Interview: The Rationale Behind Marathas Demanding Reservations

Pravin Gaikwad, chief of Sambhaji Brigade, one of the oldest Maratha organisations known for its radical anti-Brahmanical stand, discusses several issues including the genesis of the community members’ demands, its history and its apparent backwardness.

A bandh was recently observed in different parts of Maharashtra, as part of the series of protests in the ongoing agitation of the Maratha community which is demanding reservation in education and employment sectors. Over the last two years, almost 60 silent marches have been held, all of them peaceful, except for the last few when violence broke out in parts.

It looks like the Marathas, unconvinced about the assurances given by Devendra Fadnavis government, are upping the ante.

The demand itself goes back 34 years. A leader of Mathadis (headloaders) Annasaheb Patil had committed suicide in 1982 over demands for Maratha reservation. The community, which is said to form 33% of Maharashtra’s population is the largest group in the state, enjoys a sizable representation in politics and in the sugar co-operative sector. Even several chief ministers of Maharashtra have been Marathas.

At the same time, it is relatively backward when it comes to the education and employment fronts. Now, community leaders, under the banner of several groups, have been agitating across the state and have been demanding the Other Backward Class (OBC) status along with a 16% quota.

Among the many groups agitating is one of the oldest Maratha organisations, Sambhaji Brigade, known for its radical anti-Brahmanical stand. The organisation’s chief Pravin Gaikwad met The Wire at the office of his construction company on Pune’s MG road recently and discussed several issues including the genesis of the community members’ demands, its history and its apparent backwardness. He says political games are being played out in the name of reservations for the community.

Sukanya Shantha (SS): The agitation demanding reservation has intensified over the past month even after chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has assured he would look into the community’s demand. Is there a sense of distrust among Marathas? If so, what are the reasons for it?

Pravin Gaikwad (PG): Two years ago, when we first started the Maratha Mukh Morcha (silent march), Fadnavis had appeared on a Marathi channel Sahyadri and claimed even if he were to lose chief ministership, he would stand by us and ensure we get what is due. He had agreed to 16% reservation for the community as recommended by the Narayan Rane Committee. But in these two years, he has given only assurances. Our movement is not political, but a socially motivated one. People are losing patience now.

SS: So, are you saying that the state’s assurance that the reservation bill will be introduced in a special assembly in November is not enough?

PG: If the state was serious about its commitment, it would have already worked out a resolution. Take the case of Supreme Court’s judgement diluting the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (PoA Act). The government was so prompt in getting a bill passed both in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to overturn the SC order. Why is such promptness not shown in the case of peasant communities that have been fighting for reservations for several decades now?

It is unfortunate that around 20 youth had to end their lives to have the state take us seriously. We are keeping a close look at how things unfold in coming days. Otherwise, agitation is the only way forward for us.

SS: Looking back at the history of your own organisation, Sambhaji Brigade has been known for its anti-Brahmanical stand; what were the basic reasons for the formation of your organisation?

PG: The organisation was earlier known as Maratha Seva Sangh. In the beginning, it was the community’s educated individuals and those employed in government jobs who had come together. Babasaheb Ambedkar had said one should pay back to society and we too thought we had a certain responsibility towards the community. The initial organisation had two wings – for youth and for women. In 1995, after several rounds of discussions and deciphering history, we realised much of what was told and written about us was inhuman and harsh. Like with any other Shudra community, the Marathas too were portrayed in a bad light. This history was what Brahmins told us about us; we decided to deconstruct it. In 1997, the youth wing was renamed as Sambhaji Brigade and the women’s wing was called as Jijau Brigade.

In 2004, we launched our first protest against the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune which gave space to an American scholar James W. Laine’s book titled Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India. This book not just showed our leader (King Shivaji was Maratha and Maratha pride is constructed around his legacies) in a bad light but also raised doubts about his birth. This attack was not just against an American scholar but also the Brahmin structures that give space to such thinking.

SS: What are your organisation’s reasons for claiming that the community should be classified under the OBC category?

PG: Representation for the socially and economically backward began with Babasaheb Ambedkar’s demand for the “Depressed Classes” representation in 1932. He was seeking political representation for the Dalits. Eventually, this idea of representation was extended to Adivasis and most of these discussions had ended before the Independence. At the time of drafting the Constitution, three leaders – Panjabrao Deshmukh, R.L. Chandapuri and Vithalbhai Patel of the Backward Class federation had raised the concerns of the Shudra communities including the Marathas. Similarly, Jyotirao Phule in his presentation before the Education Commission in 1881, also known as the Hunter Commission, had spoken at length about the condition of farmers, particularly the Maratha Kunbis.

Another important thing is that earlier documents have identified the Kunbis and Marathas as one, but post the Mandal Commission report, two different categories have been identified in official documents, with Kunbis being given space in the OBC list and Marathas identified as an open category. There is no logic behind this distinction. Within my family, I have so many people who have been given OBC certificate because they continued to be known as Kunbis in the region they lived and rest of us have continued to be knows as Marathas.

SS: So, it appears that there has been different understanding about the community pre- and post-independence. What have been the findings of different Backward Classes Commissions findings over years? Has the Maratha community featured in their findings?

PG: The first Backward Classes Commission was set up on January 29, 1953 with Kaka Kalelkar as its chairperson. This Commission identified and studied 2,399 castes over the span of two years. This was a voluminous study and focused on religion, varnas, the backwardness and position of each community in the caste system. If you see, this Commission report has identified the Kunbis and Marathas as one.

