ON NOVEMBER 8, as the weekly meeting of the Maharashtra cabinet was nearing its end, a war of words broke out between two senior ministers―the Nationalist Congress Party’s Chhagan Bhujbal and the Eknath Shinde Shiv Sena faction’s Shambhuraj Desai.
Bhujbal has been opposed to the Maratha community being given reservation from the OBC quota. Bhujbal is among the tallest OBC leaders in the state and had called an all-party meeting of OBC leaders at his residence on November 7.
Desai, who belongs to Maratha nobility, objected to Bhujbal’s actions and statements. As they continued to spar, Chief Minister Shinde intervened and asked them not to make any statements that would go against the government’s stand on the issue. But, the exchange between Bhujbal and Desai made it clear there was no unanimity within the Shinde government over the issue.
The OBCs have been restless in the wake of two hunger strikes by Maratha activist Manoj Jarange Patil, who wants reservation for all Marathas as Kunbi OBC subcaste.
Bhujbal was in Jalna district recently and has called for a massive OBC rally at Ambad on November 17. Ambad is not far from Antarwali Sarati, the village where Patil held his fasts.
In Jalna, Bhujbal said that the attacks on the houses of NCP MLAs Prakash Solanke and Sandip Kshirsagar, allegedly by pro-reservation protestors, were pre-planned. Solanke is an Ajit Pawar loyalist while Kshirsagar, an OBC leader, is a Sharad Pawar loyalist.
In a leaked telephone conversation, Bhujbal is said to have described the Maratha reservation demand as a “do or die” situation, where the OBC community must raise its voice; he said that he would take the lead on this.
Ever since he was in the Shiv Sena back in the early 1990s, Bhujbal has been a strong votary of OBC reservation. One of the reasons he broke away from the Shiv Sena was the late Bal Thackeray’s opposition to the Mandal Commission report and its implementation. Bhujbal has always seen reservation as a legitimate tool to uplift the OBCs. In 1992, he joined Sharad Pawar, who was then in the Congress, and subsequently followed him to the NCP. Though the party is dominated by Maratha elites, Bhujbal continued to be the voice of the OBCs and earned Pawar Sr’s respect for doing so.
His stand that Marathas should not be given reservation from the OBC quota is not new and it is driven by the fear that it would further shrink the reservations for existing OBCs.
On the other hand, Patil and many Maratha leaders are now firm that they must get reservation as Kunbis. Already, in Konkan and Vidarbha, a large number of Marathas call themselves Kunbis and hence are entitled for benefits of OBC reservations. After Patil’s first fast, the government pacified him by appointing a committee headed by Justice Sandip Shinde to examine whether Marathas in the Marathwada region, to which Patil belongs, could be given Kunbi caste certificates based on evidence in Nizam Shahi-era documents. The committee found that around 15,000 Maratha families were registered as Kunbis in the documents and the government has sped up the process of giving certificates to these families.
However, Patil’s demand was for Kunbi status for the Maratha community statewide. So he launched his second fast. A rattled Shinde immediately held an all-party meeting which supported the call for Maratha reservation. And this, in turn, was the trigger for the unrest of the OBCs led by Bhujbal.
Prakash Shendge, former legislator and prominent OBC leader, told THE WEEK that the OBCs were not opposed to the Marathas being given reservation; the Kunbi issue was the bone of contention. “There are already almost 400 subcastes among the OBCs and what will happen if a community like the Marathas, which constitute more than 30 per cent of the population, enters the same category,” he said. “Also, the Marathas are not socially backward. They were the ruling elite. Till a few decades ago, our people had to remove footwear while walking in front of Maratha households.” He added that the Marathas have benefited from the reservation for economically weaker sections that was announced by the Centre a few years ago. “The current problem should be solved in the same manner,” he said. “The economic condition of Marathas should be the criteria for reservation.”
Shendge said that the apex body of OBCs in the state has announced two big rallies. The Ambad rally would be followed by one at Hingoli on November 26. “OBC leaders from all parties like Congress leader Nana Patole, senior minister Chhagan Bhujbal and [state] BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule will address these rallies,” he said.
Another reservation demand that is likely to come up is from the Dhangar community (shepherds) which wants to be designated as a scheduled tribe. Dhangars are listed as OBCs in Maharashtra and as STs elsewhere in India. But, the adivasis in Maharashtra are firmly opposed to the Dhangars’ demand.
The Maharashtra government wants to satisfy the Marathas, but fears a massive electoral backlash from the OBCs. The BJP, especially, is greatly concerned as OBCs in the state have traditionally stood by it while Marathas have voted for the Congress and the NCP.
A senior Maharashtra government bureaucrat, who requested anonymity, said that the government was bending over backwards to appease Patil. “The judges who went to meet him on behalf of the government were addressing him as ‘Sir’,” he said. “The chief minister must remain firm and not bow to unnecessary demands when they go against constitutional provisions and Supreme Court orders.”
The question is whether Shinde has it in him to remain firm.