Last week, when the Supreme Court overturned job and education reservations to Maharashtra’s politically dominant Marathas, every political party came forward to take a stand.
Of course, political parties cannot afford to be seen against the Marathas who constitute nearly 33%, including the Kunbi-Marathas, of the total population of the state.
For the community, the verdict of the five-member constitutional bench is a setback as it finds itself fragmented between various groups loyal to different political parties.
Over the decades, the community has retained its influence in Maharashtra politics, keeping its share of power intact. While Maharashtra has had more than 60 percent of its top ministers from the Marathas, the community has fair representation in the state cabinet or assembly. Over the years, its politics are shaped by the identity where Hindutva and caste have been at the heart.
Economically, the Marathas are a stratified community. The Dalits Write Anand Teltumbde, who has written extensively on the caste system in India, observed in his weekly economic and political article that the Marathas witnessed a triple stratification.
The lowest in the hierarchy are either the landless farmers or the marginal farmers. They are mostly from the Marathwada of Maharashtra and represent the largest number within the community. It is for the same reason that the reservation request has gained popularity in this region.
It is for this section that many political parties have asked for reservations, citing that they represent a majority of the community. The same class, drawn to caste-based groups such as Maratha Mahasangh, Sambhaji Brigade and Chhawa, has remained largely dissatisfied with community members clinging to power. This section is largely trapped in the agricultural sector without access to urban resources.
The Gaikwad Commission set up by the government of Devendra Fadnavis at the time had underlined in its report that a large part of the Marathas are economically and educationally backward. The Supreme Court, however, found no merit in exceeding the current 50 percent quota cap, which could have accommodated the Marathas.
In the middle are those who control land and resources through various institutes like cooperatives and credit societies. Many in this category have control over rural credit and banking. There are many in this category whose next generation migrated to bigger cities such as Pune and Mumbai to find employment. In the cities however, this section has not been able to dominate the economy. On the contrary, many had to settle for a secondary position, not in keeping with the pride of Maratha.
The upper category of the Maratha stratification is the one who has direct control over power. This section, whatever the party in government, has enjoyed the fruits of power. This has at times led to a growing gap between the Marathi elite and the community, the former using identity politics to gain power without ensuring that the benefits reach the community as a whole.
From the 1950s until the 1980s, this class was with the Congress Party. However, as the party’s political fortunes began to change, the section within the community shifted first to Shiv Sena, then to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and later to the BJP. In 2014, many Maratha-Kunbi voted for the BJP.
In their article, prominent political scientists Rajeshwari Deshpande and Suhas Palshikar observed: theme of social justice. On the other hand, Mandal’s discourse legitimizes caste as a political category and creates small openings within democratic practice for claims of traditional caste domination. This is what the Marathas attempted more recently, in spite of, but also, because of their dominant political position in the state.
Today, the community that has assumed control of the state’s political apparatus seeks a label of delay, as many within it could not taste the benefits of the post-globalization economy. While the community derives its dominance from the caste group of the Marathas and Kunbis, which makes it numerically strong, economically, much of it has failed to achieve material growth.
Yogesh Joshi can be contacted at [email protected]