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Will Maratha and Muslim reservation stand legal scrutiny?

June 30, 2014

Mumbai: On Friday, Sharad Pawar, president of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which is part of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra told a Marathi news channel: “We are not a bunch of saints, and if we are going to get political advantage for giving reservations to Marathas and Muslims, then so be it."

On 25 June, the state government announced its intention to give 16% reservations to Marathas and 5% to Muslims in state government jobs and educational institutions, by creating a new category—economically and educationally backward communities. With this, overall reservation in Maharashtra now stands at 73%, one percentage point more than in Tamil Nadu, a way past the 50% ceiling set by the Supreme Court.

Pawar’s statement explained why the state was eager to give reservations to Marathas and Muslims. The ruling coalition won only six out of 48 seats in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha elections. With the state Assembly elections due in October-November, the government is desperate to bring back the electorate which has moved away from it.

A public interest litigation has already been filed against the move. The Bombay High Court is expected to hear the petition filed by Ketan Tirodkar on Monday.

The fact remains that the Maratha community enjoys near-hegemony in Maharashtra politics. Out of 16 chief ministers of the state, 10 belonged to the Maratha community. In the present cabinet, 14 out of 31 belong to the Maratha community, including chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.

Between 1962—when Assembly elections for the newly-created Maharashtra state took place—and 2004, as many as 2,430 individuals were elected as the members of legislative assembly (MLAs), out of which 1,336 were Marathas. Out of 200 sugar factories in Maharashtra, 170 are controlled by the Marathas. Similarly, they also dominate district cooperative banks, milk producers associations, agriculture market produce committees and many aspects of the state’s rural economy.

Many prominent educational institutions, especially those unaided institutions offering professional courses, are run by politicians belonging to the Maratha community.

The reason behind this dominance is their sheer numbers. Marathas constitute 32% of the population in Maharashtra.

Why then the demand for reservation for a dominant caste? The champions of Maratha reservation argue that power has always remained in the hands of a few families and the condition of common Marathas has hardly improved since Independence.

They also argue that while scheduled castes and other backward classes have made progress due to reservations, ordinary Maratha youngsters have no option but continue in the agricultural sector, even though farming has become unviable in many parts of the state.

They also point out that despite Marathas constituting almost a third of the state’s population, they are under-represented in administration. At around 188,000, Marathas are merely 15% of the state government work force. And in the upper echelons of bureaucracy, their percentage is even lower. Only 11% of Class I gazetted officers of the state government belongs to the Maratha community.

Some independent scholars agree. They claim around 170 families related to each other through matrimonial alliances control all the power centres in the state. For example, Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s wife Sunetra Pawar is a half-sister of former state minister and former Member of Parliament Padamsinh Patil; the state’s rural development minister Jayant Patil and legislative council chairman Shivajirao Deshmukh’s son Satyajeet are brothers-in-law, state industry minister Narayan Rane and higher education minister Rajesh Tope are also related as Rane’s son Nilesh is married to Tope’s niece. There are many such examples.

Marathas may be economically and educationally backward and political power concentrated in a few families, but the Constitution recommends reservation only for those who are ‘socially, educationally and economically’ backward and the Maratha community does not pass the test of being socially backward.

Which is why two OBC commissions in the past blocked previous moves to include Marathas in the OBC category. Now, the state government has come up with a clever way of creating a separate category of economically and educationally backward classes.

The question is: Will this ploy stand legal scrutiny? Marathas don’t pass the test of being a socially backward community. In 1992, the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had put a ceiling of 50% on all types of reservations. Similarly, courts have also blocked attempts by various state governments to give reservations to Muslims as there is no provision for giving religion-based reservation in the Constitution.

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