Waah! Look at that mast bungalow. And the tractors parked outside. They definitely belong to a Maratha.”

Driving down the narrow roads of rural Pune, private cab driver Shankar Shinde announced his guesses with great conviction. He paused every time a lush green farm or a large village house appeared in the distance, nodded in its direction and said, “That belongs to a Maratha.”

In the rural belts of Western Maharashtra, Shinde said, no Dalit or lower caste person could afford “those kinds of farm properties”. “Of course there are many poor Marathas in the state. But a house that looks richer than others in the village? That has to belong to a Maratha,” he said, smiling. “I would know – I am a Maratha myself.”

Like Shinde, many members of the Maratha caste openly display their pride in their elevated social status in Maharashtra. They may be predominantly agrarian, but they belong to the same caste as 17th-century warrior king Shivaji and have long identified as Kshatriya, a caste group that falls one rung below the Brahmins.

But for almost two decades – much before the Patels of Gujarat demanded reservations in colleges and jobs – Maratha groups have been clamouring for a place in the Other Backward Classes quota. Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, widely regarded as a Maratha party, has been the most vocal political outfit demanding reservations for the caste group.

In June 2014, in an obvious pre-poll measure, the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra granted 16% reservations to Marathas in jobs and education, along with 5% for Muslims, over and above the existing 52% reservations given to different backward caste groups in the state. This move was stayed five months later by an interim order from the Bombay High Court, a stay that has remained even after both houses of the state legislature cleared the bill granting 16% reservations to Marathas in March this year.

Over the past month, encouraged by the Patel agitation in Gujarat, Maratha political leaders like Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and Nitesh Rane have renewed their demands for OBC reservation for the community. Unlike the lakhs of Patidars who showed up at youth leader Hardik Patel’s August rally, however, ordinary Marathas are expressing their support for the reservation demand with far less enthusiasm and conviction.

A struggle for identity

The Marathas, a dominant caste across Maharashtra, are said to comprise 32% of the state’s population but own at least 75% of its land. In addition to agriculture, the Marathas control the majority of the state’s sugar factories and educational institutions, and have given the state 12 of its 18 chief ministers.

Since 1990, at least three government reports have pointed out that the community cannot be considered as educationally or socially backward: the Mandal Commission report of 1990, the National Commission for Backward Classes report of 2000 and the 2008 State Backward Classes Commission report.

The Maratha demand for reservations and OBC recognition, however, is based on claims of economic backwardness and misunderstood caste identity. The first major agitations were initiated in 1997 by organisations like the Maratha Mahasangh and the Maratha Seva Sangh. According to the Maratha Seva Sangh, the Marathas are essentially Kunbis, a nomenclature given to agrarian communities that include Gujarat’s Patidars.

“All Kunbis may not be Maratha but all Marathas are Kunbi,” said Pravin Gaikwad, state president of the Maratha Seva Sangh and its vigilante offshoot, the Sambhaji Brigade. Gaikwad, who also owns a real estate firm in Pune, claims his organisation has at least “1,000 pieces of evidence” to prove this point in a court of law.

Pravin Gaikwad of the Sambhaji Brigade.

Since 2001, the state government has included “Kunbi-Maratha” and “Maratha-Kunbi” in its list of castes eligible for OBC status. “But the state stops short of allowing just ‘Marathas’ to be OBCs,” said Gaikwad, who believes it is very difficult for Marathas to prove that they are Kunbi. “Our community has regarded itself as Kshatriya for so long, most Marathas didn’t even know that they are, in fact, Kunbi.”

Through the Brahmin lens

Most Kunbis in Maharashtra identify as being lower caste, and in recent years, the Sambhaji Brigade has taken pains to prove that, historically, the Marathas have always been Shudra.

In his 2008 book, Brahmani Dharmanusar Marathe Shudrach (Based on Brahmanism, Marathas are Shudra), Pravin Gaikwad cites the examples of Shivaji and his son Sambhaji, Maratha kings whose coronations were opposed by the Brahmins on the grounds that they were Shudra and not Kshatriya.

“The Brahmins have always considered Marathas as Shudra and deprived them of education, scriptures and wealth,” the book says. “Today, Marathas enjoy being ghulaam (subservient)...all this while they have been thinking of themselves as Kshatriya out of ignorance.”

Even though his book employs the Brahmin perspective to argue that Marathas are Shudra, Gaikwad claims he rejects Hinduism because it is a religion defined by Brahmins. “The problem with Hinduism – or Brahmanism – is that it is proud to have social discrimination on caste lines,” said Gaikwad. “Now the poor Marathas are suffering in the villages. Most of the farmer suicides today are from our community.”

‘Will some of us get more water?’

In the drought-stricken villages of Marathwada, Vidarbha and Western Maharashtra, the plight of the Maratha farmer is evident. Three consecutive years of poor or unseasonal rainfall and wilting crops have pushed most farmers – across caste lines – into heavy debt. At least 1,300 killed themselves in the first six months of 2015 alone.

For the Marathas, a majority caste in many villages, the sting of this crisis is compounded by a deep sense of loss about their former glory.

“They used to say that because we had land, the Kunbis were bigger than any other occupation. Now, because of [the lack of] water, we are nobody,” said Lalita Mirajgavi, a widowed farmer from Latur’s Hadolti village whose only son killed himself in May after the soybean crop on their three-acre plot failed. Mirajgavi and her daughter-in-law now have to pay off a pending loan to a private moneylender while providing for two young grandchildren.

Sitting at a bus stop near Pune district’s Malshiras village, 60-year-old Trimbak Khade is not comfortable reflecting on the condition of his caste group.

