Manoj Jarange-Patil, 41, will brook no excuses from the Maharashtra government. The son of poverty-stricken farmers, who is now hailed as a modern-day Maratha yodha (warrior), is getting ready to conduct rallies across the State in December demanding that the Maratha community be included in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. He has set a deadline for the government to do this: early January 2024. And if they do not, “It will prove costly.”
Standing outside his two-room, 85 sq metre house in Antarwali Sarathi village in Jalna district, 400 km from Mumbai, Jarange-Patil says the government must give the Marathas Kunbi OBC certificates. Kunbi is a caste under the OBC category and enjoys reservation benefits in government jobs and education. While Marathas are estimated to account for 33% of the State’s population, the OBCs account for 52%.
The activist claims that 32 lakh records have been found showing Marathas to be Kunbi OBCs.
In May 2021, the Supreme Court scrapped a 2018 law passed by the earlier Devendra Fadnavis-led government, providing the Marathas 16% reservation in government jobs and education by according them the status of a Socially and Economically Backward Class. The Maratha agitation for reservation went into cold storage after that.
But with his determination, Jarange-Patil, a wispy, dark-haired activist from the arid Marathwada region, has caused socio-political rumblings in Maharashtra over the last few months. He launched two indefinite hunger strikes in September and October, which together lasted 25 days, which nearly paralysed the Eknath Shinde-led tripartite government. The trigger for these fasts was a clash on September 1 between Maratha protesters seeking reservation and the police, in Antarwali Sarathi, where Jarange-Patil had been protesting since August 29. While the police accused the demonstrators of starting the violence by throwing stones, the protesters alleged that the police lathi charged them and used tear gas to quell the protests.
A staunch activist
Half of Jarange-Patil’s living room, which doubles as a bedroom, is taken up by curios pertaining to the 17th century Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji, whose life and ideals infused the activist with a zeal to serve his community.
Jarange-Patil’s wife and daughters speak with pride about his dedication. “In today’s world, where no one does anything for anybody, my father works tirelessly for society. He has been at it for 22 years and we are about to see his dreams being fulfilled,” says his youngest daughter Pallavi, 14, who has a passion for history.
Everyone in the Ankushnagar area, the plot where Jarange-Patil’s house is situated near a sugar factory, testifies to his intense commitment towards the cause of Maratha reservation.
Subhash Tulekar, who has been a neighbour for a long time, says, “He always cared more about society than himself. He was acutely aware that children from other castes with lower marks were getting better educational and employment opportunities [than the Marathas]. He had organised rallies in Aurangabad and Jalna on this issue in the late 1990s too.”
Drought-like conditions forced Jarange-Patil to leave his ancestral village of Matori in the neighbouring Beed district and settle in Antarwali Sarathi, where he worked as a manager in a small hotel during the late 1990s. His activism began when he joined the pro-Maratha outfit, Chhava Sanghatna. This was followed by a brief association with the Youth Congress, which he quit in 2003 to float his own outfit, Shivba Sanghatana.
His rallies and agitations met with apathy at first. But Jarange-Patil shot to fame after his hunger fasts. His first huger strike ended after 16 days when Shinde visited Jarange-Patil to persuade him to call it off and handed him a glass of juice. But the activist began a second hunger strike after the 40-day deadline he gave the government, to provide the Marathas reservation, lapsed on October 24. He also declared that all politicians be banned from entering villages until the Marathas got reservation under the OBC category. The second strike, which lasted nine days, ended more dramatically with a bevy of retired judges and cabinet ministers imploring Jarange-Patil to call it off, while assuring him that his demand would be met by early January 2024.
Since then, Jarange-Patil has only grown in stature. He travels in a cavalcade of SUVs akin to that of the Chief Minister’s. Ramps are erected for his rallies. Giant hoardings featuring him dot the highways and byways across the State, especially the eight districts in Marathwada.
Among the thousands to fall under Jarange-Patil’s ‘spell’ is Manaji Mogal, 38, a farmer from neighbouring Sambhajinagar. He came to Antarwali Sarathi in October, and stayed there 26 days.
“A dedicated man is fighting for us without food and water. Can’t we do even a little on a full belly? Today, the youth of Maharashtra, inspired by Jarange-Patil, have awakened,” says Manaji.
Jarange-Patil’s followers are not limited to the rural areas. “A significant chunk of Marathas is backward and does not have access to good education. Even though I had a good score in school, I did not get admission in a good college as I was from a poor Maratha family. Jarange-Patil has accomplished the near-impossible feat of bringing Marathas together. The government should pay heed to him,” says Prashant Pharate, a Pune-based software professional. Some working professionals from Aurangabad say they took half a day off from work to hear him speak.
A formidable adversary
If Jarange-Patil has become the voice of Maratha grievances, Maharashtra Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, an influential OBC leader and a senior member of the ruling Ajit Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) faction, has emerged as his most formidable adversary. Bhujbal has managed to gather together fragmented OBC castes and sub-castes during his rallies to counter the activist from Marathwada. “I have no opposition to the Marathas getting reservation, but they should not eat into the OBC reservation pie,” he says.
Bhujbal, 76, has held Jarange-Patil responsible for the violence that shook Beed district during the activist’s second hunger fast. The homes of two NCP legislators were torched and several OBC establishments gutted. “It was he [Jarange-Patil] who set Beed aflame with his rhetoric. I oppose his mob rule. And who gave him the right to stop politicians from entering villages,” he asks.
