As Maharashtra grapples with the Maratha agitation for quotas in jobs and education that flared up again Monday, the state Dhangar Welfare Association has convened a meeting Tuesday to discuss street protests of its own to press the community’s demands.
The Dhangars are a shepherd community who live mostly in Western Maharashtra and Marathwada, and make up about a crore of Maharashtra’s roughly 11.25 crore population (9%). They play a key role in election outcomes at four (Baramati, Madha, Solapur, Satara) of the state’s 48 Lok Sabha seats, and 30-35 of the 288 Assembly seats.
Dhangars are currently on the list of Vimukta Jati and Nomadic Tribes (VJNT) in Maharashtra. However, they have been demanding Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the past several decades. Leaders of the community claim Dhangars in Maharashtra are the same as those who are called “Dhangad” elsewhere in the country, and are listed as a Scheduled Tribe. A typographical error had led to the community’s name being recorded as “Dhangar”, thereby denying them the benefits available to the ST “Dhangads”, they say.
Of the 52% reservation in Maharashtra, SCs and STs have 13% and 7% respectively, OBCs have 19%, and the Vimukta Jati/Denotified Tribes, Special Backward Class, and Nomadic Tribes together have 13%. Dhangars are a ‘Nomadic Tribe’.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections of 2014, the BJP had promised the Dhangars ST status. At the end of 2015, the state asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to establish whether Dhangars met the criteria to be identified as ST. In effect, this meant establishing whether Dhangars were the same as Dhangads, so as to guard against any future legal challenge to Dhangars being moved from VJNT to ST. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said the study is in an “advanced” stage, and reiterated the government’s commitment to Dhangars.
Mahadeo Jankar, chief of the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP), is the most prominent Dhangar leader in the state. Despite the RSP not winning a single seat in either Lok Sabha or the Assembly, Jankar was made an MLC and given the plum portfolio of diary development and animal husbandry with cabinet rank in the Fadnavis government. While Jankar has refrained from threatening to escalate the protest, BJP Rajya Sabha member Dr Vikas Mahatme has called for a street agitation. The Maharashtra State Dhangar Welfare Association, which meets Tuesday to chalk out a plan, is led by Prakash Shendge.
Over the past two decades, almost all parties including the Congress, NCP, and BJP have supported the inclusion of Dhangars in the ST category. Every political party, however, has found itself facing the prospect of dealing with STs who are unwilling to allow the dilution of their quota by the inclusion of a large community like the Dhangars. ST MPs and MLAs from all parties have said that Dhangars could be included only if the overall ST quota is increased. The BJP’s decision to give Mahatme a Rajya Sabha seat was part of a political move to send a signal to the Dhangars, besides an acknowledgment of his public service as an ophthalmologist. However, dealing with a possible ST backlash remains the biggest challenge to its plan to give Dhangars ST status.