More than a month into the agitation for reservations for the Marathas in Maharashtra, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde on Tuesday announced that caste certificates will be provided to those who have documents to prove that they are Kunbis – a sub-caste within the community who are already classified as Other Backward Classes.

For the rest of the community, data will be collected to gauge their backwardness, Shinde said.

The decision came a day after the agitators on Monday torched the homes of at least four leaders across party lines, a municipality office and a bus in the state’s Marathwada region. A curfew was imposed in the Beed and Dharashiv districts. Two MPs of the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena and a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA resigned from their posts in support of the protesters.

The demand for a Maratha quota is contentious because of the community’s dominant status in Maharashtra. A similar quota has already been struck down by the Supreme Court in 2021. But the demand cannot be ignored by Maharashtrian politicians because the community’s numbers makes it electorally crucial.

Despite its dominant status, experts say, there is a significant socioeconomic variation within the Maratha community.

How did the agitation start?

The Marathas have been demanding reservations in Maharashtra since 1981. The new protests were sparked off on August 29, when Manoj Jarange-Patil, until now a little known Maratha leader, began a hunger strike in Antarwali Sarathe village of Jalna district. His demand: blanket Kunbi status (and hence OBC status) for the entire Maratha community.

The agitation blew up on September 1 when the police fired tear gas shells and baton-charged protesters for allegedly stopping the authorities from shifting Jarange-Patil to hospital. This triggered an uproar, forcing an apology from Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. The government announced that a committee will submit a report within a month on whether Marathas from the Marathwada region can be issued Kunbi caste certificates.

Located in the eastern part of the state, Marathwada is an economically backward region that was once part of the Hyderabad princely state during colonial times.

On September 12, Jarange-Patil suspended the agitation, giving the government 40 days to meet his demands. On October 25, he restarted his hunger strike citing the fact that the government, despite making assurances, had not made a formal announcement about implementing the quota.

As a concession to the agitation, on Wednesday, Chief Minister Shinde said that the government will issue Kunbi caste certificates to Marathas from Marathwada who were found to be belonging to the sub-caste, according to 11,530 old documents. However, Jarange-Patil reiterated his demand for Kunbi status for all Marathas. He agreed to drink water, but said that he would not eat anything till the demand is met.

Maratha activist Manoj Jarange-Patil (Photo courtesy: PTI)

Why a quota demand?

The demand for Maratha reservation has long been contested due to their dominant status in Maharashtra. In 2021, the Supreme Court had held unconstitutional a separate quota for Marathas created by the previous BJP-Shiv Sena government, noting that there were no “exceptional circumstances” or an “extraordinary situation” in Maharashtra to justify breaching the 50% cap on reservations ordered by the court.

The court had also struck down findings of the Gaikwad Commission which had studied socio-economic parameters to recommend reservations for the Marathas.

Marathas, who account for more than 30% of Maharashtra’s population, own over 75% of the land in the state, 86 of the 105 sugar factories, and control the majority of educational institutions and cooperative bodies, according to a 2021 research paper by Professor Sumeet Mhaskar. Twelve of the 20 chief ministers of the state have been Marathas.

However, the deep economic stratification within the Maratha community triggers the quota demand from time to time, experts told Scroll.

“Most of the wealth and clout of the Marathas is concentrated in the West Maharashtra districts of Sangli, Baramati and Satara,” said Harish Wankhede, professor of political studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “In the Marathwada districts like Beed and Jalna, the Marathas are indeed lagging behind.”

After the Supreme Court struck down the Maratha quota in 2021, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and legal researcher Prannv Dhawan wrote in The Indian Express that the verdict had “ignored inequality within” the community. They pointed out that in Maharashtra, the average per capita income of the Marathas was second only to the Brahmins, but the richest 20% of the community got 48% of its total income. The poorest 20% earned 10 times less than the topmost quintile, they wrote.

Jaffrelot and Dhawan said that this was partly because between 2004 and 2012, the Marathas lagged behind even Dalits and members of the Other Backward Classes in growth in the number of persons who earned graduation or higher degrees.

In a 2014 study, researchers Rajeshwari Deshpande and Suhas Palshikar cited data from the National Election Studies 2014, which showed that nearly 80% of the Maratha respondents lived in villages. Of this, only 3% of the Maratha families surveyed were classified as rural rich. More than 50% were engaged in agricultural activities, while 20% were landless.

Why government is supporting the demand?

The government does not want to antagonise the largest community in Maharashtra going into election season. The state is scheduled to go to Assembly polls a few months after the Lok Sabha elections, which are expected to be held in April-May next year. Municipal polls are also long overdue in major cities like Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune and Thane.

Experts think the BJP will gain electorally from these agitations. “In Maharashtra, the BJP’s support base is among the OBCs and these votes consolidate whenever there is a demand for Maratha reservation over concerns that their quota will be curtailed,” journalist Girish Kuber, told Scroll.

Moreover, by announcing an initiative to collected the socio-economic data of Marathas, the BJP has reached out to lower-caste Marathas, Wankhede said. He said that the data will show a huge chasm in the socioeconomic status of the dominant upper caste Marathas, who back the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress, and sub-castes like Kunbis who have traditionally backed the BJP.

“The BJP will look to mobilise Kunbis and other lower-caste Marathas in the manner Nitish Kumar is trying to mobilise the Extremely Backward Classes in Bihar,” he said.

Will the quota go through?

Experts doubt that a Maratha quota is possible to achieve. Palshikar wrote in an article for The Indian Express that besides the Supreme Court’s 50% cap on reservation, a quota for a caste as dominant as the Marathas is “bound to be a stumbling block”.

For the quota to be allowed, the Supreme Court verdict of striking it down in 2021 will effectively have to be reversed. For this, the new committee’s findings will have to be distinct from those of the Gaikwad Commission.

Moreover, providing a separate quota for Marathas could result in similar demands from dominant castes in other states. “If the BJP lifts the 50% [reservation] cap for Marathas, similar demands will come from Jats in Haryana and Patels in Gujarat,” Kuber told Scroll.