The intensifying agitation in Maharashtra to demand reservation for the Maratha community, which has also turned violent with protesters targeting some NCP and BJP MLAs and indulging in arson, vandalism and stone-pelting, has thrown the coalition government – led by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena, BJP and Ajit Pawar NCP – off guard.
The spreading Maratha quota agitation, largely unorganised, has also reflected the fragmented and weakened state of the ruling camp as well as the Opposition parties.
The ruling side is led by two Maratha leaders, Shinde and Ajit, and an experienced Home Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had been the CM during 2014-19. Yet, it is struggling to deal with the Maratha agitation led by an activist Manoj Jarange-Patil, who was virtually unknown in the state a few months ago.
Jarange-Patil has continued his indefinite hunger strike seeking reservation for Marathas since October 25 at his village in Jalna district. Although the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM) is backing his campaign, the organisation is split in multiple groups.
It is a different matter that the MKM had spearheaded the community’s quota campaign from 2016 to 2018, which was spread across 355 talukas in 36 districts.
On Monday, with Fadnavis engaged in campaigning for his party in Chhattisgarh and Ajit indisposed, the onus fell on CM Shinde to tackle the violence that erupted during the Maratha quota stir.
The day also coincided with the Supreme Court directing Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar to decide the disqualifications petitions related to the Sena split by December 31, and the matter related to the NCP split by January 31, 2024.
State BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule said, “Maratha agitation is a sensitive issue given its complexities. So it has to be tackled patiently. The three parties are working as a team.”
What remains unexplained, say observers, is the question, why the government could not resolve the issue by taking it up with the quota activists in the 40-day deadline set by Jarange-Patil when he ended the first phase of his stir on September 14.
“The state with multiple political parties presents a vulnerable picture. Whether it is ruling combine or Opposition, they are divided and weak,” Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) chief Prakash Ambedkar said. “When neither ruling side nor Opposition is strong politically, unorganised groups emerge stronger and overpower the established leaders and parties.”
During 2016-18, the statewide rallies held in support of Maratha quota had caused a huge impact. Every such rally saw a gathering of at least 50,000 people, while in Mumbai lakhs of people took to streets. Yet, the then BJP-Sena government led by Fadnavis had seemed to be in control of the situation, with even the then Congress-NCP Opposition appearing to be on board.
In sharp contrast, this time the usual political channels of communication do not seem to be operating smoothly given the prevailing bitterness and hostility between the ruling coalition and the Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) comprising the Uddhav Sena, Sharad Pawar NCP and Congress. The MVA has been blaming the BJP for causing splits in both the Sena and the NCP.
Senior Congress leader and ex-CM Prithviraj Chavan said: “Given reservation is complex issue, government should take initiative to take Opposition into confidence. BJP has lost trust of its own allies who are not sure about their standing with sword of disqualification hanging over its head. Not to speak about Opposition who are being subjected to constant harassment through splits and cases etc.”
In 2018, when the then CM Fadnavis brought the Maharashtra Socially and Educationally Backward Class (SEBC) legislation to give quota to Marathas, all parties had unanimously supported it in the Assembly.
While the Bombay High Court upheld the Maratha quota law, it asked the state government to reduce the quota from 16 per cent it stipulated. This led to the quota of 12 per cent in education and 13 per cent in jobs being approved. Subsequently, the matter was challenged in the apex court, which stayed the reservation in September 2020, quashing it on May 4, 2021 as it breached the 50 per cent cap.
Jarange-Patil revived the Maratha quota agitation, going on hunger strike on August 29 this year at his Antarwali Sarati village in Jalna district. He had then just a handful of supporters rallying around him. The police lathi-charge on the protesters on September 1, which left some people injured, galvanised Jarange-Patil’s stir and he overnight became a prominent Maratha face in the state. His fast had then continued for 17 days.
Senior BJP minister Girish Mahajan, who has played the role of a mediator, says,”Jarange-Patil is sincere for the Maratha reservation cause. The hunger strike for so many days is not easy. Nobody doubts his integrity. But our concern is related to his failing health.”
Seizing on the Maratha quota stir, which has put the ruling coalition on the defensive in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, the MVA has gunned for the government for its alleged mishandling of the issue resulting in violence and strife.
Congress leader and Leader of Opposition, Vijay Waddetiwar, said, “The state government is responsible for everything. When Jarasange-Patil was silently protesting, police lathicharge took place which was uncalled for. He had given government 40 days to come up with a solution. They did not take his warning seriously.”
NCP working president Supriya Sule has attacked Fadnavis for the deteriorating law and order situation. “What was your intelligence department doing. How can houses of MLAs be burnt. It is total failure. Fadnavis should resign,” she said.
While Antarwali Sarati remains the epicenter of agitation, Maratha activists, in departure from their past campaigns, have taken to streets holding candles across Sangli, Beed, Nanded, Jalna, Indapur, Pandharpur, Kolhapur, Parbhani, among other places. Instead of seeking separate reservation, they are now demanding inclusion within Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to avail quota benefits.
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Jarange-Patil says, “All Marathas should get Kunbi certificates. They should be entitled to reservation within the OBC category.”
However, OBC leaders are opposed to their demand for inclusion within their category. Rashtriya OBC Mahasangh president Babanrao Taywade has warned of statewide protests if the Marathas’ demand is accepted. “Let Marathas get separate quota. If they are included within OBC we will fight tooth and nail,” he said.
Ahead of the 2014 Assembly polls, then Prithviraj Chavan-led Congress-NCP government had brought an ordinance to provide 16 per cent reservation for Marathas and five per cent quota for Muslims. The Congress-NCP lost that election which saw the BJP-Sena coalition’s return to power, even as the ordinance lapsed.