Maratha Quota: Social Justice Goals of Reservations Long Abandoned

There’s a certain multi-party cynicism that pervades the discourse over caste reservations today.

4 min read
Maratha Quota: Social Justice Goals of Reservations Long Abandoned

Just as surely as the settling smog is a sign of winter across North India, so also a state government’s announcement of reservations to a dominant group, a sign of impending elections in the state.

This time, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has promised the dominant Maratha community in the state, reservations as a “socially and educationally backward community” on the basis of a report said to have been submitted to it by the Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission.

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Reservations are for Addressing Systemic Inequality, Not for Sake of Charity

The basis on which the Commission has concluded that Marathas are “socially and educationally backward” is not entirely clear – the report has not yet been made public and is likely to be tabled in the Maharashtra State Assembly in the winter session. That said, there is enough research to suggest that Marathas as a people, are anything but.

On broad socio-economic terms, Marathas are closer to Brahmins and forward castes in the state rather than Scheduled Castes or Tribes (SC / ST), or even Other Backward Classes (OBC) for that matter. 

Whether on education, access to government jobs, poverty rates, or land ownership, Marathas are relatively better off than most other castes in Maharashtra. More crucially, there is no evidence to suggest that Marathas, if they suffer any deprivation, do so because of social backwardness.

This is a key point that is often missed in the debate over reservations. Reservations are not charity meant to alleviate poverty – rather they are tools used to address systemic inequality and discrimination that had been a feature of Indian society for the better part of two millennia. Increasingly however, the demand for reservations is being made not to ensure parity, but to entrench inequality and power.

No Clarity on How Marathas Will Be Given Reservation

Even assuming that Marathas are somehow considered “socially and educationally backward” for the purposes of reservation, Maharashtra’s proposal may run into further legal problems. As it stands, the Supreme Court has held that reservations in a state cannot cross the 50 percent limit (save for “exceptional circumstances” which are yet to be decided).

As things stand, the Maharashtra law mandating reservations in state public sector jobs, provides such reservations for various communities (including SCs, STs and OBCs) for 52 percent of the positions.

There is already a “special backward category” entitled to 2 percent reservation, but quite clearly the state is not looking to fit Marathas into this group. Rather, what is being promised is a new category, namely, “Socially and Economically Backward Class”.

This is not really a new categorisation, as the Constitution requires that reservations be granted only to socially and educationally backward classes under clause (4) of Article 16 of the Constitution. But that still doesn’t answer the question as to how the state of Maharashtra plans to reserve jobs and educational seats for Marathas.


How Marathas Can Get Reservation

There are broadly three options – include them within the category of “other backward classes”, create a sub-category of “socially and educationally backward class” within OBCs, or create an entirely new category of “socially and educationally backward class” outside the existing reservation matrix.

Given public statements at least, one can safely rule out the first option.The second and third options will create their own problems.

Since Marathas constitute 16 percent of the state’s population, any attempt at creating an exclusive category for them within the OBC category is likely to invite a strong backlash from the remaining OBCs in the state. The third option, of adding to the existing reservation with a new category only for Marathas, is likely to fall afoul of the Supreme Court mandated limit of 50 percent on reservations.

Tamil Nadu is the only state which has managed to provide reservation well above the 50 percent limit. However, the legality of this move is still pending decision in the Supreme Court. On the other hand, the Supreme Court and High Courts have repeatedly struck down any move to grant reservations beyond the 50 percent limit.

Cynicism Over Reservations

Given the facts on the ground and the legal hurdles, it is difficult to see this move by the Maharashtra government, withstanding any legal scrutiny. The Bombay High Court has struck down reservations for Marathas in the past. The state government may have gone through the motions of following procedure in getting the State Backward Classes Commission to submit a “report” on the status of Marathas but it is unlikely to convince many that Marathas suffer deprivation as a result of their social status.

Be that as it may, the larger point remains this – there’s a certain multi-party cynicism that pervades the discourse over reservations. The social justice goals of reservations have long since been abandoned.

Politicians are well aware of the legal limits (flawed as they are) on the power to grant reservations, yet continue to promise and grant reservations to groups, in as unconstitutional and illegal a manner as possible. On the other hand, they have now been appropriated by dominant groups who want to retain their position and status in the ‘graded inequality’ that is the caste system.

(Alok Prasanna Kumar is an advocate based in Bengaluru. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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