Ahead of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the BJP-led Maharashtra government has done a balancing act by extending all social welfare schemes availed by Scheduled Tribes (STs) to Dhangars. While trying to defuse the unrest among the Dhangar community, which is demanding quota under ST category, at the same time the government doesn’t want to upset the STs in an election year.
At a Cabinet sub-committee meeting last week, the state government decided to extend all social welfare schemes availed by STs to Dhangars till the time the Centre takes a decision on the community’s demand for 3.5 per cent reservation under ST category. The Dhangars at present enjoy 3.5 per cent reservation under Nomadic Tribe (D) category.
The state government feels the step would help defuse the unrest among the Dhangars in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. At this point, the state government is also not keen to upset the ST community, an important electoral constituent for the BJP.
Of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, four are reserved for STs — Gadchiroli-Chimur, Palghar, Dindori and Nandurbar. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP won all four. In the 288-seat Maharashtra Assembly, there are 25 seats reserved for STs. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the BJP won 11 of these seats. The Shiv Sena won three, Congress five, NCP four and the CPI(M) one seat. One seat went to an Independent candidate.
“Reservations for STs and SCs require the mandate of Indian Parliament. The decision to include or exclude any community within the SC or ST category would require the consensus of Parliament. The state government may have made it a poll promise but it comes under the Centre’s jurisdiction,” Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh president Prakash Ambedkar said.
Finding itself in a Catch-22 situation, the BJP government, through a series of meetings with all party leaders under the banner of Dhangar Welfare Front, led by Pramod Shendge, Dr Vikas Mahatme and Mahadeo Jankar, evolved a two-pronged strategy. On one hand, it extended all schemes for STs to the Dhangars. The government, on the other hand, this week decided to file an affidavit in the Bombay High Court to plead the case for Dhangars.
Explaining the delay over the Dhangars’ quota demand, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said, “Our government is committed to Dhangar quota under ST. But it should withstand legal and constitutional challenges. Therefore, we have to provide all documentary evidence to substantiate our case.” Fadnavis underlined that the government will ensure the existing ST quota is not disturbed.
Both the ruling and Opposition parties feel that the Dhangars and STs are equally important when it comes to elections. While STs enjoy seven per cent quota, the Dhangar community gets 3.5 per cent quota under Vimukta Jati and Nomadic Tribe (D) category. They are demanding 3.5 per cent quota under ST category.
The Dhangar community is concentrated mainly in Marathwada and Western Maharashtra. The Dhangars play a decisive role in at least four important Lok Sabha seats — Baramati, Madha, Solapur and Satara. Their votes have the potential to influence the outcome in at least 25 to 30 Assembly seats. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the community supported the NDA.
State Congress chief Ashok Chavan said, “In the 2014 election campaign, Fadnavis had promised the Dhangars reservation… We want to remind them their poll promise. The sops extended to the community are just diversionary tactics.”
NCP’s Dhananjay Munde accused the BJP of letting down the Dhangars. “All the legal and constitutional processes which they are citing now could have been completed in the last four years.”
MP Vikas Mahatme, who was in the forefront leading the Dhangar agitation, said, “While we will continue our demand for reservation under ST category, we welcome the welfare measures taken by the government for the community. It will benefit the poor and landless.” He emphasised that the Dhangar community in Maharashtra had been denied ST quota because of a typographical error. “In the Centre’s list the community is listed as ‘Dhangad’ whereas in Maharashtra it is listed as ‘Dhangar’. Now, these are complications which are being addressed by the government using legal recourse and we will have to wait for the results.”