NAGPUR, Maharashtra — All eyes will be on the Supreme Court on Friday as a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi is set to hear a bunch of petitions against the 12-13 percent reservation granted to the dominant Maratha community in Maharashtra by the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government.
The Fadnavis government had granted 16% reservation to the Marathas who form more than one-third of the population of Maharashtra, a move immediately challenged by many in the Bombay High Court.
On June 27, a division bench headed by justice Ranjeet More and Bharati Dangare upheld the government’s decision but reduced the quota from 16% to 12-13% in government jobs and educational institutions run by the state.
How the demand for Maratha reservation came about?
The “upper caste” Marathas have always played a big role in politics and economy of Maharashtra. Considered descendants of Warrior King Shivaji, their caste status assertion also put them against the vocal backward and scheduled castes like Mahars.
With Maharashtra going to polls in less than four months, the fate of many politicians in the state could be decided by the Supreme Court verdict.
The Marathas have always managed to have their way through wealth, muscle power and a strong social identity. Twelve out of the 18 chief ministers of the state were Marathas. Most leading politicians from the Congress and the NCP also belong to the community. While the Shiv Sena did chose a Brahmin chief minister, Manohar Joshi, in 1995, he was replaced by Narayan Rane, a Maratha, just before the assembly elections in 1999.
Congress, NCP and even Shiv Sena had all depended on and cajoled the Marathas for political benefits. There was a break in the cycle of Maratha power after the BJP won the 2014 assembly polls and Fadnavis, a Brahmin, was made chief minister.
With the BJP promoting Fadnavis, a Brahmin from Nagpur close to the RSS, Marathas found themselves out of power for the first time. In 2016, the brutal rape and murder of a Maratha teenager by Dalit men in Kopardi triggered protests by the community. There were a series of exceptionally disciplined and well organised silent Maratha morchas. However, slowly, the demand for punishment to the Kopardi accused took a backseat and the demand for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions took center stage. The community that once mocked reservations for backward classes, declared itself backward and made a strong pitch for reservation.
After initial setbacks on the judicial front, the Fadnavis government-appointed Gaikawad commission declared the Marathas socially and economically backward and the Fadnavis government granted reservation to the community. This was upheld by the Bombay High Court on June 27. One of the two judges who pronounced the verdict in favor of this dominant community was also a Maratha.
Advocate Gunratne Sadavarte, who represented his wife Jayashri Patil against the Maratha reservation in Bombay High Court, cited this and crossing of the 50 percent limit to term the Bombay high court’s verdict as “judicial indiscipline”.
Why the Supreme Court verdict is crucial?
If the apex court puts a stay on the Bombay High Court’s verdict, which is likely, the Marathas may start a fresh round of protests. The worst case scenario could be tensions between the OBCs and Marathas.
The Marathas could demand insertion in the OBC list. Balasaheb Sarate, a Maratha from Marathwada region of the state, has already filed a petition the Bombay High Court against OBC reservation. If Marathas demand insertion in the OBC category, it is likely to antagonise the Kunbi community. OBC leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal have already made clear that they won’t tolerate tinkering with the existing OBC reservation in the state.
The Kunbis are another dominant caste in the state, settled in the Vidarbha region, while Marathas are from western Maharashtra and Marathwada.
This could even trigger Bahujan versus dominant caste struggle in the state since Marathas identified themselves as non-Bahujan until recently.
The political fallout of the stay on Maratha reservation might go against the Congress-NCP as the BJP has tactically handled the Maratha anger since the very beginning.
The demand for reservation has isolated the Marathas in the state and led to a consolidation of non-Maratha OBCs. Like Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP focused on non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, the saffron party has successfully stitched together a combination of non-Maratha OBCs and non-Mahar Dalits.
The BJP has swept every local body election since the Maratha protest began, whereas the Congress-NCP combine is sinking. The “secular combine” has, however, continued to stick to dominant castes like Marathas and Kunbis and isolated itself.
If there is one person who has used the Maratha reservation to the best of his advantage, it is Fadnavis. He is probably the first Brahmin chief minister under whose leadership a political party in Maharashtra is going to polls.
If the Supreme Court stays the Bombay high court verdict on Friday, Fadnavis will still be credited with doing everything he could for the reservation. If the apex court upholds the reservation, Fadnavis will take credit. Big hoardings have already been put up across the state to “thank” him for Maratha reservation.
While supporting the demand for Maratha reservation, Fadnavis never forgot to reiterate his commitment of keeping OBC reservation intact. By looking at and by providing leadership to non-dominant communities, the BJP has managed to percolate to every level of the social structure, whereas the Congress-NCP combine is sticking to the traditional formula of pleasing the Marathas and Kunbis.