The Roots of the Maratha Unrest Lie in Mumbai’s Changing Political Economy

Reservation might not solve the problems of the Marathas, given that they are rooted in a failure of economic policies, and not social marginalisation.

File photo of a rally of Marathas in Sindhudurg, Maharashtra.

Rally of Marathas in Sindhudurg, Maharashtra/Files

The Maratha social organisation Sambhaji Brigade has announced that it will transform into a political party. It plans to contest the elections at the district level (Zilla Parishad), and Brihanmumbai municipal corporation in early 2017, which is the richest municipal corporation in the country. Sambhaji Brigade is one of the many Maratha outfits that played an active role in the Maratha Kranti Morcha (Maratha Revolution March) that were organised all over Maharashtra, following the gruesome rape and murder of a Maratha girl in July 2016 in Ahmednagar district.

Given the larges scale participation of Marathas across classes in these marches, the Sambhaji Brigade may have sensed an opportunity to form a political party. However, it is to be noted that the Sambhaji Brigade was never perceived as the torchbearer of the marches organised by the Maratha outfits. At best, it was seen as one of the main bodies. Therefore, it is evident that the decision to form a political party is not a collective one taken by all Maratha outfits.

The participation of Marathas across classes in the rural and urban areas, seemingly spontaneous and without any one person or organisation assuming leadership, was the most striking feature of the Maratha Kranti Morcha. Scholars and commentators have argued that some of these factors may have played a role in unrest among the Marathas: first, the decline in the political dominance of Marathas in the rural and urban local bodies since the mid-1990s. This is primarily due to the implementation of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments that provided reservation to Dalits, Adivasis, women, and most importantly to the OBCs. Secondly, the Marathas allege that the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 has been misused against them which is despite the fact that the conviction rate is merely 5% in such cases. Thirdly, the agrarian crisis that began in the 1990s had a major impact on the large majority of small and marginal Maratha farmers. Finally, the neo-liberal model of development adopted by the Indian state has resulted in its withdrawal from the social sector expenditures. In addition, and perhaps, the most important aspect that has received very little attention is the way in which the economic transformation of Mumbai city over the last two decades has affected urban lower middle class and small and marginal Maratha farmers. It is this linkage of Mumbai’s political economy with the Maratha unrest that I explore in this article.

In analysing the agitation, the three-fold stratification of Marathas provided by anti-caste activist Keshav Waghmare is particularly useful. Anand Teltumde has also used this classification in his Economic and Political Weekly article. The uppermost class is the gadhivarcha Maratha which owns sugar factories, educational institutions and controls big co-operatives and also has a major influence on politics. Following them is the well-off Maratha class known as the vadyavarcha Marathas, which owns large tracts of land, gas agencies, petrol pumps and small-scale co-operatives. The last one is the lower class known as wadivarcha Marathas who are largely small and marginal farmers. In addition, I add two more classes from the urban areas such as the lower middle-class and the middle-class Marathas.

Maratha labourers and Mumbai

Since the late 1990s, Mumbai city witnessed a large scale closure of textile mills, along with chemical, engineering and other manufacturing industries. These industries provided well-paid job opportunities for rural labour migrants with little or no education. Also, these jobs also provided health care benefits through the Employees State Insurance Corporation and protected its employees with several social security measures. As several studies have documented, the Marathas, as a caste group, not only dominated the industrial workforce but also they had a major share in the well-paid occupations. For instance, according to a survey conducted by the Bombay Mill Owners Association in 1940, the share of Maratha male workers in the textile workforce was 51%. It must be noted here that the textile mill workers were the best paid industrial workers in the country until the early 1980s. My own research on the aftermath of the textile mill closures shows that even during the decline and dwindling of job opportunities the Marathas continued their dominant position. Of the total 924 ex-millworkers surveyed in 2009 and who continue to live in the city, the Maratha male workers constituted about 36% of the total workforce.

This dominance also meant that as a caste group the Marathas were the most affected by the closure of large-scale manufacturing industries in Mumbai. Their problems further got complicated with Mumbai’s transformation into a service sector economy, which demanded a workforce with altogether different skills and knowledge than what was needed in the manufacturing industries. In the service sector economy, knowledge of English became a necessity, not just for mobility but also to obtain better-paid jobs at the lower level. As a result, even those individuals who would have obtained a slightly better education but in the vernacular medium found it difficult to obtain well-paid jobs. These developments clearly signalled the disappearance of better-paid job opportunities for individuals with little education or vernacular education. As a result, there was no option before the rural labour migrants with little formal education (especially of the English language) but to work in the informal sector. Such jobs, as is widely known, are marked by low wages, long and unpredictable working hours, lack of clear-cut conditions of work and a total absence of social security provisions. While these changes in the political economy affected individuals across castes, it had a major impact on the urban lower middle class and wadivarcha Marathas who had earlier dominated well-paid blue-collar occupations.

