The Bat­tle for Back­ward­ness

How do we move to­wards a mean­ing­ful dis­course on equal op­por­tu­nity in mod­ern In­dia?


IN JULY LAST YEAR, the Pa­tels of Gu­jarat launched their move­ment for quo­tas in ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions and pub­lic em­ploy­ment. Over the months that fol­lowed, mil­lions gath­ered at ral­lies, drawn by the charisma and or­a­tory of 23-year-old Hardik Pa­tel of the Pati­dar Sa­maj An­dolan. The Pa­tels are a force to be reck­oned with in Gu­jarat, mak­ing up 15 per cent of the elec­torate. The chief min­is­ter at the time of the protest was a Pa­tel, as are a fifth of all Gu­jarat MLAs, sev­eral mem­bers of Par­lia­ment and count­less mo­tel own­ers in North Amer­ica. Hardik knew and drew upon this com­mu­nity strength. He threat­ened the rul­ing BJP gov­ern­ment at the now fa­mous rally in Ahmed­abad on Au­gust 25, 2015—“…if you do not talk about our in­ter­est, the lo­tus will not bloom…if you do not give us our rights, we will snatch it’’. His speech was a call to arms, not a cry of de­pri­va­tion. And yet the Pati­dars were de­mand­ing that they be listed as one of the “other back­ward classes (OBCs)”, el­i­gi­ble for pref­er­en­tial treat­ment un­der a clause in the In­dian Con­sti­tu­tion.

The Pati­dar move­ment en­er­gised oth­ers. Over the past year, the topic of reser­va­tions has con­stantly been in the news, with new de­mands rip­pling across re­gions and com­mu­ni­ties. In Jan­uary, the Ka­pus de­manded OBC sta­tus in Andhra Pradesh. In Fe­bru­ary, the Jat ag­i­ta­tion in Haryana turned vi­o­lent, and March saw the Ra­jputs of Ut­tar Pradesh en­ter the fray. Vic­to­ries came in the fol­low­ing months. Gu­jarat ap­proved quo­tas for Eco­nom­i­cally Weaker Sec­tions (EWS) of the up­per castes, in­clud­ing the Pati­dars; Haryana drafted a new reser­va­tion bill which com­part­men­talised the OBC quota to guar­an­tee the Jats and four other castes a min­i­mum share, and the Andhra Pradesh gov­ern­ment de­cided to ap­point a new com­mis­sion to study “the so­cial, ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic back­ward­ness of the com­mu­ni­ties in the state”. Since July, most of the ac­tion has been in Ma­ha­rash­tra. The Marathas have held many metic­u­lously planned silent marches, of­ten led by young women who speak of their frus­tra­tion at be­ing turned down for ad­mis­sion in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions de­spite their high marks. When the Marathas take a break, the Lin­gay­ats, Mus­lims and Gu­jarati com­mu­ni­ties set­tled in the state stake claims for OBC sta­tus. Anx­ious po­lit­i­cal par­ties of­ten ac­qui­esce to these types of de­mands, es­pe­cially ahead of elec­tions. The Jats have de­manded in­clu­sion as one of the OBCs on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions since 2008. In March 2014, just be­fore the Lok Sabha elec­tions, the Congress gov­ern­ment is­sued a no­ti­fi­ca­tion in­clud­ing them in the cen­tral OBC list af­ter which they with­drew the ag­i­ta­tion. The Supreme Court can­celled the no­ti­fi­ca­tion in March 2015 and threats of dis­rup­tion sur­faced again. The Gu­jarat gov­ern­ment re­alised that the Pati­dar threats were real when, in spite of Hardik and his as­so­ci­ates be­ing ar­rested and im­pris­oned, the BJP lost the pan­chayat elec­tions to the Congress at the end of 2015. The state gov­ern­ment is now reach­ing out to them to find so­lu­tions be­fore the as­sem­bly elec­tions next year.

