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Maharashtra Reservation Agitation: Complexities of Maratha-Kunbi Caste Identity

Can the change of the nomenclature of caste, for instance, Maratha to Kunbi (as demanded), be accepted by the state?

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The demand for Maratha reservation has erupted yet again, with Marathwada emerging as the epicenter of the Maratha agitation for the demand of Reservation. This phenomenon could be understood in terms of a psychological factor — the relative deprivation due to the economic backwardness of the region.

This time, the strategy is from ‘Marathwada to Maharashtra’.

Initially, Manoj Jarange Patils' demand was that the Marathas be recognized as Kunbis of Marathwada, in order to avail reservation, which he later demanded for the entire Maratha community.

Prior to this, a vociferous demand for reservation was made in the year 2016, where almost 58 mook (silent) morchas were organized by the Sakal Maratha Samaj, (Maratha Community) across the state.

This was the largest demonstration ever in the state for the aforementioned demand, against which the government was forced to declare reservation to the community following the State Backward Class Commission report, which recommended 16% reservation to the Maratha community.

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Marathas: A Dominant Caste?

The Marathas, a dominant caste, in Maharashtra, have been demanding reservation in public employment and education for quite some time. The first-ever demand came from Anna Saheb Patil, the leader of Mathadi Workers in Mumbai, who are essentially those working as porters in the grain markets.

Most of the Mathadi workers belonged to Western Maharashtra and engaged in loading and unloading food grains in the APMC markets. The demand came from the union leader considering their social, economic, and educational backwardness. Incidentally, a large number of members engaged in this occupation came from the Kunbi-Maratha castes, and therefore the demand for reservation to the Kunbi-Maratha community.

The Marathas are also called as dominant caste in Maharashtra. According to sociologist M N Srinivas, “A caste may be said to be dominant when it preponderates numerically over other castes and when it also wields preponderant economic and political power. A large and powerful caste group can be more easily dominant if its position in the local caste hierarchy is not too low.”

Marathas are considered dominant in Maharashtra since they fulfill all the above conditions, namely their numerical strength, their control over economic resources and political power, and that they are not ‘too low’ in the caste hierarchy.

The demand made by the Maratha Community now is different from the demand(s) they had in 2016.

Their demand in 2016 was four-fold: reservation in public employment and state-funded educational institutions, dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act (1956), punishment to Kopardi victims, and implementation of the Swaminathan Report. However, only the first demand was carried forward till the end of the agitation.

The current agitation for the Maratha reservation began in Antarveli Sarati Village where the Maratha community from Jalana District spontaneously gathered for the said demand.

However, the magnitude of the demonstration multiplied manifold due to police action on the agitators, followed by which Manoj Jarange Patil resorted to a hunger strike for the reservation.

This agitation erupted in Jalana, a part of the erstwhile Nizam state, where it is claimed the Kunbis were considered backward and hence, were given reservations.

It is also interesting to note that the Kunbis, essentially the ‘cultivating’ class, were considered ‘shudras’ in the traditional social structure of Maharashtra. The 96 Kuli Maratha clan, on the other hand, is considered to consist of Kshatriyas.

However, some scholars in Maharashtra are of the opinion that both these castes are used interchangeably according to their occupation at a given time. These scholars opine that those who are working in the agricultural fields are Kunbis and if the same person takes to weapon to defend their country, then they becomes a Maratha. This in my opinion may not be true, as the 96 kuli Marathas generally prefer endogamy, and a matrimonial alliance with a Kunbi is considered exogamy.

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The Maratha-Kunbi Question

The question of Maratha reservation in the current context becomes sociologically and anthropologically very important because the agitators are demanding the Kunbi caste certificate even though they claim to be Marathas.

To put it plainly, the agitators are claiming that the nomenclature of the community is different but structurally, the caste is the same. However, one may argue, if it is true then occupationally how, and therefore, in terms of varna classification, a Kunbi was considered a ‘Shudra’ and a Maratha a ‘Kshatriya’?

Further, can the change of the nomenclature of caste, for instance, Maratha to Kunbi (as is demanded), be accepted by the state? And all Marathas would be called Kunbis? In such a situation, what happens to the most dominant caste in Maharashtra? At the same time, for those who do not have such documentary evidence, how can they be accorded the status of Kunbi?

And if we dive deep, another important question arises, will the Marathas in other parts of the state, for instance in Western Maharashtra, accept the ‘Kunbi’ caste which denotes ‘shudra’ status?

Another important issue is about the legality of reservation on the one hand, and the political compulsions of the government on the other.

Maharashtra enacted the Educationally and Socially Backward Classes (ESBC) Act, in 2014. On 4 January 2017, the Maharashtra state government issued a notification establishing the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission, chaired by Justice Gaikwad.

Upon the Commission’s recommendations, Maharashtra passed the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, 2018 (SEBC Act, 2018) on 29 November 2018, granting 16 percent reservation for Marathas in Maharashtra’s state-funded educational institutions and appointments in public employment.

The 16 percent reservation to Marathas was challenged in the Bombay High Court, where it directed the government to bring the reservation to 12-13 percent as against 16 percent, which was followed unanimously by the Legislature of Maharashtra in 2018.

Further, this reservation was challenged in the Supreme Court in its judgment on 5 May 2021, which struck down the demand for reservation due to the 50 percent limit.

Further, the Bench examined the list of exceptions and opined on the two most important exceptions, namely; one being geographic exclusion, when a community hails from ‘far-flung areas’; and the second being social exclusion, when a community is outside the ‘mainstream of national life’.

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Where Does the Agitation Go From Here?

As mentioned earlier, the community is known for its preponderant political and economic power and in such circumstances, proving their backwardness becomes challenging.

However, one has to admit that over the years, due to the fragmentation of land, the per capita ownership of land has decreased, and the vagaries of monsoon have lead to lower productivity, and there has been comparatively lower participation in the institutions of higher learning, leading to lower participation in public employment.

All of this could have affected the community adversely. The Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission has also reported the deteriorating economic condition of the community.

The second issue and most pertinent one is about the political compulsion of the present government. The agitation is timed very well, as a large chunk of the population, approximately 31 percent of the "dominant and politically conscious" Marathas is agitating in Maharashtra. While the government may try its best to contain the agitation, they too know that they have very few options left keeping in mind the Supreme Court judgment on the Maratha reservation.

The biggest difference in the current agitation is that they have exhausted all the rationalisations to prove their backwardness to demand reservation.

The only hope is the hunger strike by Manoj Jarange Patil and the numerical strength of the community. With the court's direct intervention in the light of the Indira Sawhney case, it is difficult for the Maratha community to pass the test of legality in the matter.

The Other Backward Classes do not wish to share their pie with the Maratha community as their share decreases if a large population is accommodated in this category.

Alongside, other communities such as the Dhangars and other communities have also started giving government notices regarding their demand for reservation. This can become a hard nut to crack for the government if other communities start demanding reservations in Maharashtra.

(The author is an academic. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Maharashtra   Maratha Protests 

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