There was time, not very long ago, when the RSS and its political front, the BJP, were against the very idea of ‘reservations’. Indeed, most of the Non-Resident Indians/Maharashtrians (NRI-M) used to say that they left India because “in India, merit did not matter, caste mattered”.
The Sangh Parivar was against the Mandalisation of our politics.
The ‘Brother Marathas’ – the ‘Kunbis’
In the fifties, they were also vehemently against Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar who introduced, they said, the notion of reservation. (Read ‘Gita Press’ by Akshaya Mukul, an incisive and brilliant history of Hindutva politics and the hatred of the Parivar towards Dr Ambedkar).
Today, the BJP (and even the RSS) is championing the reservation policy and even extending it beyond the Ambedkarite position. Back then, reservation was only for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
That is not all. Even the Marathas, who were up in arms demanding reservation for their community for the last few years, were reticent at the time of the Mandal Commission implementation. The Commission had granted reservation to the ‘Kunbis’, but not the Marathas. The Marathas, who regarded themselves as superior, resented being equated with the ‘Kunbis’.
But after the ‘Kunbis’ were declared as “backward” in the Mandal definition, the Maratha community began to stir within. Suddenly they discovered that after all, the ‘Kunbis’ were actually the Marathas! As a result, the otherwise “inferior Kunbis” became ‘brother Marathas’.
The Maratha Hierarchy
The Maratha-Kunbi joint population is huge; nearly 34 percent (some estimate it at 31 percent) of Maharashtra’s population of nearly 110 million (over 11 crore). This means the Marathas form nearly 40 million (4 crore) of the people of Maharashtra. This is equivalent of the whole of California’s population of 40 million. So, in a way, demographically speaking, it is a state within a state.
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They are not a homogenous community, in terms of class or even sub-castes within. There are 96 sub-layers within them. Indeed, the hierarchy in these 96 layers is also very sharp. The so called 96th layer (known as 96 Kule) is at the top of the hierarchy. In the “roti-beti” exchanges, they observe the discrimination quite rigidly. The 96 Kule Maratha will not consider a girl from, say the 92 Kule as compatible for marriage!
Be that as it may, the one common factor which brings them together is that all of them are agriculturists. Rooted in the land of cultivation. But again, there are layers of ‘classes’ that are quite distinct and sharp. Broadly, there are four decipherable class positions.
The lowest is landless and agricultural labourer. Just above them is the owner of either small land or dry, almost uncultivable land. The layer above this is considered as a ‘middle peasant’. This means he owns land enough to support his family and can generate reasonable surplus. The top layer is of those who own large tracts of land, controls sugar cooperatives and factories, is partner with rural banking network, has built over the years, some educational institutions and other status determined vested interests.
Most Maharashtra CMs Are Marathas
This top layer has accommodated the ‘middle peasant’, after the Green Revolution. This middle peasant is well off but not exactly part of the agricultural bourgeoisie. He is the equivalent of the new urban middle-class.
They own houses, even good bungalows, have cars, with children studying in Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru. Often they are able to send their children to English-medium institutions.
After liberalisation and globalisation, these two layers of the Marathas have spread their tentacles all over. They have become high-end professionals like doctors, architects, software engineers, chartered accountants, professors, media persons and so on. They have acquired English as the ‘lingua franca’ and many are now even NRIs.
The top layer is also a part of the political establishment. For many years, Mantralaya was their fiefdom. Most of Maharashtra’s chief ministers have been Marathas (from Y B Chavan to S B Chavan to Vasantdada Patil to Sharad Pawar to Vilasrao Deshmukh). Many other leading ministers are Marathas too. That is how Sharad Pawar came to be known as Maharashtra’s ‘Maratha Strongman’.
Maratha Hegemony & Alienation Within
During their long association and participation with political power, they could further spread the largesse by accommodating some Marathas even from relatively less privileged backgrounds. Thus, a parallel power structure emerged, in which class and caste got enmeshed.
However, it also must be remembered that this arrangement created its own “haves” and “have nots”. The “Green Revolution” facilitated the top and second layer. Liberalisation and globalisation enriched them further as they got associated with the the industrial capitalist class, and the builder-architect community. In the nineties, they acquired properties in prospering urban areas, where land prices were constantly escalating.
This super-duper neo-rich class with political power, properties and positions in the elite establishments gave Marathas confidence and arrogance of the entrenched rulers. That alienated them from the lower and lowest rung of Marathas, who constituted the majority of the peasantry.
This farming community depended on vagaries of monsoon, on the money lenders or banks, on the fortunes of crops and markets. The indebtedness grew and with that the suicides.
A Class Apart
Some of them wanted to be well-off, some others were looking at the richer farmers, and quite a few developed political or corporate ambitions. With more wealth being generated, the more the inequality became visible. With the spread of education, particularly among girls, the lower-middle class farmer families began to feel consciously marginalised.
It is this class distinction within the caste which lit the fuse. Originally, the discontent of the less-privileged Marathas was targeted against the new powerful elite class from the community. The elite quickly realised the threat.
Then began the mobilisation exclusively in the name of “all Marathas”. The slogan emerged as “One Maratha, One Lakh Maratha”. The effort was to camouflage the class divide and rise as monolithic caste community.
Caste-Class Conflict Will Break Up Society
That has worked, ironically under a Brahmin chief minister, whose party and mentor organisation, the RSS, had opposed reservation policy all along. He had also not accepted Kunbi-Maratha equalisation. The BJP can say that they have turned the tables against the Congress, the traditional representatives of the community. But this is not a one-act play. The next act will be in the courts, where the reservation may be struck down.
And if it passes that judicial test, then the Pandora’s box will be opened, with Patels and Jats taking up arms.
The caste-class-community conflicts will divide the society further, with Marathas vs OBCs vs Dalits – and now even Brahmins – who have, for the first time, begun demanding reservation!
(Kumar Ketkar is the former editor of ‘Dainik Divya Marathi’ and ‘Loksatta’. He is now a Congress member of Rajya Sabha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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