Caste Census Strikes A Deep Chord in Maharashtra
BJP scrambles to keep up
Strange things are happening in the political world. Maharashtra is following the Bihar Model of politics, where the issue of caste census as well as the reservation has brought the Bharatiya Janata Party to its wit’s end.
More than Bihar, the situation in Maharashtra is becoming more complex with the ruling and the Opposition fronts pressing for the caste-wise census when confrontation is growing between the Maratha community and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a conglomeration of several castes that have played second fiddle to the dominant Marathas so far.
With the Lok Sabha polls just four months away, the rival sides are taking to the streets to show off their strength on the controversial issue of reservation.
Like in Bihar, the BJP and the Modi dispensation are in the dock in Maharashtra too. Eknath Shinde belonging to a faction of the Shiv Sena might be the Chief Minister and Ajit Pawar of the breakaway faction of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) might be the Dy CM, but BJP is calling the shots in the state.
The reservation issue has become the Achilles heel for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the BJP. Those who project themselves as the ‘Chanakya’ have been bowled over by the quick developments.
Maharashtra might be a premier state known for its overall development and Bihar is considered a ‘Bimaru’ state, but major political parties in Maharashtra still feel that the current political stalemate on the reservation issue can be resolved only by undertaking the caste-wise census as done by Bihar CM Nitish Kumar.
This issue has not only divided Maharashtra's Council of Ministers but political parties as well.
On record, the state government says it is committed to give the Maratha community reservation before the first week of January 2024. No party can afford to antagonise the Maratha community which constitutes over 30 percent of the population.
But at the same time, they do not want to send out the wrong message to the OBCs who are over 50 percent of the population. The OBCs remained the strong support base of the BJP and the united Shiv Sena.
The CM is seen to be soft on the Marathas while Dy. CM Devendra Fadnavis does not want to be seen as an anti OBCs. Another Dy. CM Ajit Pawar of the NCP (Ajit faction) is finding it difficult to take a position on this issue. He cannot control the minister Chhagan Bhujabl who belongs to his faction.
Bhujabal has emerged as the tallest OBC leader and openly dares the Maratha leaders, and the community, every day. He has been advised by his supporters not to quit the cabinet and sharpened the battle inside and outside the government.
Manoj Jarange Patil, a youth leader from Jalna district in the Marathwada region, has emerged as the voice of Marathas. He is giving a fitting reply to the charges of Bhujbal.
It is unclear as to who will get political mileage from the tense situation which has sharply divided the society on the caste lines, in the upcoming Lok Sabha and the state assembly polls.
Marathas have been demanding their inclusion in the OBC category and thus get the reservation benefits, but the OBCs are strongly opposing the demand. They say they support the reservation to the Maratha caste (in the government jobs and education) but oppose Marathas' inclusion in the OBC category. fearing that this can affect the OBCs.
Manoj Jarange Patil, who has been touring the state to mobilise the people to support the cause after his two successful fasts, has given December 24, the deadline to the government to resolve the issue once and for all.
On the Maratha reservation issue, he argues that all Marathas are kunbis, that is farmers. If Kunbis are OBCs in the Vidarbha region then why can't they be in the entire state? The state government constituted a committee under the chairmanship of retired justice Shinde to determine the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) including a legal and administrative framework for giving caste certificates of Kunbi to the Maratha community.
But the other day, Bhujbal, the state’s food and civil supplies minister, demanded the Committee be wound up and stop giving Kunbi certificates. He made the demand at a Maha Elgar Melava (rally) of OBCs in Hingoli, in the Marathwada region, on Sunday.
This was the second OBC rally in that region. The first one was held at Ambad in Jalna district. Bhujbal, the former deputy chief minister, and the former Mayor of Mumbai who quit the Shiv Sena in 1991 on the OBC issue, is perhaps the senior most minister in the Shinde government. Interestingly, he is sharing power with the BJP which had arrested him and jailed him on various charges.
While responding to his charges, Manoj Jarange Patil reminded him how Bhujbal had washed Hutatma Smarak in Mumbai with cow urine to ‘purify’ it.
While quoting the Supreme Court, Bhujbal said that the Maratha is not a backward community. The Maratha community got the maximum benefit from the Economically Weaker Section quota. it has over 15 percent IAS and its percentage in the IPS and Indian Foreign Service has been increasing,
According to OBC leader Babanrao Tayade “the OBCs should have the strength to chop off the hands and feet of those who insult them”.
The open fight between Marathas and OBCs in Maharashtra will change the vote banks of political parties in the coming months. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Bihar model of caste census can bring the two communities together.