Maharashtra’s Other Backward Classes (OBCs) staged their first protest rally at Jalna in the Marathwada region Friday with Chhagan Bhujbal, a minister in the Eknath Shinde-led Maharashtra government, as their star speaker.
The protest rally, which came on the heels of an intense stir by the Maratha community, marked fresh trouble for the Shinde administration.
Bhujbal, a minister from the Ajit Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), shared the stage with rival Congress’s Vijay Wadettiwar. The MLA from Nashik’s Yeola, Bhujbal is viewed as among the most prominent OBC faces in Maharashtra politics.
Speaking at the protest rally, Bhujbal indirectly slammed his government’s promise of not eating into the OBC quota while granting Kunbi certificates to eligible Marathas, as hollow.
He also demanded an immediate statewide caste census, questioned his government on why it is yet to order a probe into violence that erupted during protests by Marathas demanding reservation, lashed out at Maratha leader Manoj Jarange Patil — without naming him — and ridiculed ministers for “bowing down” to the activist.
“I was asked if some Nizam-era evidence of Kunbis is found, should we consider them? I said give, we have Kunbis among us. But what happened after that, on one day it was said we had found 5,000 pieces of evidence… and in two days, the number reached 11,500?
“Then there was a cabinet meeting and the number reached 13,500. The next day, the number rose by another 2,000. If one person gets the (OBC) certificate, all of his 100-200 relatives also get it. Even today, Dalits, Adivasis, nomads etc. have to wait for years and years for caste certificates and you (Marathas) get them so fast,” Bhujbal said.
He also alleged that “documents are being forged to show Kunbi origin”.
“This should stop. You say the OBC quota won’t be touched. How? Once he gets a Kunbi certificate, he becomes an OBC,” added the former deputy chief minister.
The state witnessed a fresh wave of protests by the Maratha community demanding quota in government jobs and education in August-September and then again earlier this month. Maratha community leader Manoj Jarange Patil was on an indefinite fast seeking reservation for Marathas as Kunbis.
Kunbis, an OBC caste, are eligible to avail of reservation as part of the OBC quota.
Leaders of the Maratha community claim all Marathas have their roots in the agrarian Kunbi clan and should be given reservation in government jobs and education as Kunbis.
A separate quota for Marathas is embroiled in a court battle, with the Supreme Court having struck it down in 2021, calling it “unconstitutional”. The state government has filed a curative petition in this regard.
Maratha community activist Manoj Jarange Patil, who has been leading the protests for a Maratha quota, has given the state government time until 2 January to identify all Marathas whose ancestors had Kunbi documents and grant them caste certificates.
The protest rally in Jalna marked the second time Bhujbal questioned his government over granting Kunbi certificates to eligible Marathas from across Maharashtra. Last week, the minister had expressed concerns about this being akin to a “backdoor entry” for Marathas into the OBC quota, causing a rift within the ruling alliance comprising the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Ajit Pawar-led NCP.
Bhujbal’s fiery speech Friday comes just a week after Maharashtra Chief Minister Shinde asked all cabinet ministers to avoid making controversial statements on the Maratha quota, according to cabinet sources.
Members of the OBC community plan to hold similar rallies in each of Maharashtra’s 36 districts.
‘Attacks on police led to lathi charge’
The stir for a Maratha quota has been a longstanding issue in Maharashtra.
With the issue being sub judice, the fresh wave of protests this year was triggered by one defining moment — a lathi charge on supporters of Jarange Patil, who had sat on an indefinite hunger strike, in Jalna.
Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP, who is also home minister of the state, had personally apologised to the Maratha community for the lathi charge.
However, Bhujbal has now alleged that neither the police nor Fadnavis furnished the whole truth about the lathi charge incident. Maratha protestors had pelted stones at policemen, including women constables, who were urging Jarange Patil to give up his hunger strike and admit himself to the hospital considering his deteriorating health, claimed Bhujbal.
“Seventy police personnel had to be admitted to the hospital due to injuries. Who hit them? The hospitals have records. The police’s version never came forward,” he said.
He added, “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj sent the mothers of the Mughals back, calling them ‘Aai’ (mother) and you attacked women in our police? You should be ashamed.”
Chhagan Bhujbal: ‘Is there rule of law or not?’
Bhujbal said a caste census in Maharashtra will prove which community has higher numbers and provide insights on the requirement for quantum of quota. He added that leaders from across parties such as himself, BJP’s Chandrashekhar Bawankule, as well as leaders of the two NCP factions, Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar, have called for a caste census.
In his speech, Bhujbal ridiculed the battery of ministers and senior judges who went to request Jarange Patil to give up his hunger strike. “Our ministers had taken senior judges and were seen bending before him (Manoj Jarange Patil), and the judges are calling him sir when you don’t even know if he has passed the fifth standard,” Bhujbal said.
He added that there was a systematic attempt at attacking houses and offices of politicians and questioned why there has been no inquiry into the violence at all.
“They (Maratha community members) shut entry into villages for MLAs, ministers. Do they have a 7/12 (a property document) for all of Maharashtra? I want to tell the police, these boards talking about gaonbandi (prohibition of entry into villages) must be taken down immediately. This is a democratic state. Is there a government or not? Is there (rule of) law or not?”
Bhujbal also issued a veiled warning to his government: “the OBCs will not remain silent if the government acts in a partisan manner.”