The Koli people are historically an ethnic Indian group native to Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana states.
On 6 June 1306, Jayabha Mukne, a Poligar, took possession of the fort at Jawhar. His elder son, Dulbarrao, expanded his patrimony and conquered a large territory, controlling 22 forts, comprising most of the Nasik and Thana districts, and yielding annual revenues valued at £90,000. He received recognition as ruler by Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, receiving the new name of Nimshah and the hereditary title of Raja on 5 June 1343. This event was marked by the creation of a new calendar era used within the state for over six hundred years.
The Kolis of Gujarat intermixed with Rajputs due to the practice of hypergamous marriage, which was commonly used to enhance or secure social status.
Some Kolis had also once held small princely states before the colonial British Raj period and some were still significant landholders and tenants in the twentieth century. However, most Kolis had lost their once-equal standing with the Patidar community due to the land reforms of the Raj period and, for example, most Kolis in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat were still occupied as agricultural labourers or tenant cultivators in the 1990s.
During the later period of the Raj, the Gujarati Kolis became involved in the process of what has subsequently been termed sanskritisation. At that time, in the 1930s, they represented around 20 per cent of the region's population and members of the local Rajput community were seeking to extend their own influence by co-opting other significant groups as claimants to the ritual title of Kshatriya. The Rajputs were politically, economically and socially marginalised because their own numbers — around 4 - 5 per cent of the population — were inferior to the dominant Patidars, with whom the Kolis were also disenchanted. The Kolis were among those whom the Rajputs targeted because, although classified as a criminal tribe by the British administration, they were among the many communities of that period who had made genealogical claims of descent from the Kshatriya. The Rajput leaders preferred to view the Kolis as being Kshatriya by dint of military ethos rather than origin but, in whatever terminology, it was a marriage of political expedience.
In 1947, around the time that India gained independence, the Kutch, Kathiawar, Gujarat Kshatriya Sabha (KKGKS) caste association emerged as an umbrella organisation to continue the work begun during the Raj. Christophe Jaffrelot, a historian and political scientist, says that this body, which claimed to represent the Rajputs and Kolis, "... is a good example of the way castes, with very different ritual status, join hands to defend their common interests. ... The use of the word Kshatriya was largely tactical and the original caste identity was seriously diluted."
The relevance of the Kshatriya label in terms of ritual was diminished by the practical actions of the KKGKS which, among other things, saw demands for the constituent communities to be classified as Backward Classes in the Indian scheme for positive discrimination. Kshatriyas would not usually wish to be associated with such a category and indeed it runs counter to the theory of sanskritisation, but in this instance it suited the socio-economic and political desires. By the 1950s, the KKGKS had established schools, loan systems and other mechanisms of communal self-help and it was demanding reforms to laws relating to land. It was also seeking alliances with political parties at state level; initially, with the Indian National Congress and then, by the early 1960s, with the Swatantra Party. By 1967, the KKGKS was once again working with Congress because, despite being a haven for Patidars, the party leadership needed the votes of the KKGKS membership. The Kolis gained more from the actions of the KKGKS in these two decades than did the Rajputs, and Jaffrelot believes that it was around this time that a Koli intelligentsia emerged. Ghanshyam Shah, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, describes the organisation today as covering a broad group of communities, from disadvantaged Rajputs of high prestige to the semi-tribal Bhils, with the Kolis in the middle. He notes that its composition reflects "a common economic interest and a growing secular identity born partly out of folklore but more out of common resentment against the well-to-do castes".
As of 2004, the Kolis of Gujarat were the largest caste cluster in the state, comprising around 24 per cent of the population, and were spread widely. They remained educationally and occupationally disadvantaged compared to communities such as the Brahmins and Patidars. Their many Jātis include the Bareeya, Khant and Thakor, and they also use Koli as a suffix, giving rise to groups such as the Gulam Koli and Matia Koli. Some do not refer to themselves as Koli at all.
As of 2012, various communities bearing the Koli name appear in the central lists of Other Backward Classes maintained by the National Commission for Backward Classes, although at least one is also in part recognised as a Scheduled Tribe. These classifications have been in force since at least 1993.
The Government of India classified the Koli community as Scheduled Caste in the 2001 census for the states of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.