Maratha politics is on the boil in Maharashtra yet again. Ranked in stoic disapporval, thousands of Marathas have been taking to streets for weeks now in protest at what they see to be government indifference to their plight. Youth attempting suicide, setting themselves ablaze and destroying public property, are all trademarks of these protests. And while Maratha demands for reservation date back to the 90s, it only comes to the limelight every few years.
What explains this intermittent flare-up among the most politically and economically influential community in Maharashtra? Lets explore.
Marathas are insecure about their socio-economic status
They are the dominant caste group in Maharashtra, forming the largest share of the state’s population (32%). Traditionally, they owned large tracts of farmland and largely depended on agriculture for their livelihood (India being primarily an agrarian economy).
But this traditional dominance is now being threatened in the new economic order where education and jobs matter more than ancestral ‘jagir’ or farm incomes. It is well known that India is facing an agrarian crisis, which has led to farmer protests erupting in different parts of the country. As the country moves towards a manufacturing economy, even large Maratha landowners are bound to experience a squeeze in their farm incomes.
In fact, a 2016 Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) survey showed that while Marathas were historically, way ahead of other caste groups (except Brahmins) in terms of land, it served little advantage when it came to attaining higher education. It also revealed that over 40% of the households covered in the survey were living below poverty line.
The truth is that state finances that earlier went towards farm facilities like hybridization technology, setting up warehouses, etc. are now going towards building factories. The Marathas realize that today, real economic power is shifting from rural areas to big corporations and that they themselves are ill-prepared to adjust to the urban and formal sector. This is why they fill up only 15% of the government posts in the state, whereas other castes take up 52% of the posts through reservation. And when it comes to education, less than 12% of the seats in the whole of Maharashtra go to Marathas. This is why they believe that reservation will be the key to their economic upliftment.
Their protests are supported by the Panchayat
The Marathas do not dominate politics at higher levels in the state anymore. Their political clout has weakened under the present Bharatiya Janata Party government, which has made them disgruntled with Maharashtra’s political scenario and acts as a motivator when protesting.
But the EPW survey found that the community was still highly influential at the district level, with 63% of the Gram Panchayat positions going to Marathas. This means that they have a greater probability of having close relations with a panchayat member, than that of any other caste groups. This also means that they can receive majority support from the Panchayat when staging protests.
As a result of their frustration with the State and easy mobilization, Maratha protests keep turning up every now and then.
Their reservation demands started in the 90s
The demand for reservation in government jobs and education for Marathas was first moved in May 1993, but it was rejected by the Maharashtra State Commission, stating that the community was not socially and economically backward. The demand was revived again in 2014, when the Congress government, in a bid to win the upcoming election, granted 16% quota to the Marathas. But the Bombay High Court struck it down, owing to petitions from other castes. This made the community pretty agitated.
In 2017, when the BJP government announced vacancy for 72000 posts in the State, it made the Marathas feel that they would lose out on the opportunity to get a government job if a quota system wasn’t in place. Since then, the demand for reservation has taken centrestage. A few Maratha outfits have also insisted that the recruitment of the 72,000 posts be put on hold till a decision on their quota is taken. CM Devendra Fadnavis has promised the community that their demands will be discussed in the Vidhan Sabha and solution will be served soon. The former, however, is unsure if these promises will be kept.
The Marathas today feel that their two-decade long struggle has borne no fruits as yet, thus resorting to protests every now and then.
A version of this article was originally published in Hindustan Times.