A community that dominates every conceivable field wants to be included in the list of Other Backward Classes
It's an issue that has been raised time and again, but no previous Maharashtra government has taken it seriously. So it was surprising that when a coalition of Maratha groups met Prithviraj Chavan on May 22 with the demand for the community to be included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, the Chief Minister assured them that a proposal would be placed before the State Cabinet in three months' time, after all the legal aspects had been examined.
The question of including Marathas — a “forward caste” as described by the Mandal Commission — under the OBC category has been bothering Maharashtra for a while. Not satisfied with their pre-eminence in all walks of life in the State, the Maratha community is pitching not just for inclusion in the OBC category — it is aiming for 27-per-cent reservation in local bodies right up to the municipal corporation level and at least 25 per cent in educational institutions.
In 2009, the last time the demand was raked up, many OBC leaders such as Chhagan Bhujbal, the Minister for Public Works, objected vehemently. The demand is being tacitly supported by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and Mr. Bhujbal's opposition had put him in a corner in his own party.
There is a strong opposition to the Maratha demand, especially from OBC communities, who feel they will be edged out of politics and education if it is granted. It was because of this opposition that the NCP, which portrays itself as a dominant Maratha party, suffered in the 2009 general elections.
It had used the Maratha reservation issue as an election plank and also projected Sharad Pawar as a prime ministerial candidate. Both moves failed miserably. Yet the NCP wants to be seen appeasing its support base and the more militant elements in it, periodically.
The 22nd report of the State Backward Classes Commission headed by Justice R.M. Bapat had categorically rejected the Maratha demand in 2008 after detailed investigations. While a majority — that is, four members of the Commission — backed the resolution that it would not be appropriate to include Marathas under the OBC category, two members opposed it; one was not present for the meeting.
Against social justice
Justice (retd) Bapat was of the firm opinion that to include Marathas under OBCs would go against the interest of social justice. His was not the first commission to come to this conclusion. Three Central Backward Classes Commissions — notably the Kalelkar and Mandal Commissions and one more in 2004 — had not recommended inclusion of Marathas under the OBC category. Previous State Backward Classes Commissions, too, had rejected demands to include some sub-castes of Marathas under OBC; in 1996, as in 2008, the State Backward Classes Commission rejected the inclusion of the entire Maratha community as OBC.
Data compiled by Dr. Suhas Palshikar of the University of Pune in his book on Maharashtra politics (Politics of Maharashtra: Local Context of the Political Process, Editors: Suhas Palshikar and Nitin Birmal, Pratima Prakashan, 2007) detail how, far from being a backward community, Marathas have ruled the roost in the State for decades and have a stranglehold on the political scene.
From 1962 to 2004, of the total of 2,430 MLAs, 1,336 or 55 per cent were Maratha. Nearly 54 per cent of the educational institutions in the State are controlled by them. Of the 105 sugar factories, 86 are headed by Marathas, while 23 district cooperative banks have Marathas as chairpersons. Marathas dominate the universities in the State, with 60 to 75 per cent presence in the management. About 71.4 per cent of the cooperative institutions are under the control of this community. In Maharashtra, 75 to 90 per cent of the land is owned by the community. In addition, all the milk cooperatives and cotton mills are either owned or controlled by them. In 54 of the 288 Assembly constituencies, only Marathas have ever been elected — even without any reservations.
The revival of Maratha reservation has put the Congress on the mat in a way. The Chief Minister's move to consider it afresh amid strident demands of an August 15 deadline, has not gone down well in his own party and in the past, the high command has advised State leaders to tread cautiously on this issue. Court rulings have made it amply clear that the State government cannot decide the matter of including a community under OBC without observing due procedure.
In a Bombay High Court judgement of October 1, 2010, in the case of Vishwanath Pandurang Mahadeshwar, the court, while upholding the striking down of his caste certificate as a “Vaishyawani”, also held that the State government had not followed due procedure in the matter. The inclusion of Vaishyawani in the OBC category was not done through a recommendation of the Backward Classes Commission, but clarified in a letter of April 27, 1989 by an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Social Welfare in the Maharashtra government. The letter was in response to representations from MLAs on the inclusion of Vaishyawani and Kulwantwani castes under the OBC category.
The court cited a Supreme Court judgement that ordered the creation of the State Backward Classes Commission, which would be the deciding authority in all such representations.
Despite all these commissions categorically rejecting the inclusion of Marathas in the OBC category, there is political pressure; which is why the Chief Minister, a Maratha himself, cannot blatantly refuse to consider the representation. The State government did not accept or reject the recommendations of the Bapat Commission in 2008. It merely referred the matter to the next commission. With the renewed demand, clearly the State government is on the back foot and needs to take a call sooner or later. While it can seek refuge in another committee, the time may soon come when it will be called upon to take a position on the matter. There is only one such position to take and for the Congress, the danger is that this will risk offending a very powerful section that constitutes an estimated 30 per cent of the State's population.