The centuries-old tussle between India’s castes has taken an interesting turn after the government in Maharashtra abruptly passed a bill providing reservations in education and public jobs to Marathas.

Now members of the “Dhangars” (shepherds) are demanding similar quotas, and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen said that it would lobby the high court for reinstatement of Muslim quotas.

Thursday’s intervention by the Devendra Fadnavis-led Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government gave a 16% quota in government jobs and educational institutions to the “socially and economically backward” Maratha community on the recommendation of the State Backward Class Commission. The party has been accused of exploiting social unrest in the west-central state before next year’s general election. 

It means the Marathas, who are the dominant caste in Maharashtra  but have been protesting over difficult economic conditions, will be able to occupy 11,520 of the 72,000 posts in the state government.

These provisions are over and above the 50% quota already granted to scheduled castes, tribes and other backward communities (OBCs) across India. The bill takes the total reservation in Maharashtra to 68%, which appears to violate the Supreme Court cap of 50%.

Marathas constitute one-third of the state’s population and dominate the socio-political, cooperative and education sectors: most chief ministers of the state have come from this community. But the current agricultural crisis has created strains.

Classifying them under a new category of “socially and economically backward” people has abruptly shrunk the available opportunities in the general category of quotas for government jobs and college positions from 50% to 32%, making them virtually a minority.

General category will be big losers

Two earlier attempts to alter quotas, first by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party regime in 2014 and then by the BJP-Shivsena government in 2015, were blocked by the high court. Congress sought a 16% quota for Marathas and 5% for Muslims, while the BJP tried to push through a half-baked bill offering a 16% quota only to Marathas.

Marathas have held several protests on the issue, and the most recent, in July this year, turned violent. It prompted a pledge by Fadnavis that all hurdles to quotas would be cleared by the end of November.

The bill is another blow to the general category, who are already upset that the BJP amended a law by the Narendra Modi-led federal government early this year which removed the provision of anticipatory bail in cases involving atrocities against the lower castes.

Youth for Equality, which fights against injustice to the general class and had earlier challenged the Maratha reservation in the high court, is considering mounting a similar campaign against the latest bill.

“The scope for general class in the public sector jobs and colleges is being reduced gradually. We would fight against such brazen attempts again,” an activist from the organization told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

Prakash Bal Joshi, a political analyst and renowned artist commented: “BJP’s Dalits, OBCs and Marathas outreach has helped them to sweep the power nationally as well as in many states. In the process, upper-caste communities are gradually being alienated.

“Interestingly, BJP and its parent body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had been opposing caste-based reservations and the latter had even sought a review of the policy in 2015. But electoral considerations forced them to support the policy,” Joshi said.

Political gamble by Fadnavis may backfire

Ashish Tiwari, a hospital management consultant in Mumbai, said: “Marathas are a prosperous and dominant community. Giving them a quota is unjustified. This will not only widen the caste gap in society,  but also lead to a further brain drain. Quota politics discourages the competent people from general class, affecting the productivity of the government sector and progress of the country.”

He pointed out that a substantial portion of the upper caste population was also poor, but no one was talking about them. “On the other hand, benefits have not reached many OBC/SC/ST families. Rather than rationalizing the quota, the government extended it. No political party opposed the move for obvious reasons,” he said.

Constitutional expert Shreehari Aney, who is a former advocate general in Maharashtra, said: “It is a reverse discrimination, wherein injustice is being done to the open category castes by the state.”

However, BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari insisted that “the government of the day has to take care of a socio-economically backward population”. He added: “Marathas are given reservation for the same reason.”

Yet critics question the rationale behind the bill, arguing that the Marathas are not backward at all; rather, they hold a dominant position in the socio-political corridors of the state.

Chief minister Fadnavis, an upper caste Brahmin, has played a big political gamble with this move, especially since Marathas are the core base of the opposition Congress and Nationalist Congress parties. The danger is that it may upset the general community, which traditionally supports the BJP, only a few months before the general election.

New bill legally untenable, say experts

However, a senior BJP leader told Asia Times: “In Maharashtra, upper castes are in the minority. Brahmins, Patharey Prabhu, Chandraseni Kayasth Prabhu and other upper castes constitute less than 10% of the electorate. North Indians are there but they are limited to Mumbai metro. Our core base has been the backward communities, especially Mali, Vanjaris and Dhangars, since 1970.”

BJP has a coalition government with the regional player Shivsena because it lacks the numbers to go it alone. The BJP leader added: “With Marathas at our side, we hope to dent the Congress-NCP base considerably in the 2019 general and assembly elections.”

To get approval for the reservations, Fadnavis first delinked the Maratha quota from the Muslims quota, provided by Congress-NCP in 2014, despite high court approval for a Muslim educational quota.

He backed the new bill despite not having much evidence to support claims that the Marathas are backward, with the high court earlier issuing a stay of proceedings on the issue. This helped him to shift the issue closer to the general elections while he sought statistical data and created a class for Marathas without disturbing the OBCs quota.

But Shreehari Aney said the courts will have the final say, as the bill is legally untenable. “The bill is likely to be stayed by the court on the basis of the apex court’s ceiling,” he said. “I am more concerned about the subsequent process, wherein the Fadnavis government has to explain the rationale behind the creation of a new quota class by further dividing the backward categories and its impact on general category.”

Another lawyer, a government supporter, said on condition of anonymity that the Fadnavis government has not tabled the entire report of the State Backward Class Commission in the Assembly.

“So far, the government has shared only recommendations of the commission. It has merely asked the government to take appropriate measures regarding Marathas, not the creation of new class. This is a huge grey area,” he said.