Jarange-Patil, in turn, alleges that Bhujbal is deliberately trying to heighten social tensions. “The Marathas and OBCs have always lived together. There is no Maratha-OBC conflict in villages. There is some chatter among some old leaders, which we don’t pay attention to,” he says.
The OBC rallies have attracted not just leaders across the political spectrum, but also prominent literary figures including Laxman Gaikwad whose novel Uchalaya (The Branded) has been critically acclaimed as a classic.
“The politically established and dominant Maratha class has always suppressed the OBCs and nomadic tribes. In the last 50-60 years, no budget amount has been allotted to us despite reservation on paper. Besides a lack of political representation, our children have been denied education,” says Gaikwad.
This lack of political representation is borne out by data. More than 60% of the Chief Ministers of the State, including Y.B. Chavan, Sharad Pawar, and Eknath Shinde, have been Marathas, and nearly 70% of Maharashtra’s 288 legislators belong to the community.
Gaikwad says that be it NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar or late Congressman and Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, the prominent Maratha ruling families ensured that only their family members held the political reins. “Nomadic tribes like the Ramoshis, who fought against the British, were kept out of the electoral system by Maratha politicians. And now, when the OBCs have secured some representation at the gram panchayat and local body level, the Marathas want to snatch that away as well. Even the Nizam and the British behaved better with us,” he says, adding that the Supreme Court had said the Marathas were not socio-economically backward when it quashed the 16% reservation law in 2021.
Gaikwad also blames Udayanraje Bhosale, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Satara, and Sambhajiraje Chhatrapati, a former BJP MP from Kolhapur, who come from erstwhile royal families, for the situation. “These upper class Marathas, and not the OBCs and nomadic tribes, are responsible for the poverty of some Marathas. Why doesn’t Jarange-Patil dole out the thousands of acres of property held by sugar factories and [former] Maratha royals to the poor Marathas?”
A renewed demand
Meanwhile, several Maratha leaders point out that Jarange-Patil’s chief demand had been highlighted by several Maratha outfits in the past.
Rajendra Kondhare, a leader of the Maratha Kranti Morcha, says that the fervour with which the Marathas were rallying behind Jarange-Patil has made the issue now “purely emotional.”
“There is now a perception among the Maratha public that the government must give any poor Maratha reservation by December-January. Besides this fallacy, Jarange-Patil’s demand for Marathas to be given OBC Kunbi certificates is hardly new. This has been going on since 1996,” says Kondhare. He is referring to the process of Marathas availing themselves of OBC Kunbi reservation by showing proof, particularly during local bodies elections. In western Maharashtra in particular, many local Maratha leaders often got OBC Kunbi certificates to contest on reserved seats in gram panchayat and civic body polls.
Another Maratha leader cautions that certificates being given by the government to appease Jarange-Patil would not stand scrutiny under the caste certificate rules 2012 if they were challenged before a district caste scrutiny committee.
Political analyst Nitin Andhale, who hails from a poor OBC family in Beed, says that Jarange-Patil is riding on the tailwind of discontent arising out of a long-persisting economic and agrarian crisis in Marathwada: “The demand for reservation is most intense in the Marathwada region. Farmers do not get a good price for their produce and the region faces a massive water problem. In the past, they had large landholdings which got fragmented. Incomes from land decreased as the Maratha population grew.” This coincided with a period when the empowerment of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and OBCs through reservation started becoming more discernible, particularly in education.
“A generation of Marathas saw that backward castes, who in the past had been denied entry into their villages or who had worked in their fields, had started getting jobs. Their education fees were less than their Maratha counterparts. These were people who could not even take out processions in front of Maratha houses,” says Andhale, a first-generation PhD scholar who fears that the demand will have deleterious effects on OBCs struggling to secure scholarships.
Given that Marathas are already benefiting under the Economically Weaker Sections quota, and the government is making efforts to give them reservation in government jobs, Andhale says providing fee concessions for economically weaker Maratha students on a par with SC, STs and OBCs may help reduce their anger.
Kondhare warns that the OBC versus Maratha narrative would likely have baneful effects in the Marathwada region. “Emotional issues gain traction here with greater speed than anywhere else in Maharashtra as this part is industrially and educationally backward. Political parties gain maximum adherents for their causes.”
Andhale concurs. He says after the agitation, the problems of farmers and of economically backward students, such as rampant irregularities in disbursing scholarships, have been put on the back-burner. “The 2024 elections now will be fought on reservation and caste,” he worries.
A Mumbai-based political analyst says Jarange-Patil’s is a political ploy by which the ruling combine, particularly Eknath Shinde, stands to gain. “Shinde has emerged as a Maratha strongman in the last two months. The Marathas censure Sharad Pawar and others for not doing enough to alleviate the plight of the poorer Marathas. Shinde has given the Marathas hope, while signalling that the community stands behind him,” he says.
Shinde’s ally — senior BJP leader Narayan Rane, a Maratha strongman — scoffed at Jarange-Patil, calling him immature while urging the activist to study issues more carefully. “It would be delusional to think that Marathas would want reservation as Kunbi OBCs,” Rane said.
Jarange-Patil dismisses Rane, saying he is trying to smite the Maratha agitation. And he is optimistic about the government providing reservation. “For 60-70 years, the Marathas have waited for reservation. Today, we sense a bright and future hopeful ahead for the children,” he says.