the condition of Muslims was to strengthen and ease the grant of quota benefits to OBC Muslims who form overwhelming numbers in the community.
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 areas like Vidarbha and the Konkan are already in the OBC category, leaving out only a small percentage of Marathas outside the reservation net. However, there is confusion over the numbers of the community with a state government publication listing them at just 16%.
Kunbis (agriculturists) and Marathas (warriors), are interchangable terms, with the warrior class being identified with the term 'Maratha' otherwise used to denote people of Maharashtrian origin.
"This is emotional cheating of the Marathas. These reservations are unconstitutional," charged writer and activist Sanjay Sonawani, adding that it would be legally challenged.
Vinayak Mete, MLC and president of Shivsangram welcomed the state government decision. "But I have doubt that it will not stand in the court of law. We worked hard for this day, hope it will last," he said.
"This is the culmination of a 33-year-old demand. This will help social and economic mobility for marginal farmers who were unable to educate themselves due to backwardness," said Pravin Gaikwad of the Sambhaji Brigade.
Currently, apart from 13% and 7% reservations for SCs and STs, the 356 OBC castes get 19% reservations, followed by 11% for 51 VJNT communities and 2% for 11 castes, included in the SBC. OBCs are estimated at over 52% of the population including 43.70% Hindu and 8.40% non-Hindus. Though the quantum of quotas in Tamil Nadu is 69%, this is pre-Mandal and no upper castes like Marathas are covered.