Maratha youth

Maratha workers in the manufacturing industries were left with little option but to migrate back to their villages or find alternative employment in the informal sector. A large section of the Marathas opted for reverse migration and this process has been most prominent in western Maharashtra and Konkan region. Of the two, however, the former has a larger concentration of Marathas. Not surprisingly it is western Maharashtra that has been a major centre for Maratha mobilisation around the reservation question. These developments severely affected the wadivarcha Maratha youth who had historically migrated to Mumbai to take up well-paid jobs despite having little or no education. In fact, they had a guaranteed job in the organised manufacturing industries where their parents had worked and were as such, handed down through generations. Now however, both the wadivarcha, as well as urban lower middle-class Maratha youth have little choice but to work as security guards, courier boys, or engage in the kind of odd jobs clubbed under the nomenclature ‘house-keeping’. None of these jobs provides working conditions which previous generations had access to in the organised manufacturing sector.

In such a context, the only possibility of securing a well-paid employment for individuals with little, or vernacular education, is in the government sector. The government sector follows the constitutional provisions of reserving jobs for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes. In the general category, there is competition from the other privileged caste groups. Therefore, for the Marathas, reservation seems like the only way to obtain a larger share of government jobs. Hence, the demand for reservation has a particularly stronger appeal among the urban lower-middle class and wadivarcha Maratha youth.

The dominance of Marathas in the local administration did enable their caste fellows to obtain a larger share of jobs. As Keshav Waghmare says, of the 3500 teachers in the year 2009 in the Pune municipal corporation, the Marathas cornered nearly 2,000 jobs. This situation changed after 2009 due to the newer recruitment patterns. The jobs in the education sector now follow a competitive exams format, where the Marathas face competition with other privileged caste groups. Therefore, for this group of Marathas too, reservation seems like the way forward to obtain a large share of jobs. The demand for reservation also caters to the Maratha youth who are finding it difficult to finance their higher education given the rampant privatisation of education that has taken place over the last few decades. Such privately owned institutions have very high fees which are often unaffordable. Ironically, it is the gadhivarcha Maratha who controls more than 50% of such institutions in Maharashtra.

Maratha convergence

The current mobilisation around the reservation has enabled Marathas across classes to come together and neutralise internal conflicts. For instance, the reservation issue has diverted, at least for now, the attention of the wadivarcha and lower middle-class Marathas away from the gadhivarcha and vadyavarcha Marathas who have been at the helm of power for decades. The mobilisation around reservation demand helps the gadhivarcha and vadyavarcha Marathas to pressurise the state to consider the inclusion of Marathas in the OBC list. The inclusion in the OBC list would eventually help them to increase their share in the rural and urban local bodies as well as in the state legislature. These factors explain the coming together of Marathas across classes.

The reservation demand by the Marathas is complicated by the fact that neither the Marathas nor the state can establish their social backwardness which is a necessary condition for being considered for reservation. However, given electoral pressures, the Marathas might benefit from some concessions, such as the decision by the Maharashtra government to increase the income limit for individuals belonging to an economically backward class to 6 lakh.

Despite all the odds, even if the state manages to place the Marathas in some economically weaker group, the challenge of meeting the demands of the Marathas for employment and education is not going to be easy. The economic transformation of Mumbai has completely diminished well-paid employment opportunities for individuals with little or vernacular education. Government initiatives will only help a tiny minority. The increasing dominance of the private sector in education means that unless the state increases the share of public educational institutions or start large scale scholarship programmes for economically weaker sections, the problems will continue to persist. In such circumstances, the only way out probably lies in larger public welfare programmes for all, given the fact the problems of Marathas are rooted in the failure of economic policies rather than social marginalisation. This, however, might be complicated given the adoption of a neo-liberal model of development by the Indian state which is less committed to the social sectors.

Sumeet Mhaskar is based in Germany and is a visiting lecturer at the International Center for Development and Decent Work, Kassel University and junior research partner, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity