Deshmukh keen to consolidate Maratha votes

Sep 24th, 2008 | By editor | Category: In News, Nation

Meena Menon
MUMBAI: It is not surprising that Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was all ears to Marathas, who last week demanded OBC status and reservation. For, he is seeking to consolidate the community votes in time for the Asembly elections.
Already, reservation in jobs and education is about 52 per cent in Maharashtra. The Maratha organisations are demanding a 25 per cent reservation. The community is a dominant force in politics, thanks to its cooperative sugar factories, educational institutions and business interests.
Mr. Deshmukh, Union Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil and several State Cabinet Ministers are all Marathas. Though the Marathas have progressed socially and economically, the entire community has not benefited.
Last month, about a dozen Maratha organisations came together to consolidate themselves and chose Vinayak Mete, two-time NCP  member of the Legislative Council, to head their coalition. Both Mr. Mete, who heads the Shiv Sangram Sanghathana, and Purshottam Khedekar of the Maratha Seva Sangh are known for their fierce loyalty to the Maratha cause.
Mr. Khedekar led the opposition to James Laine’s book on Shivaji Maharaj and Sambhaji Brigade, an affiliate of his organisation, ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune in 2004 on the flimsy excuse that one of its researchers had helped Mr. Laine.
Mr. Mete too was in the news recently as his organisation attacked Loksatta editor Kumar Ketkar’s house to protest against an article written by him on Shivaji Maharaj.
Pointing out that Marathas account for 43 per cent of the poulation according to the last caste census in 1931, Mr. Mete, says that despite an impressive show of power and prestige, many in the community lag far behind economically.
‘SC/ST Act misused’
 As for the Marathas’ demand for relaxation of the stringent provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Mr. Mete says that sometimes innocent people were arrested in atrocity cases. Often they were instigated by rivalry among upper castes in villages. The police must first investigate and see if the case is genuine, he says. “There is a gross misuse of the Act.”
Asked whether the demand was made specifically for Marathas, he said it was not to favour any community. However, many of the caste conflicts in the State do involve the Marathas.
Nearly 30-35 per cent of the State’s population is Maratha. In any case, the Kunbi caste is already getting the benefit of reservation as an Other Backward Class; so why not extend it to Marathas in the State, asks Mr. Mete.
Maratha was not really a caste in the beginning and has evolved so over the years. It has its origins in the Kunbi peasant community. The Marathas may have been large landowners once but now their holdings are shrinking. There is widespread unemployment; the bulk of those who work under employment guarantee schemes are Maratha and many migrate for work, Mr. Mete points out.
About 65- 70 per cent of the farmers in Maharashtra are small and marginal farmers or landless. The Kunbi-Maratha community accounts for the majority of farm suicides, he says.
With elections drawing to a close, the Congress and the NCP are trying to woo the Marathas. Earlier the Congress could bank on the community but since 1999 its vote has been divided between the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, and the NCP.
In this context, agreeing to the Maratha demand for reservation could be an easy way out for the Congress. The NCP, identified as a Maratha party, too is fully behind this, at least at the State level and it could benefit the most from the concession. The Congress-NCP has almost lost its base among Muslims and Dalits, thanks to the way this government has handled various issues, right from justice in the 1992-93 communal riots to the Khairlanji killings.
Shiv Sena stand
The Shiv Sena too has backed reservation for poor Marathas but cautioned against this polarising the OBCs. For a large chunk of this community, which is increasingly marginalised by special economic zones and other projects, apart from agrarian distress, reservation is a way of gaining back its prestige.
However, opposition to reservation for Marathas has already come from the Malis, a dominant OBC community.

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