Who is the Grand Maratha?

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on January 08, 2018

We’re watching you: Marathas at Kranti Morcha in August last year   -  Rajendra G

Hundreds of theories cloud the identity on which quotas are demanded and often granted

On August 9, 2017, about three lakh descendants of (arguably) the first proto-nationalist polity of the subcontinent marched silently through Mumbai with their saffron swallowtail flags and descended upon Azad Maidan to fulminate. It was the 58th chapter of the Maratha spring that started a year ago in Aurangabad, the 58th Kranti Morcha. Legions gathered on their own from every region of Maharashtra, Maratha filings magnetised by kinship and grievance, summoned into service by no headman or leader, in numbers larger than what Gandhi could mobilise for his August Kranti.

The spate of morchas was initially about a 14-year-old Maratha girl who was gang raped and tortured to death at Kopardi village in Karjat, Ahmednagar in July 2013, allegedly by three Dalits. These were muk morchas, silent marches (led by young women), that surged through the cities and marshalled on their own into assemblies where the amassed crowds listened to speeches by their womenfolk. They called themselves Jijaunchya leki, daughters of Jijabai (Shivaji’s mother), invoked the olden glories of the Maratha Empire and heatedly demanded that the government hang the rapists. And then, in every speech, insidiously, the rhetoric would heighten; they’d speak of their material conditions, of livelihood issues, of how Shivaji’s mawlas (warriors) were now a caste in extremis. And then demand the other two tranches, as if they were owed to them: amendment to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and reservations for Marathas in education and government jobs. They’d end with a long rasping battle cry-cum-warning: “ Ek Maratha, lakh Maratha. Don’t make us draw our swords.”

In July 2014, in the run-up to the State elections, the Congress-NCP government issued an ordinance to create a new category called the Economically and Socially Backward Category (ESBC) to institute a 16 per cent quota in education and public services (over and above the 52 per cent reservations in the State). The ordinance mentions the Maratha community as the only one included in the ESBC. It was issued on the basis of ‘adequate quantifiable data’ collected by the Rane Committee, which established that the Maratha community was socially, educationally and economically backward. The ordinance was almost immediately challenged in court and stayed by the Bombay High Court. The matter is sub judice in the Supreme Court.

That adequate quantifiable data was collected by Narayan Rane and his troupe in just 11 days is on record. That it flies in the face of the National Commission for Backward Classes report (that rejected the request for inclusion of the Marathas in the Central List of Backward Classes for Maharashtra by stating that Marathas are a ‘socially advanced and prestigious community’) and the subsequent Bapat Commission report, has been noted by the court. That from 1962 to 2004, 55 per cent of the MLAs and 12 out of 17 chief ministers have been Marathas, and 81 per cent of the sugar factories, 71 per cent of the co-operative institutions and 70 per cent of the management of universities in the State are controlled by Marathas, and 75-90 per cent of the land in the State is owned by Marathas, is just some of the trivia that the court has included in its order to put the intent of the ordinance into context. But, can their demands be slighted on account of these matters of proportion?

The outsider-interloper must begin with the fluidity of the appellation Maratha. In ethnographic literature there seems to be no agreement on who is a Maratha. Is it just a titular designation of a people, a title-appellation? Were they originally Kunbis? Are they a community? A caste-cluster? There’s even literature to suggest that Kunbi was not a caste; that at some point every tiller was called a Kunbi. The State of Maharashtra for the first time recognised Kunbis as OBCs in 1967.

No. 83 on the current list of OBCs in Maharashtra are the following: Kunbi (Leva, Kunbi, Leva Patidar), Maratha Kunbi, Kunbi Maratha. Maratha Kunbi/Kunbi Maratha was added in a GR in 2006. The earlier State list (and the current Central OBC list) doesn’t mention the double-barrelled Maratha Kunbis. In pleas raised by many a petitioner there have been claims that Marathas are a sub-caste of Kunbis and vice versa, and therefore all Marathas should be recognised as Kunbis, issued Kunbi caste certificates and given reservations. All claims have been denied by the courts.

The courts quote Russell and Hiralal (R&H) ( The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, 1916) on the matter. R&H describe Marathas as “The military caste of southern India which manned the armies of Sivaji, and the Peshwas and other princes of the Maratha confederacy. They are a caste formed from military service, and it seems probable that they sprang mainly from the peasant population of Kunbis, though at what period they were formed into a separate caste has not yet been determined.”

And Stewart Gordon’s rather elaborate history of the Marathas (1600-1818) airs the following particulars:

The Marathas unyoked themselves from the Kunbis centuries ago by endogamy (and, sometimes, hypergamy). The emergence of the Marathas as a separate community goes back to the Bahmani dynasty and the opportunities for upward mobility provided by military service. They became an elite landholding class by serving many ruling dynasties which offered them, in return, bounties of landed estates ( watans and inams) and titles of Deshmukh and Patil, and the privileges of revenue collection. With the rise of Shivaji from among their ranks, they became the ruling class. They have always sought to make a distinction by adopting social customs not conceivable for ordinary peasants — such as slightly august patterns of clothing and ritual and diet, seclusion of women, and restriction on widow remarriage. They closed their ranks by not allowing their girls to marry Kunbis.

What emerges quite clearly from this is how much the label Maratha has changed its application. From being a title without any particular social prominence to one that defined an endogamous elite grouping of powerful families, to a community willing to call itself Kunbi and depressed for their OBC status. And then demanding reservations in a separate category when the courts denied the Maratha-Kunbi equivalence by calling it a ‘social absurdity’.

The 1931 census, the last caste-based census in our country (prior to 2011), was looked upon by respondents as an occasion to improve their lot, to get themselves registered in a higher identity. An occasion to repair their 1921 status. The Kunbi-Maratha appellation (as claimed by some Kunbis) probably has its origins there.

In 2017, the Maratha idea of reservations is that the enabling provisions under Article 16(4) of the Constitution are actually a welfare scheme. They want it because agriculture and its allied activities aren’t quite working in the new economy. They are landowners, not peasants; not a subaltern, debased caste that has ever suffered social privations or wants to improve its social position. They don’t want to be plumbed on the Mandal score of the 11 weighted criteria of backwardness. Their demand for reservations is one based on caste pride qua Marathas. On honour, swords and martial threats. And the State wants to give them that.

Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer

Published on October 20, 2017

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