“Yes, I am a Maratha. And yes, I have lost everything because of this dushkaal (drought),” said Khade, whose son has left their three acres of dry farmland to look for work in Pune city. “I have heard about the demand for reservations for Marathas, but I have no idea if it will help. Will some of us get more water? After all, everyone in my village has been hit by the drought, even the other caste people.”

Trimbak Khade of Malshiras, Pune.

‘Marathas have everything they need’

Like Khade, several impoverished Marathas emphasise that they are as distressed as their OBC or Dalit neighbours. Backward caste residents in some villages, however, admit that when it comes to the Marathas, some are more equal than others.

In Baburdi, a village of 2,000 people in Pune’s Baramati taluka, a former Sarpanch from the Dhangar caste claims that Maratha residents have enjoyed more access to the water from the Janai canal nearby.

“The whole village falls within the command area of the canal, but the Marathas have more money to pay for the motors that draw the water to their homes and farms,” said Jayaram Barate, who was the Sarpanch from 2005 to 2008 when the post was reserved for a candidate from the Nomadic Tribes quota.

Laxman Pomane, another Dhangar from the village, is more vehement in his assessment of the Marathas. A qualified teacher, Pomane has been unable to find a job in any government-run school for 10 years, despite being eligible for reservation. Private schools pay barely Rs 3,000 per month, which Pomane deems “too little for male teachers”.

“Almost all of these private schools are run by Marathas, and I’ve seen them give their relatives jobs as teachers or headmasters even if they are just 12th pass,” said Pomane, who believes Marathas in his taluka have everything they need. “They have more political representation and more land than us. Our women work in their fields while their women sit at home,” he said.

In the Maratha neighbourhood of Baburdi, the houses appear freshly-painted and markedly bigger than those in the Dhangar quarters, but the farms show no signs of health.

Vishal Gaikwad outside his house in Baburdi.

“We have just two acres of land and we’ve been as affected by the drought as others,” said Vishal Gaikwad, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student from Baburdi. “Thankfully I have a traineeship at a private electricity company, so I earn Rs 8,000 a month.”

Vishal is confident he will bag a private job once he graduates, but still believes that the Marathas deserve OBC reservations. “We need reservation because we have to pay heavy fees and donations to get into college, while OBCs get in for as little as Rs 3,000,” he said. “And for us, government jobs are impossible to get.”

‘People like me don’t need reservation’

In Pargaon, another village in Baramati taluka, Maratha resident Vijay Memane echoes Vishal Gaikwad’s sentiments. “OBCs get admissions and jobs much more easily, while educated Marathas are forced to work as farmers,” he said. “After completing my BA, I looked for a government job for seven years, but couldn’t find one.”

Was it OBCs who bagged those jobs in his stead? “Well, I tried in the army and the fire brigade, but I didn’t score well in the tests. In the police job test, I fractured my leg. Then I gave up and bought a tractor, and started driving it in my farms,” said Memane. In 2010, Memane hired a driver for his tractor and set up Pargaon’s first agro-supplies shop, which has seen a slump in sales in the past year because of the drought.

Vijay Memane runs an agro-supplies shop in Pargaon.

Ganesh Memane, a Maratha and a headmaster at a Pargaon school, is more candid in admitting the privileges that a section of his caste-group enjoys. “There are plenty of economically disadvantaged Marathas who would benefit from reservations, but people like me don’t need it,” he said.

If the aim of reservation is to get into colleges, though, Ganesh Memane believes an OBC status would be of no use to Marathas. “People like to claim that OBCs with low scores get into colleges while ‘smart’ Marathas don’t, but that’s not necessarily true,” he said. In most fields of study, the difference in the cut-off percentage for merit students and OBCs is very little. “The real gap is between the merit category and the Scheduled Caste cut-offs, but the Marathas know that constitutionally, they cannot fight for a piece of the SC pie.”

All about politics

From the non-Maratha perspective, the real reason behind the Maratha clamour for reservations is a desire for political control and a deeply-ingrained resentment against the relative success of other lower castes.

“In 1994, the government allowed reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs at the gram panchayat level, allowing them to occupy the Sarpanch post,” said Shravan Deore, president of the Maharashtra OBC Organisation, which has been most vocal in opposing reservations for Marathas. “The Marathas may be okay with a chaiwala becoming prime minister, but at the village level, in their own backyards, they don’t like to see lower castes get political power.”

In many villages, this resentment plays out in the form of “fake” OBC caste certificates that Marathas acquire for themselves. “They prove that they are Kunbi even if they are not, so that they can contest panchayat elections through the reserved category,” said Sunil Jagtap, an OBC from the Mali caste and a resident of Urali Kanchan, a large village in Pune’s Haveli taluka.

Sunil Jagtap of Urali Kanchan and Ganesh Memane of Pargaon.

In Urali Kanchan’s panchayat election in August, the seat of the Sarpanch was reserved for an OBC woman. “But the seat was stolen by a wealthy Maratha candidate who got a Kunbi certificate for herself,” said Jagtap. “Her husband issued threats to the husband of the genuine OBC candidate, and the Maratha woman eventually won the Sarpanch election unopposed.”

In Pargaon, Ganesh Memane admits that such tactics are common among Maratha power-seekers in several parts of rural Maharashtra. “At heart, we Marathas see ourselves as Kshatriya, and we’ve had a strong lobby for a long time,” he said. “Most Marathas don’t like to see an SC or OBC step ahead of them.”

This is the third part in a series on renewed demands for caste quotas across India. Read the other stories here.