As Maratha agitation turns violent and opposition adds fuel to fire, Devendra Fadnavis faces a mammoth task

The Maratha agitation in Maharashtra, that has been erupting repeatedly in recent times has turned violent this year. Yesterday in Pune’s Chakan, dozens of vehicles were set ablaze and vandalised by the uncontrollable mob. Section 144 has been imposed and wide deployment of police personnel is to be seen in Pune, Mumbai, Aurangabad and many other parts of the state.

As per recent developments, a 35-year-old man has committed suicide in Aurangabad, traffic has been disrupted on highways and there have been numerous incidents of stone pelting, arson, vandalism and mob violence. Members of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, the group that is believed to be spearheading the protests, have reportedly set private and government vehicles ablaze and reportedly have caused local commuters to be stranded and take shelter.

On Saturday, CM Devendra Fadnavis had held an all-party meeting to discuss the matter. he stated after the meeting that he had asked colleges to be co-operative with Maratha students on issues of scholarships and admissions. He added that though there was a law framed for Maratha reservation it has been stayed by the Bombay High Court and reservation can only be given after the recommendation of the Backward classes commission.

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This agitation is reportedly the 59th Maratha agitation so far. Last year in Mumbai, lakhs of Marathas had assembled and protested. The Marathas have been demanding reservations in educational institutions and government jobs for quite a while now.

In 2014, the Congress-NCP coalition government had recommended a 16% reservation for Marathas under the ‘economically and socially backwards’ category but it was stayed by the Bombay High Court 5 months later as the total reservations were exceeding 50%. The Fadnavis government had even brought a new bill for granting them reservation by the case is sub-judice in the Bombay High Court. As for their other demands, after last year’s reservations, the Fadnavis government had agreed to grant 5 crores rupees for building special Maratha hostels for students in every district, have increased the number of courses eligible for scholarships from 36 to 605 and had taken other significant steps like increasing the maximum annual family income for eligibility of student scholarships to 6 lakhs from 1.5 lakhs previously.

According to a report in the Economic Times last year, a survey by the University of British Columbia in 20006-2007 reportedly revealed that the Marathas were the majority caste in 41% of the villages, they own the most land in 59% of the villages in Maharashtra and hold the position of village Pradhan in 60% of the villages where they are eligible to contest.

Even the socio-economic condition of the Marathas are widely regarded as affluent in the state. They form almost a third of the 13 crore population in Maharashtra and according to a report in the New Indian Express, they own the most land in the state. The Marathas reportedly own 86 of the 105 major sugar factories in the state, have control of  55% of the educational institutions, 70% of all the cooperative bodies in the state. 12 of the 18 former Chief Ministers in the state have been Marathas.

While the Kunbis, an associated farming caste is included under the OBC category in the state that enjoys 19% reservation in admissions and jobs, three previous committees by central governments have concluded that the Marathas cannot be included in the OBC category. Last year after the agitations, the Fadnavis government agreed to provide them scholarships and other educational financial assistance at par with OBCs.

The Maratha demand for a 16% reservation has put the Fadnavis government in a complex situation. The state is poll-bound next year and CM Devendra Fadnavis face the responsibility of effectively convincing a large chunk of his voters while ensuring that in the process, he does not upset other groups of voters. While the government’s hands are tied till the commission of backward classes takes the final decision and the matter at Bombay High Court reaches to its conclusion, his smart handling of the farmers’ protests and other major stirs in the state provides hope that he will handle the Maratha agitation expertly too.

However, members of the opposition are trying their best to fan caste base unrest in the state and have repeatedly referred to Fadnavis’ caste derogatorily in a bid to fan tensions. Here Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress can be seen referring to CM Fadnavis’ caste to further tensions already brewing in Maharashtra.

The NCP and Congress bigwigs have also been fanning tensions demanding reservation and insinuating agitation if the demands are not met. This is interesting since the previous governments of the NCP and Congress also couldn’t meet this demand.

Other states like Gujrat, Haryana and Rajasthan have also seen demands for caste-based reservations in recent times. While Haryana faces protests by Jats, Gujrat has seen wide-spread and violent protests by the affluent Patidar (Patel) community in recent past. All the above-mentioned protests have been hijacked by the opposition parties one way or the other with the aim of destabilising the government and the Maratha agitation too is prone to that. Whatever the outcome, it is evident that CM Devendra Fadnavis has a very difficult task ahead.

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