No short cuts in Maharashtra

The immediate provocation for the series of rallies in the name of Maharashtra’s numerically dominant Marathas might appear to be the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl in Ahmednagar district. All the three accused so far in the case are Dalits. While the protesters have demanded justice for the victim, their rallies have been used as a pretext for Marathas to reiterate a long-standing demand for reservations under the Other Backward Classes category and for scrapping the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. The Marathas’ demand for reservations mirrors similar ones made recently by Patidars and Jats in Gujarat and Haryana, respectively. As with Patidars and Jats, the demand for inclusion in the OBC quota is fuelled by anxiety about relative economic backwardness among a large cross-section of Marathas. Their inability to move up the economic ladder and the lack of adequate opportunities in a sluggish agrarian economy have been key factors in the agitations for reservations. Yet, the demand for reservations for Marathas, traditionally seen as “upper castes”, goes against the spirit of affirmative action that has guided eligibility for quotas in Central and State lists. Marathas are a dominant caste and play a central role in electoral politics as well as the political economy of the State. In any case, it has been judicially established that economic criteria alone cannot be taken as determinants of backwardness. The Bombay High Court had stayed an order by the previous Congress-NCP government for 16 per cent reservations for Marathas in educational institutions and jobs over and above the almost 50 per cent quota for SC/STs and OBCs put together.

The other key demand in the Maratha agitations, for the scrapping of the POA Act, seems to be clearly directed at perceived Dalit assertion. Such demands have been voiced in the past too by political groups representing landed backward classes in States such as Tamil Nadu. The implementation of the POA Act has been sketchy across India, and Maharashtra is no exception. Conviction rates remain low, even if reporting of crimes against SCs and STs and their registration have increased, as a result of increasing awareness among Dalits and Adivasis of their legal options. Indeed, there is a case for better implementation of the Act, certainly not for its scrapping. It is therefore disturbing that political parties are trying to appropriate the seemingly spontaneous protests for any electoral dividends. The Devendra Fadnavis-led government would be well-advised to address the State’s agrarian distress and need for more job creation, instead of opting for short cuts such as expanding reservations, which in any case may not ultimately pass judicial scrutiny.

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