Ahead of the assembly elections in Punjab, the state government granted ‘Other Backward Classes’ status to Rajput Sikhs. In this article, Rohini Somanathan contends that caste reservations first emerged to promote equal treatment in a society where untouchability was widely practised, but have now degenerated into a scramble for privilege and a catalyst for communal conflict.
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% of the electorate. The chief minister at the time of the protest was a Patel, as are a fifth of all Gujarat MLAs (members of legislative assembly), several members of Parliament, and countless motel owners in North America. Hardik knew and drew upon this community strength. He threatened the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government at the now famous rally in Ahmedabad on 25 August 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 2016, 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 Lingayat, Muslim, 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 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 an ST 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 an ST. 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 5% 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 5% 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 SCs, but 14% of Dhobis complete 10 years of schooling, while only 1% 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 are being 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% of children in rural India have easy access to a high school, only 4% 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.