Pe­ti­tions by caste as­so­ci­a­tions for spe­cial treat­ment are not a new phe­nom­e­non. Ever since the In­dian cen­sus started record­ing caste and re­lat­ing it to so­cial sta­tus, of­fi­cial clas­si­fi­ca­tions have been con­tested. Be­fore the Con­sti­tu­tion of 1950, these con­tests were mostly about shed­ding the la­bel of dis­ad­van­tage. Af­ter large-scale af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion be­came the norm, pow­er­ful caste groups have de­manded that they be listed as dis­ad­van­taged in the con­sti­tu­tional sched­ules. As­pi­ra­tions of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion have in­creased the com­pe­ti­tion for gov­ern­ment jobs and col­lege de­grees and the bat­tle for back­ward­ness has in­ten­si­fied. Many groups have staged pro­tracted bat­tles for OBC sta­tus and those al­ready within these cat­e­gories have fought to keep them out. Any ob­server of these events must re­alise that caste hi­er­ar­chies are not tra­di­tional and rigid struc­tures of sta­tus and power—they are liv­ing in­sti­tu­tions that change in re­sponse to op­por­tu­ni­ties.

This se­quence of re­cent protests makes it ap­par­ent that some of the most suc­cess­ful strug­gles for back­ward­ness are by lo­cally pow­er­ful com­mu­ni­ties. We are clearly in an un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion with too many lay­ing claim to too lit­tle. Will the dif­fi­culty of man­ag­ing these mul­ti­ple de­mands force us to build new in­sti­tu­tions for so­cial

jus­tice? How do we move to­wards a mean­ing­ful dis­course on equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity in mod­ern In­dia? A rea­son­able de­bate on egal­i­tar­i­an­ism re­quires an un­der­stand­ing of the his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances in which caste reser­va­tions be­came cen­tral to state pol­icy and the types of in­equal­ity these reser­va­tions gen­er­ate.

IN­DIA’S CASTE-BASED af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion pro­gramme is largely based on in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the cen­suses of Bri­tish In­dia. For Bri­tish ad­min­is­tra­tors, caste was both an enigma and a po­ten­tial prob­lem. They were both fas­ci­nated by it and fear­ful that mis­un­der­stand­ings re­lated to caste may lead to po­lit­i­cal catas­tro­phe such as it did with the 1857 mutiny. This led to the cen­suses of Bri­tish In­dia col­lect­ing elab­o­rate data on caste and very lit­tle on eco­nomic stand­ing. They con­tained lists of castes us­ing a va­ri­ety of terms such as de­pressed, ex­te­rior, aboriginal, prim­i­tive, dom­i­nant, mil­i­tary, pro­fes­sional…. These formed the ba­sis for lists of Sched­uled Castes (SCs) and Sched­uled Tribes (STs) that were part of the Con­sti­tu­tion and the re­ports on Other Back­ward Classes (OBCs) that fol­lowed later. Caste hi­er­ar­chies dif­fered by re­gion and castes with low sta­tus in some ar­eas could be dom­i­nant in oth­ers. This is why there are sep­a­rate SC, ST and OBC lists for each In­dian state. These were nec­es­sar­ily some­what ar­bi­trary, ar­rived at by dif­fer­ent sets of English­men, who of­ten had dif­fi­culty in separat­ing vari­a­tions in lan­guage from those of caste and cus­tom. Early con­fu­sion had last­ing con­se­quences. For ex­am­ple, the Bhils, Mi­nas and Bhil-Mi­nas all ap­pear in the colo­nial cen­sus in the STs list for Ra­jasthan. In re­sponse to a query by the Ra­jasthan High Court, the Cen­tre clar­i­fied in 2014 that the Mi­nas were a Sched­uled Tribe but Meenas were not. The state gov­ern­ment, af­ter much back and forth, in­sists that these are just vari­a­tions in spell­ing and both com­mu­ni­ties should en­joy equal treat­ment. It is baf­fling that amidst this con­tro­versy no­body seems to have pointed out that the two words would be spelt iden­ti­cally in any In­dian lan­guage.

