The Maratha agitation leader Manoj Jarange-Patil’s conditional offer to end his hunger strike without calling off the larger stir for quotas offers some breathing space for the Maharashtra administration. However, the government should be cautious about the quota demand since it has the potential to upset caste relations in the state. The Supreme Court has already indicated that electoral considerations cannot drive the state’s quota policy when it struck down the 2018 law that created a separate quota for Marathas. The Maratha community is no monolith — some sections may be economically impoverished and need state support. Unfortunately, reservation is seen as a low-hanging fruit to meet educational and employment aspirations. This approach misses the rationale behind reservation, which was envisaged as an instrument to address caste-centric oppression and deprivation. It should stay so.
The Maratha demand for quotas has little to do with caste. Like with the grievances of peasant communities such as Jats and Patels, this too is rooted in agrarian distress. Farm incomes have become unreliable, forcing peasants and farmers to seek professions that offer a secure and stable income. Governments have failed to generate industrial or service sector jobs to absorb the surplus engaged in agriculture. Political/community leaders, lacking the imagination to steer this unavoidable structural transformation of the economy, promise aggrieved parties that the reservation policy could be manipulated to address their concerns. The reservation policy has become an intricate matrix of quotas and sub-quotas that tend to pit communities against each other rather than resolve real concerns. A quota-centric resolution to the Maratha grievance is only likely to ignite other fires when the challenge before the government is to expand the economic pie, create jobs and provide welfare to the needy.