Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ government has just passed a resolution granting 16 per cent reservation to the Maratha community, which makes up 30 per cent of the state’s population. It marks what should be the end of an agitation that has lasted months, led by groups like the Maratha Kranti Morcha, organising demonstrations across the state, leading to incidents of stray violence. The decision to allot reservations has raised the question of whether Fadnavis is on the wrong side of history for giving in to the demands and perpetuating India’s tortured history with reservations, originally envisioned as a temporary measure.
India’s reservation policies first came into effect in 1950, making it one of the oldest affirmative action systems in the world. It was originally meant to last for only 10 years, but they persist to this day. It’s fairly clear that even for “upper-caste”, upper class, and traditionally dominant groups, being labelled “backward” is considered your best chance to get forward.
Which is why today, 68 years later, we have yet another community demanding OBC or Other Backward Caste status – the Marathas. Three years ago, the Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel in Gujarat demanded reservation in the fields of education and jobs for the Patel community; much before that the Jats in Haryana were fighting the quota battle. They go against the grain of the Supreme Court’s 2006 statement, “Reservation is necessary for transcending caste and not for perpetuating it.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the country doesn’t seem to think like the Supreme Court. Reservation policies are juicy opportunities to win over vote banks, just waiting to be seized by politicians. Hardik Patel’s rise as a politician is based entirely on this fact. The race for OBC status, however, continues despite the apex court’s best efforts.
Striking down the government’s order assigning reservations to Jats did nothing to quell protests from the Patels and the Marathas. In fact, the SC has stated that reservations should not increase beyond the limit of 50 per cent in any state. Given that Maharashtra already has 52 per cent reservation, the new quota created for the Marathas may not stand up to legal scrutiny. But that has not stopped them from trying.
Back in medieval times, telling Shivaji the Marathas were backward would probably get you a chest full of tiger claws à la Afzal Khan
In July, the Maratha Kranti Morcha led a Jail Bharo Andolan at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. It was the second time the reservation stir had made its way to the city. The following month, some members of the many-headed Kranti Morcha called for a sit-in protest at the Collector’s office, while others declared a bandh across the state, except Navi Mumbai and Thane, hopefully to avoid the third protest in Mumbai becoming a repeat of the first one.
The Maharashtra bandh held in July by the Kranti Morcha saw violence in parts on Mumbai and brought the neighbouring Navi Mumbai and Thane to a standstill. In both instances, the leaders of the protests provided assurances that the demonstrations would be peaceful, and each time they were proved wrong when angry protestors resorted to stone-throwing and damaging vehicles.
But there has been a human cost as well. The agitation found itself on its current heated tack when a Maratha protester ended his life by jumping into the Yamuna River. Since then, there have been four more suicides and eight attempts at self-immolation.
The Marathas are the people of the warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji. Back in medieval times, telling Shivaji the Marathas were backward would probably get you a chest full of tiger claws à la Afzal Khan, but today his community is desperately fighting for that tag. It’s the same with the Jats and Patels, who have historically enjoyed dominant roles in society and now find themselves scrambling to acquire marginalised status. Because it would seem no matter how glorious your history, in the new India, backward is the way forward.