Mumbai: A day after the Rajya Sabha unanimously passed a bill granting constitutional powers to the National Commission for the Backward Classes (NCBC), Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said that social reformer Jyotiba Phule and wife Savitribai Phule be conferred the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, posthumously.

“I would like to tell you that the Maharashtra government has recommended to the centre that the Bharat Ratna be conferred on Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule," Fadnavis told the 3rd convention of Rashtriya OBC Mahasangh in Mumbai on Tuesday, adding that the state commission for OBCs (other backward classes) will be given a grant of 500 crore.

Jyotiba Phule (1827-90), a radical 19th century reformer who belonged to the Mali caste, is considered an icon by OBCs.

In 2015, too, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Maharashtra had made a similar recommendation, but the issue assumes greater significance now in the light of the Maratha community’s quota agitation.

While the Modi government’s decision to restore the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to its original powers was hailed by OBC groups, one of the key demands of the Marathas was to prevent the alleged misuse of the atrocity Act against the community.

The Lok Sabha on Monday passed a bill, which virtually nullifies the Supreme Court judgement on 20 March that puts in safeguards in implementing the Act. The Dalits and tribals saw the Supreme Court ruling as diluting the Act and had called for reinstating the original provisions of the Act.

The Marathas, who are estimated to account for 32-35% of Maharashtra’s population, are the single-largest caste in the state.

In the past two years, the Marathas have intensified their demand for a 16% quota in education and all government jobs. Their demands were referred to the Maharashtra Commission for Backward Classes, which has been tasked to collect quantifiable data to prove social and economic backwardness of the Marathas to put up a strong case for reservations before the Bombay high court.

OBCs, who are estimated to be around 40% of the state’s population, already have 19% quota in the state, while the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) have 13% and 7%, respectively.

Since the Supreme Court put a 50% cap on reservations in 1992, Maharashtra has been finding it tough to accommodate Marathas in the quota pie. Total reservations in the state have already reached 52%.

The OBCs have, on several occasions, warned the government against disturbing their quota. All political parties, including the BJP and the Congress, who have supported the Maratha quota have also maintained that it should be given without disturbing existing reservations.

It was, therefore, of no surprise that Fadnavis and Maharashtra state Congress president Ashok Chavan separately attended the OBC convention.

A state BJP functionary, who requested anonymity, said the Bharat Ratna recommendation for the Phules was consciously timed, given that the chief minister had said on Sunday that the state government was putting on hold the mega recruitment drive for 72,000 government posts till the Marathas were given quota.

“While Fadnavis wanted to placate the Marathas, the stay on recruitment has affected the job aspirants from the OBCs, SCs, and STs also, who already have quota. We need to maintain this balance between castes," said the BJP functionary.