Maharashtra Minister from the Ajit Pawar camp of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and prominent Other Backward Class (OBC) leader Chhagan Bhujbal sparked controversy with his comments on the Maratha reservation issue, and against pro-quota activist Manoj Jarange Patil, drawing criticism from various quarters. Mr. Bhujbal claims he has nothing against reservation for the Marathas, but they should not eat into the OBC share of the pie and should get a separate quota instead.
Speaking to The Hindu, the 76-year-old NCP leader, who was once considered a close aide of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, says he won’t heed anyone’s advice as he believes he is on the right track, and addresses Mr. Jarange Patil as ‘immature, illiterate, and arrogant’ for threatening the government.
The Chief Minister (Eknath Shinde) as well as the Deputy Chief Minister (Ajit Pawar) belong to the Maratha community. Do you feel any pressure from your party or the government to take forward your agitation?
I don’t feel pressure from the party or any individuals. I have always spoken about what I believe is right, and I’m not under any pressure from the party or the government to alter my stance on specific issues. As the senior-most Minister in the current government and one of the most experienced politicians in the State, I don’t feel the need to appease anyone. I am committed to the cause (OBC rights) I’ve been advocating for the past 35 years, even to the extent of leaving Balasaheb Thackeray. Believe me, those were the most challenging days after leaving Shiv Sena. I’m ready to resign as a Minister and MLA and will fight for this cause until my last breath.
Has Ajit Pawar suggested you to tone down?
No, he hasn’t. But to reiterate, I won’t heed anyone’s advice because I believe I’m on the right track. My only request is to protect the OBC reservation, and I don’t have any additional demands.
Regarding the issue of Mr. Shinde meeting pro-Maratha quota activist Manoj Jarange Patil and convincing him, do you trust the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister?
I don’t want to comment on this matter since he (Mr. Shinde) is the Chief Minister. I’m not aware of his intentions. So, it’s a question for them, not for me. But, when he (Mr. Jarange Patil) demanded that CM, DCMs and others from the current dispensation should meet him, Mr. Ajit Pawar was against it. One cannot force the government to comply with their demands, and it shows arrogance to set deadlines for the government when the State is already addressing the issue. This is not Banana Republic, and threats shouldn’t be made to the government.
How do you view an activist setting a deadline for a government on a major issue?
What nonsense. It’s pure arrogance. The government should not yield to such threats; after all, it is a government. Simultaneously, the government should empower the police department and not demoralise them. If the police take action to maintain peace and order, we should stand firmly behind them. I am not against protests; individuals may or may not achieve their goals through protests, but they shouldn’t threaten the government, especially when it is already addressing the Maratha reservation issue. The inter-state border dispute between Maharashtra and Karnataka has been ongoing for several decades without resolution.
You mentioned that the government should not bow down to any pressure. Do you think the Shinde government is afraid of the Maratha community?
That I don’t know. I’m part of the government, at least I’m not. Mr. Ajit Pawar, No. We are not against reservation for Marathas, and Mr. Shinde, Devendra Fadnavis (DCM), Mr. Ajit Pawar and even Chhagan Bhujbal are not opposing it. We are making efforts, and my clear demand is that the government should not allocate the Maratha reservation from OBC but from any other community’s share. I’m the first to support it.
Do you think the government gives more importance to Mr. Jarange Patil, as not just Ministers but even the Chief Minister went to convince him?
I don’t want to comment on my boss, but if I were in his position, I wouldn’t have gone. Mr. Jarange Patil lacks maturity, is illiterate, arrogant, and doesn’t know how to behave. Police officials, including women, were attacked at the protest site.
So, you hold Mr. Jarange Patil responsible for the law and order situation in the State?
Certainly. The police were there to protect him and his supporters, not to attack them. Over 70 police personnel sustained injuries, and yet he dares to demand cases not to be registered against them. Later, they burnt down the entire Beed district, and lives could have been lost.
Who do you think is politically backing Mr. Jarange Patil?
I don’t know. But I have a question: Mr. Jarange Patil restricted politicians from entering the villages, so how did Rohit Pawar (MLA and grandnephew of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar) enter Ghansawangi (in Jalna district) as part of his padayatra?
Are you alleging that the NCP faction led by Mr. Sharad Pawar backing Mr. Jarange Patil?
I’m just explaining an incident. Mr. Rohit Pawar held a public meeting, and people who questioned him were attacked and ended up in the hospital. Is it a selective ban? They torched NCP MLA Sandeep Kshirsagar’s house, vehicle and office, and his family had a miraculous escape and he (Mr. Rohit Pawar) took him to Mr. Jarange Patil to fall on his feet. What does it indicate? You draw your inference.
Is it true that you are advocating for OBCs on behalf of the BJP, considering many BJP leaders may not express their views openly?
I want to clarify that I am speaking for OBCs, not on behalf of the BJP. I am not a puppet and will not be swayed by any external influence. In every political party, there are OBC leaders, and it’s their choice whether they voice their opinion or not.
What, in your view, is the solution to the Maratha reservation issue?
The only solution is to formulate a robust bill that can withstand legal scrutiny, While the Supreme Court has said Marathas are not socially backward, but if they are financially and educationally deprived, they can do it. He (Mr. Jarange Patil) may not grasp these nuances, and although discussing him may be futile, he should refrain from issuing threats to the government. It’s not just a threat to the government but to the democracy.
Will this be the major issue during the upcoming winter session of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly?
There are several issues for discussion, including crop loss due to unseasonal rains, and this could be one of the issues. We are open to engaging in constructive discussions on multiple fronts.
What is your stance on a caste census?
I am wholeheartedly supportive of a caste census, a demand I’ve been echoing for decades. When Bihar and other States can do it, why can’t Maharashtra? Not just our NCP, but even leaders in BJP, Mr. Sharad Pawar, and several others have also advocated for the caste census. No one is stopping the State government.
Given that reservation is a contentious issue now, do you foresee the 2024 Lok Sabha polls revolving around caste and reservation?
I can’t predict the dynamics at this point. The intensity of the reservation issue might subside or evolve by then.