The Marathas are a group of castes comprising of peasants, landowners and warriors. While the top layer of the Marathas—with surnames like Deshmukh, Bhonsle, More, Shirke, Jadhav—are the Kshatriyas (warriors), the rest belong to a predominantly agrarian sub-caste called Kunbi. However, this fine demarcation between the Kshatriya Marathas and the Kunbis held true only until the Maratha empire existed. In contemporary Maharashtra, a majority of Marathas are engaged in agriculture.

Maratha and Marathi:

Most Marathas are Marathi-speaking but not all Marathi-speaking people are Marathas. The Maratha conquests in Western, North, and South India in the 17th and 18th centuries led to the migration of large sections of the Maratha population into those parts and also established a host of Maratha dynasties across the country. The Gaekwad dynasty which ruled the Baroda princely state, the Scindias (Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia is a direct descendant), and Bhonsles of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, are examples of powerful Maratha dynasties that have settled outside Maharashtra.

Dominant caste with handicaps:

Since the last caste census was undertaken in 1931, only various guesstimates are available on the numerical strength of the Maratha-Kunbi, which is estimated to range from anywhere between 28% and up to half of the state’s population. Even at the more modest level of 28%, Marathas would still be the single largest dominant caste in India.

That fact is also reflected in the state’s political history.

In the past 58 years, Maratha-Kunbi chief ministers have been at the helm in the state for 31 years. However, this creamy layer of the Marathas is not entirely representative of the community, since an overwhelming proportion of Maharashtra’s 13.7 million farmers are Marathas. With 78% of those farmers holding land that is less than 2 hectares in size, productivity is low and prolonged periods of agrarian stress can be hard to recover from. The quintessential Maratha who is on streets demanding quota is from this agrarian background.