Dalit intellectualising and the Other Backward Classes

Dalit intellectualising and the Other Backward Classes

Even as the Indian middle-class anger against reservations for Other Backward Classes subsides, one voice remains consistent.
'Old grief'<br />Illustration: Nabila Horakhsh
'Old grief'
Illustration: Nabila Horakhsh

(In commemoration of the Dalit History Month, we will be revisiting our archives with articles on the question of Dalit identity, politics and history throughout April. In this piece from September 2006, Shivam Vij the Indian middle-class anger against reservations for Other Backward Classes. More articles from the series are here.) 

In April and May of this year, the Indian government announced the reservation of 27 percent of the seats in educational institutions run by the central government for Other Backward Classes (OBC), also known as the middle castes. This was an extension of what had already been taking place in institutions run by state governments, as well as in government employment at all levels. A group of New Delhi medical students, aided by corporates and the media, demonstrated for several days against the decision. The agitation – which consisted of a hunger strike, some marches and the offering of copious soundbites on live TV – was sustained on the basis of vague memories of similar protests that took place in 1991. During that year the implementation of reservations had first been sought, as originally recommended in 1980 by the B P Mandal Commission on Backward Classes.

The Pioneer newspaper's consulting editor, Chandrabhan Prasad, has often written in his path-breaking Dalit Diary column about how the Indian media ignores the issue of caste, and how rare it is for other publications to give him space to express the Dalit agenda. Ironically, during the agitation earlier this year, Prasad was all over the media – on TV, on the Times of India's edit page – opposing the move.   Prasad's contention was not only that the OBCs do not deserve reservations, but also that Dalits would be hurt by the legislation. "The anti-Mandal lobby gained in legitimacy simply because Mandal went the wrong way," he wrote. "It is in that sense that Mandal hurts even Dalits." But this only raises the question, in what sense exactly? Dalits already have reservations at all levels, and New Delhi has now been lobbied and convinced to extend reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes to the private sector.   Prasad has always held that we are "in the era of Dalits vs Shudras", Shudras being OBCs and collectively referred to as the Bahujan. Although both have traditionally been oppressed, Dalits are considered as holding a place lower in the social and religious hierarchy. It is only recently that he has conceded that the large category of OBCs has within it a number of castes that are as economically and socially deprived as Dalits. His argument is that only these Most Backward Castes (MBCs) deserve reservation, not the "upper OBCs" who own land, and who need a "social revolution" rather than reservations. This contention – supported by neither facts and figures nor greater research, which has otherwise been Prasad's hallmark – has of late turned vicious, with such statements as:

"The upper OBCs have become a ruling social block, but without having produced a cultural elite … [they] have become an embarrassment for the country and a problem for Dalits/Tribals and the most backward castes."

Prasad has pointed out that the only Dalit member of the Mandal Commission, L R Naik, wrote a dissent in the Commission's report, saying that OBCs consist of two social blocks – the landowning and the artisan castes – and that the latter is more backward and deserves separate recognition, lest the former corners the reservation benefits. Unlike Prasad, however, Naik did not outright oppose reservation for the 'upper' OBCs. In referring to Naik and his note of dissent, Prasad ignores the rest of the Mandal report, which takes three broad criteria – social, educational and economic – and examines each in great detail. [The entire list of criteria is available here.]

An important indicator of backwardness for the list is the representation of members of a caste in government employment and elected offices. In other words, be it the upper or lower OBCs, a caste is on the list only if it is not adequately 'represented'. If a caste is not represented in, say, educational institutions, despite being perceived as 'powerful', that is clearly an indicator that caste has in some way been a hindrance to that community's attempts to be part of the mainstream.   The entire logic of reservations is based on lack of representation. To take just one example, a survey by the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that just four percent of Delhi's journalists are OBCs. Neither does Prasad's subsequent assertion that OBCs "have a fair share in the media, cinema and urban assets as well" stand scrutiny. His assertion that ten of India's states are ruled by Shudra chief ministers is correct, but that is only because of demography. If political vote banks add up, and OBCs become politically powerful, does that necessarily imply that entire castes have been uplifted? Does Mayawati, by becoming the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (she is all set to occupy the seat again in assembly elections scheduled for February 2007), obviate the need for Dalits to be brought into the mainstream via reservations and other means?

Lords of the countryside
One of the tasks of the National Commission of Backward Classes – which oversees OBC reservations at the central level – is to review, every decade, whether any caste is over- or under-represented. Furthermore, a 1993 Supreme Court of India judgment introduced a 'creamy layer' clause, whereby families that are prosperous are not eligible for reservations even if they belong to a reserved-category caste. Chandrabhan Prasad's argument against 'powerful', 'landowning' OBCs is, incidentally, the same as the Indian middle-class/upper-caste argument against reservations for Dalits – that a 'creamy layer' takes away the benefits.   The creation of an MBC list as separate from OBCs will undoubtedly fine-tune the logic of representation in implementation, as has been happening in some states.

Even as this article is being written, the Supreme Court has said that clubbing together MBCs and OBCs is a violation of Article 14 of India's Constitution, which discusses state and central services. There is a similar problem within the Scheduled Caste (SC) quotas, with some SC communities being over-represented. This is why the Andhra Pradesh state government, for one, has split the 15 percent reservation for SCs into four groups – six percent each for Malas and Madigas (the largest of AP's Dalit castes), and one percent each for the Rellis and Adi Andhras.   Social scientists Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande, in their well-known alternative to the Mandal recommendations, have also stressed splitting the 27 percent reservation into two parts, for upper and lower OBCs. Chandrabhan Prasad, however, says that the upper OBCs do not deserve reservation at all. His insistent opposition on this count is perhaps not surprising.

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