We must also re­alise that no set of con­ces­sions granted by the Cen­tral and state govern­ments can lead us out of the cur­rent con­flicts over reser­va­tions. This is be­cause plac­ing two castes in the same cat­e­gory does not give them equal sta­tus, but rather shifts scarce goods across them. No mat­ter where a caste is placed in the scheme of things, there is al­ways a bet­ter place to be. This is best il­lus­trated by the Gu­j­jar de­mands for reser­va­tions in Ra­jasthan in 2006. The Gu­j­jars were al­ready part of the OBCs but wished to be re-clas­si­fied as a Sched­uled Tribe. The rea­sons were ob­vi­ous. There were many lit­er­ate OBCs who were com­pet­ing with them for jobs and univer­sity seats but rel­a­tively few of the tribes had enough ed­u­ca­tion to be ri­vals. The prob­a­bil­ity of en­ter­ing elite in­sti­tu­tions was there­fore much higher as an ST. The Meenas of Ra­jasthan were the most in­flu­en­tial within the STs and the new Gu­j­jar de­mands led to vi­o­lent clashes be­tween these two groups. The Gu­j­jars then pushed for com­part­men­tal­is­ing the OBC quota to guar­an­tee them a five per cent share of reser­va­tions, but the Jats, who were OBCs in Ra­jasthan found this un­ac­cept­able. Fi­nally, the cat­e­gory of Spe­cial Back­ward Classes was cre­ated, con­sist­ing of the Gu­j­jars and four other groups and they were given a five per cent quota. This, how­ever, took the frac­tion of to­tal re­served seats to above one-half and the courts stepped in to strike down the no­ti­fi­ca­tion. Last Septem­ber, in a sim­i­lar move, the Nishads of Bi­har pe­ti­tioned to move from the OBCs to the SCs.

With hun­dreds of castes al­ready la­belled as back­ward, the most ed­u­cated within them gain from reser­va­tions. This has widened in­equal­i­ties within sched­uled groups. In Bi­har, for ex­am­ple, Dho­bis and Musa­hars are both Sched­uled Castes, but 14 per cent of Dho­bis com­plete 10 years of school­ing, while only one per cent of Musa­hars do so. It is in­con­ceiv­able that they will con­verge in so­cial stand­ing if SC quo­tas are our only means to equalise op­por­tu­ni­ties. In 2007, the Ni­tish Ku­mar gov­ern­ment cre­ated a new group, Ma­hadal­its, to help com­mu­ni­ties like the Musa­hars, but it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the Dho­bis and Chamars also wanted in.

Caste reser­va­tions first emerged to pro­mote equal treat­ment in a so­ci­ety where un­touch­a­bil­ity was widely prac­tised. They have now de­gen­er­ated into a scram­ble for priv­i­lege and a cat­a­lyst for com­mu­nal con­flict. Many state elec­tions will be held in 2017, in­clud­ing Pun­jab, Gu­jarat and Ut­tar Pradesh. Pun­jab has al­ready an­nounced OBC sta­tus for the Ra­jput Sikhs. It re­mains to be seen whether pol­i­tics in the other states will also be dom­i­nated by lob­bies for reser­va­tions or whether our lead­ers can fo­cus on ex­pand­ing the so­cial and phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture that we so badly need. Only 15 per cent of chil­dren in ru­ral In­dia have easy ac­cess to a high school, only four per cent of vil­lages have a pri­mary health cen­tre and in­come trans­fers to the poor and the old are neg­li­gi­ble for most fam­i­lies. The In­dian state now has the ca­pac­ity and the data needed for mod­ern meth­ods of redis­tri­bu­tion—through pub­lic goods, so­cial in­sur­ance and pro­gres­sive taxes. It is time to use these to move for­ward.

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