Maharashtra: A casteist comedy of errors

Eknath Shinde’s government appears to have tied itself in knots over the Maratha reservation issue. The government initially suggested that Marathas could pass themselves off as ‘Kunbi’, a section of Marathas already recognised as OBC. The suggestion sparked a fierce reaction from a large section of Marathas who see themselves as upper caste ‘Savarnas’, and some who even claim royal lineage.

The government beat a hasty retreat and decided that those who wanted to avail OBC benefits could declare themselves as Kunbi and obtain certificates to this effect. Shinde then clarified that the certificates would be valid only for individuals and not all family members. This upset a section which wanted to retain both their Maratha identity (all the better to find spouses for their children) but also their OBC identity (all the better to secure jobs and reservations).

The populist Maratha leader Manoj Jarange Patil seized the opportunity to rally Marathas, leading them on a march to Mumbai, demanding that Marathas be unconditionally granted OBC status. The state government swiftly caved in and issued an ordinance that made Marathas eligible for benefits that OBCs are currently entitled to — until they get a quota of their own.

Before Shinde could pat his own back, the ordinance faced opposition from unexpected quarters. Union minister Narayan Rane, lately feeling out of sorts, warned the government of widespread social unrest if the ordinance was not withdrawn immediately. Chhagan Bhujbal, a minister in the Shinde cabinet, joined him in this demand.

It is worth recalling that Shinde, Rane and Bhujbal had all started their political careers with Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and heartily dislike each other. To pour oil on troubled waters, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis came up with another confounding announcement. A certificate would not suffice, he said, but the government would verify each claim of being Kunbi. Which had just one effect — it brought the whole rigmarole back to square one. A comedy of errors that could trigger another prolonged agitation.


When caste kicks in

Union minister Nitin Gadkari, an eloquent public speaker, is known for his allusions. Last year, he lamented the state of affairs in the country by saying, “Ghodon ko nahi mil rahi ghaas/ Par gadhe kha rahe chyavanprash (horses don’t get grass, while donkeys feed on chyawanprash).”

More recently, he pulled up a news reporter who wanted to know if members of the press would be exempt from paying toll on highways. Gadkari brusquely put him down, saying there was no place for the “phokat (freeloaders) class”. Social media was quick to remind him that the ‘phokat class’ included politicians and bureaucrats.

Another recent gem from ‘high-caste’ Gadkari was his statement that people creating caste differences in society deserved a resounding kick on their backsides. The comment was made at the launch of Gandhian philosopher Raghu Thakur’s new book Gandhi-Ambedkar, Kitne Dur, Kitne Paas (Gandhi-Ambedkar: so far, so close), in which Thakur argues that the two were more similar than people believe, and that both wanted a casteless society and equal opportunities for all.

From left: Devendra Fadnavis, Eknath Shinde, Nitin Gadkari (photo: @OfficeOfNG/X)

Gadkari praised Gandhi for his contribution to freedom and Swadeshi, which, given Gadkari’s links with the RSS and the Sangh’s aversion to Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Indian Constitution, was bound to create a buzz in Marathi circles.

“The young generation believes that Gandhi and Ambedkar were bitterly opposed to each other. Very few know that their philosophies were more aligned… I never believed in any caste or creed… Anyone who divides society on caste lines deserves a kick from my side,” he said.

What was his audience to make of that? Was he targeting those who are agitating for separate caste recognition?


Can he kick out caste discrimination?

Kicks seem to be in fashion. Pushkar Jog, a Marathi film hero and popular participant in the last edition of the reality show Big Boss Marathi has also threatened to kick anyone who wants to know his caste.

Jog bared all on Instagram: “Yesterday a municipal official approached me for a survey to determine my caste; had the official not been a woman, I would have sent the official back with two kicks. Let people be warned: kindly do not ask me such questions in future, otherwise Jog is not one to talk, he believes in delivering a resounding slap that will set the ear ringing for a long time…”

Telankhedi Lake, Nagpur (photo: Quora)

Some social media users wondered if Jog — also a ‘high-caste’ Brahmin like Gadkari — had any idea of how people are discriminated against on the basis of caste, or understood the need for a caste census in the country. Others felt he could be more sensitive to officials, irrespective of gender, who were simply doing their jobs.


Saved for the nonce

The Maharashtra government has been pulled up by the Supreme Court for attempting to destroy a 200-year-old lake in the western part of Nagpur, Maharashtra’s winter capital. The apex court has forbidden the Metro Rail Project from carrying out any activity near Futala Lake, also known as Telankhedi Lake.

Spread over 60 acres, it is surrounded by dense forests on three sides and has a land-scaped beach on the fourth. Built by the Bhosale kings, it is one of the few water bodies in landlocked Nagpur, and is counted among the large wetlands in the country.

After years of neglect and being used as a dumping ground for Ganpati and Durga idols during immersions, the municipal corporation woke up to its commercial possibilities and created a promenade complete with restaurants, shops, colourful fountains and romantic hangouts.

The plea in the Supreme Court by the Swachh Nagpur Abhiyan had pointed out that despite the Union ministry of forests and environment declaring the area around Telankhedi Lake and Gardens as a wetland, 7,000 tonnes of concrete had already been dumped into it, a steel fountain was being built at its centre, and 16,000 acres of land around it were being used to build a viewers’ gallery.

The court has asked the authorities to stop construction activities for the time being and sought to know when the concrete structures would be removed.


A car ‘overloaded’ with ministers

Ajit Pawar, one of the two deputy chief ministers in the state, was spotted riding in a car with six people instead of the regulation five! There he was, sitting in the back with Devendra Fadnavis, while squished between them were BJP state president Chandrashekhar Bawankule and Girish Mahajan, another minister close to Fadnavis. Sitting in front next to the driver was chief minister Shinde.

Faced with a rising chorus against ministers violating Motor Vehicles Rules, Pawar explained that the car had set out with four passengers and when the fifth insisted on getting in, what could they do? This excuse failed to convince anyone. In a state where every minister has not one but a half-dozen cars at his or her disposal, one wonders what noble reason led four ministers to carpool thus.

Pawar is at the eye of another ‘storm’, following the suspension of the director of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park for misspelling Pawar’s middle name as ‘Anand’ in the Devanagari script instead of ‘Anant’ on truckloads of calendars that were sent out. Wits on social media pointed out that the director was a wildlife conservator, not a proof-reader!

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