A Forward Backward Movement
It has been over a year now since the Maratha community has been agitating across Maharashtra. Its primary demand has been reservation for education and employment, presumably in public institutions. Last week, their agitation brought South Mumbai to a standstill. Even the most conservative estimates admit the number of participants running into lakhs, if not a million.
The agitation had started last August following the brutal rape and murder of a minor girl. Over the year, it turned into an explosive political force that few fully understand, let alone dare to question or dismiss. Besides its scale, the agitation’s inscrutability is its greatest strength.
Marathas make up roughly a third of Maharashtra’s population. Two out of every three chief ministers have been Marathas. They occupy the commanding heights of pretty much every sector. Which makes it hard to prove that they are a ‘backward’ community in any way, a criterion for reservation. In fact, until recently, they have been described as a dominant agricultural community.
Yet, Marathas are a deeply segmented community. Their sheer number ensures that a majority of the community, which consists largely of modestly educated rural smallholders, continues to struggle in terms of education and employment.
Development since Independence has produced at last three broad sections within the community. There is a powerful elite controlling sugar cooperatives, banks, educational institutions, factories and politics. This is followed by a middling elite lording over land, distribution agencies, transport companies, secondary cooperatives and contracting firms.
Finally, there is the large majority of small farmers. The trouble with this classification is that it offers no breakdown of urban young professionals, the constituency that appears to be the visible face of the movement.
There are other ways in which the agitation confuses conventional tools of analysis. There are similarities, for instance, with Jat and Patidar mobilisations for other backward classes (OBC) reservations in the recent past, in terms of their key demands. None of these movements is mounted by an organised political party. Yet, the organisational solidi- ty and steadfast distance from organised political parties set the Maratha mobilisation apart.
The discipline and large participation of women, apart from an insistence to not antagonise any other community, contribute to the agitation’s inscrutability. The initial demand for the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, has since been upstaged by the demand for quotas. Last year, the state government had appointed a commission that recommended16% reservation for Marathas. That, however, has since been overruled by the court under the apprehension that it would have exceeded the judicially defensible limit on reservations.
The old calls for a rethink on reservation and ‘backwardness’ in economic terms have since gathered momentum. Critiques of the movement are limited to two points, both legitimate: one, it should not call for the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and two, that Marathas as a whole do not qualify for a ‘backward’ status.
Following a steady decline of agricultural income, and a secular rise in population, there are far too many young Marathas struggling to maintain their former dignity. That is the real issue — a large army of young men and women facing at an uncertain future. The language of reservation as it stands today simply cannot accommodate their aspirations. Besides, shrinking public sector prospects can hardly address this desire for dignified employment.
The concessions readily given — hostels in major cities and cash subsidies for house rent in cities and towns for students — are a temporary respite for the government. If and when the existing scope of reservation is seen as being inadequate, the agitation will have to change course or come up with a new set of demands.
This gargantuan movement is waiting for a political formation to hold it together and help it frame a concrete politics of protest. Quite what it will morph into, no one seems to know yet. Hence, the immense discomfort it is causing everyone else following it.
The writer is faculty member, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata
FILE PHOTO Stationed with the Chhatrapati