Similar references can be seen in the Hunter Commission’s 12th volume which states, “Shivaji was a Kunbi Raja (King).” This continued to be a common understanding. Castes enumerated in the 1931 census continue to be a focal point across India. The 1940s saw world wars and no (caste) census was carried out in that decade.

In the Khandesh and Vidarbha regions you will see most of them are identified as Kunbis and their relatives in western Maharashtra and Marathwada are known as Maratha. We had hoped that this confusion would fade away over time, but that did not happen.

SS: Since you mention that the caste ambiguity in the administrative categories over years has made it difficult for Marathas to now ask for their rights, is it also not true that the caste pride seen among the Marathas is very different that of the peasant caste Kunbis. Is the “Kunbi-aisation” of the Maratha caste even possible?

PG: I take your question of pride in context with their behaviour with other backward castes, most specifically towards the Dalits. It has a historical reason. The popular myth has been that Dalits managed a dignified life and gained their constitutional rights because of Babasaheb. Lack of understanding among Marathas made them look at this as a lost opportunity and hold a grudge against Babasaheb. This could be seen at the time of Naamantar movement in Marathwada in the ’70s and the resistance that was seen against changing Marathwada University’s name to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University. Maratha saw this as an attack on their identity. This gap further increased over the next decade and the media campaign that was launched post setting of the Mandal Commission. The Maratha Seva Sangh and other smaller community organisations wrongly understood that Mandal Commission was there to increase the reservation benefits for SC/ST and the existing OBC castes.

On the national level, other efforts were made to divert the discourse from caste-based representation to communal discord in the country. The rath yatra and Babri Masjid demolition happened right when Mandal Commission was set up. This took away the chance of consolidating the Bahujan community.

SS: It is commonly believed that Marathas form almost 33% of Maharashtra’s population. How did one arrive at this figure, since there aren’t any caste census data in public since 1931?

PG: That figure is not of just the Marathas, but Marathas and Kunbis together. The caste census of 1931 was not just of India, but also had the neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh in it. The census data actually places us at a little over 29%. I believe that if we are to learn about the actual condition of the community and its educational and social condition, caste census is a must. A national-level movement should be launched with this demand.

During the last general elections, caste census was made an issue but the data was not released intentionally. Once you bring out the data, it will also force the political parties to accommodate every community and give them equal representation and they will never do that.

SS: How did the demand come to be at 16%? What was the rationale behind this since the community is at over 32%? Also, is this even feasible given the upper cap of 50% that has been applied post the Indira Sahwney judgement on the total permissible reservation?

PG: The Rane Committee had proposed this figure. I don’t approve of it. Also, his was a rushed report and it did not stand in the court of law. His suggestions were purely on economical and educational backwardness, this did not have a constitutional acceptance.

A similar challenge was faced by the Tamil Nadu government when it tried to increase the reservation figure to 69%. The decision was challenged in the Supreme Court and subsequently stayed. But the state had provided an exhaustive study conducted over four years and the president had to intervene and accommodate higher reservation.

Even the 50% cap as prescribed in the Indira Sahwney judgement is impractical and it excludes a large backward caste population from the reservation benefits. It needs to be challenged in the Supreme Court.

SS: Post the Kopardi rape, the situation changed completely. The demand for reservation was revived once again, but this time, there was a particular community that was looked at as an “enemy”. Along with the demand for reservation, a demand for repeal of protection legislative like the PoA Act was demanded. How justified do you think was this demand, especially when you call the Maratha movement an anti-Brahmanical movement?

PG: The Kopardi incident led to an organic movement in the state. People were still moved by the gruesome incident in Delhi in December 2012. A similar incident had occurred in Kopardi and the victim here was a young child. While seeking justice for her, it was known that the men involved were all Dalits. The Maratha community has been for long facing a problem of excessive criminalisation and false cases have been registered against us in the name of atrocity. Kopardi incident agitated the community and along with the demand for justice in the case, demands for repeal or in the later stage, dilution of a few sections in the law were put forth.

SS: You say the law is misused, can you quote the data? Because the state police have time and again stated that there are no data to support this claim.

PG: There are enough examples to support this claim. I have, in my 25 year-long career as a social activist, handled several cases and have seen closely that the PoA Act is used in cases where atrocity cannot be made out and yet the person has languished in the prison for years.

SS: If the same issue is discussed with Dalit rights activists, they would give a long list of cases where even after the law was used, the accused had been let off by the court. There are instances where the perpetrators have continued to live in the village but the victims had to flee their village. Other laws too are misused, but it is only PoA or laws supporting women’s rights that get disproportionate attention.

PG: That could be true too. But as a Maratha leader, I will speak in favour of my community.

SS: The demand also triggered a sense of fear among the OBCs. The political class is influential and with nearly 60% representation in politics, over 50% educational institutes, over 80% milk and sugar cooperatives in their control, the community certainly does have a larger share in politics. This is viewed as a threat to other smaller OBCs which have no representation in the decision-making process.

PG: Isn’t this true of a few communities under the SC category too? You will find this across every state, the caste that has relatively managed to stabilise itself will always be seen at the forefront. You will see that among the Buddhists, among Dalits, or Dhangar and Vanjari castes among the OBCs.

One needs to understand, the anti-caste fight is between the oppressors, who are the Brahmin-Savarnas and the Bahujans. And this fight will not be successful until the Marathas are looked at as a strength and assimilated into the Bahujan sphere.