While Dalits take to the streets to demand the pulling down of an anti-Ambedkar page on Facebook, a far more serious threat to the community is on the rise as the dominant political caste, the Marathas, has reiterated its demand for reservation.
Though the Marathas (including the economically weaker Kunbi sub-caste) comprise only about 30% of Maharashtra’s population, their representation in the state assembly averages about 43%. The community also has a stranglehold on local political institutions like the panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads, which is further consolidated by its control over credit and sugar cooperatives and educational institutions.
Why then is the Maratha Arakshan Sangharsha Samiti (Mass), an umbrella organisation of 15 Maratha bodies, demanding reservation for Marathas? A closer look reveals that though the community is seeking quotas in education and employment, its main aim is to gain political reservation in due course.
Maratha leaders have sought 25% reservation in schools, colleges and jobs in the first phase, and later intend to demand political reservation and promotions in government service on caste basis.
Though a section of the community, mainly the one which depends on agriculture for sustenance, has been economically backward for many years, and its condition is deteriorating, socially and in terms of political clout, the caste is has been ascendant. Before the implementation of the panchayati raj system, and even afterwards, Marathas have been the only rulers in villages. It might be true that power is in the hands of a few community elite, but it is also true that all the power centres in the state are controlled by the Marathas.
Not only gram panchayats, but the entire co-operative movement in the state, from cooperative sugar factories to weaving mills, is dominated by the Marathas.
The Maratha demand took root after the lower castes were granted reservation in politics. Some say the community could not digest that a person from a lower caste can wield the power which has been its sole prerogative for generations.
Given the size of the Maratha vote bank, no political party can afford to ignore its demand, but due to its overbearing nature, none can publicly support it either. The parties, however, did try to lend implicit support in the hope that it would bring them extra votes, but the move backfired by creating a real threat of polarisation of non-Maratha communities. The political parties are now thus a proxy in the issue, preferring instead to work behind the facade of organisations like the Maratha Mahasangh and others.
The Dalit leaders, though wary, are not openly objecting to the demand. Their key contention is that the reservation should be given from a separate quota without affecting the reservation offered to the other backward classes (OBCs).
Senior Dalit leader and Dalit litterateur Arjun Dangale agrees that a section of the Maratha community is poor and doesn’t have land to cultivate. “The demand may be sound, but the existing reservation of other castes should not be curtailed,” he says.
“Since the chairmanships of local self-government arms, from the gram panchayat to zilla parishad, are reserved for each caste on rotation basis, the Maratha community will be able to wrest power for longer periods if it is denoted an OBC. Political reservation may be their hidden agenda,” Dangale says.
Another Dalit activist, professor Avinash Mahatekar, said that if the Marathas want reservation, it should be on the basis of economic backwardness. “The reservation allotted to OBCs is based on the Census of 1930, and is only 27%. However, the Mandal Commission’s finding is that 52% of the state’s population belongs to OBCs. If we consider the commission’s findings, the reservation for OBCs is not sufficient,” Mahatekar said. “But we still support the reservation for Marathas as many among them are backward,” he added.
On their part, Maratha leaders refute they are ultimately angling for political reservation. “The Marathas have been economically backward for many years and there are just a handful of families, about 150 to 200, who have all the power,” said Purushottam Khedekar, chief of Maratha Seva Sangh.
“The situation has changed in the last few years and the Marathas are not the rulers anymore. In fact, the community is not even interested in that role and wants to educate itself and get better jobs instead,” Khedekar said. “We don’t want reservation in politics. But our demand for reservation in education and government jobs stands,” he reiterated.
However, Vinayak Mete, MLC of the Nationalist Congress Party and a prominent Maratha leader, said, “The Marathas are backward in education which resulted in them having no face in the administration. There is opposition from various sections, but we are not for curtailing anyone else’s reservation. We want to be treated as a separate community in the reservation category,” said Mete.
Ultimately, Maratha leaders concede they have let their community down. “Though most of the educational institutions are controlled by Marathas, the leaders haven’t bothered about the community,” Mete says, and adds, “They never tried to think for the upliftment of the community, and that is why we are pushing for reservation.”
Though there is little to refute that this admission lies at the heart of the problem, what makes the plot more sinister is that these very leaders are now exploiting the backwardness of their community to tighten their grip on power.