A For­ward Back­ward Move­ment

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Anir­ban Bandy­opad­hyay

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

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