With the upcoming Maharashtra Assembly elections, a lot is at stake for the Bharatiya Janata Party which is hoping to battle anti-incumbency. As the pressure mounts, the shepherd-tribal community of Maharashtra—the Dhangars are re-igniting their quota stir ahead of the Assembly polls as the party had failed to deliver this promise which was made to the community back in 2014.
The Dhangar (shepherd) community is present mainly in the Western Maharashtra and Marathwada regions and account for over 9% of the state's population. Their votes are important in four Lok Sabha and 30 to 35 legislative Assembly seats. The majority population lives in four districts of Solapur, Satara, Sangli and Pune. The BJP-Sena government led by Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra has not been able to provide reservation to the Dhangar community in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. This has led to the community becoming disenchanted with the parties.
The BJP, in order to please the community, recently inducted Gopichand Padalkar, a prominent leader of the community, in its ambit and is fielding him against Ajit Pawar in NCP’s stronghold of Baramati. The BJP had committed to granting reservation status to the Dhangars if elected to power in 2014, a promise it has failed to keep.
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Till it takes a call on reservations, the state government has rolled out a Rs 1,000 crore package for the Dhangars. They will reap benefits from 22 government schemes. In another appeasement tactic, the BJP also gave a place in its state cabinet to Mahadev Jankar, who is seen as one of the most recognised Dhangar leaders. However, Jankar stated that he and his party, the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha feel betrayed by the BJP. Despite this, he continues to rally behind the Devendra Fadnavis government. However, it’s not clear whether the party will be able to enjoy the support of the community en masse.
Speaking to NewsClick, Satyajit Chavan, an activist from Maharashtra, said, “The Rashtriya Samaj Paksha is being nullified by the BJP, which wants to ally itself with smaller parties for poll benefits and then take away their identity. The BJP only cares for the industrialists, and the interests of the smaller parties are often ignored. The position given to people like Mahadev Jankar was just an eyewash for the vote bank. However, what is important here is the fact that the interests of the tribal communities get suppressed under the interests of the vote bank and the BJP wants to bring these smaller parties under the ideology of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).”
The quota demand of the Dhangars go back to 2014, when the community had agitated prior to the state Assembly elections. Previously, multiple rasta roko (road blockade) events were held across the state under the movement spearheaded by the Dhangar Sangharsh Samiti Maharashtra Rajya (DSSMR). The Samiti is currently mobilising local leaders across western and northern Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha regions to voice their demand. The issue of inclusion of Dhangar community into ST category comes across as a clear case of failed pre-poll promises, which were made to use the aspirations of a community as a political plank by the government to gain power.
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Explaining the demands, Kailash Danger, a first year student at TISS Mumbai, who is also involved in the agitation, said, “The issue is of recognition and giving the right benefits to the community. Several attempts were made by the government to cover up the fact that they had misspelled the community’s name. However, verification showed that there is no community such as Dhangad.” Interestingly, the Centre claims that it provides quota to the Dhangad community, but Dhangars, the herding community is left out from this ambit. Elaborating on the demands, Kailash added, “We want recognition as STs and we want to avail our rightful benefits. We are also demanding a fund of Rs 25 lakh to be given to the educated but unemployed young people from the community. The government before coming to power had this as a poll promise to the community.”
The agitation is deemed necessary by the leaders following unrest among the community members, especially the poor, who believe their voices are not being heard by the government. However, there are legal hurdles in the way of the recognition of their demands. The Allahabad High Court had previously ruled that Dhangad and Dhangar are two distinct communities except similarities in nomenclature, which means that in order to recognise them as a ST, the state cannot rule out the possibility of a constitutional amendment. Additionally, the Supreme Court has also capped the reservation in the state to 52%, out of which, Scheduled Castes have 13% and Other Backward Castes (OBC) have 19% reservation.
To include the community under the ambit of the STs and also to accommodate the demand of Marathas—who are demanding a constitutional amendment to provide a 16% per cent reservation to the community under the OBC category—a constitutional amendment increasing the cap will be needed, making it 68%. The same was done in the case of Tamil Nadu. Existing communities under the ST category are also unwilling to dilute their share of the quota to accommodate Dhangars.