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 at www.ncbc.nic.in/html/guideline.htm.)
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. Dalits and Shudras all over India have been in conflict with each other, sometimes violently so.
Along with Prasad, intellectuals who opposed the move to reserve seats for OBCs included social scientists Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Andre Beteille. Mehta said that the OBCs were not an exploited community, and that the “script of oppression” they were reading was one simply borrowed from Dalits, who are the worst victims of OBC violence. It is important to keep in mind that exploitation, violence and oppression are not key factors in reservation – there is the law for that. Reservation is about representation: the idea of reservation is to build an India where all castes and communities are represented in all its walks of life. The idea is to end occupational stratification; empowerment becomes an obvious corollary.
As far as the politics of relative ‘oppression’ goes, Dalits may be outcastes but Shudras are the fourth of the chaturvarna order, mythology having it that they were born of Brahma’s feet. Their occupation is that of labourers; the traditional texts of Manu declared that any Shudra caught listening to the Vedas would have molten lead poured into his ears. That, then, is the history of the Shudras: sidelined from education and learning, and forced into manual labour. What is so wrong with lowering the bar a bit to give the brightest a chance in the best of India’s educational institutions?
The “lords of the countryside” that Prasad talks about are actually a handful of castes amongst thousands. There is an obvious need for fresh population statistics about the various Other Backward Classes to determine who is ‘cornering the benefits’ of reservations. Despite boasting the world’s largest census exercise, India does not have such statistics. This is due to the fact that a handful of sociologists managed to convince New Delhi authorities that counting OBC numbers in the 2001 census would only further caste identity, and thus the prevalence of caste. The last time OBCs were counted was in 1951, but for some reason the statistics were not made public. Beteille has made a similar argument against OBC reservations, as if the process could divide an already divided society. But even if these objections are taken into consideration, it is inimical for the Government of India to base its reservations policy on population without knowing that population’s actual composition.
Dalit v Shudra
Many Dalit intellectuals or activists are unhappy about what they see as attempts to prevent Dalit-Bahujan unity. They have long tried to bring about an electoral alliance between Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, but have met with only limited success for several reasons, not the least of which are the very real differences between these groups. Fault-lines exist not only between Dalits and Shudras but within Dalits themselves, and there are contradictions within the ‘backward’ communities as well.
The support for unity comes from many quarters. This summer, the voices in favour of OBC reservations include the likes of longtime activists Udit Raj and Kancha Ilaiah – the former a Dalit, the latter a Shudra. Ilaiah has pointed out that there are cultural similarities between Dalits and Bahujans that need to be harnessed to bring them together. In a 2001 interview with journalist S Anand, Chandrabhan Prasad’s response to this is bewildering: “I think there are more Brahmans who eat beef and pork than Shudras. I also think Shudras tend to have an increased intensity of religiosity than Brahmans. I think Shudras practice untouchability more vigorously than Brahmans today.”
These sentiments have also turned personal. On Ilaiah himself, Prasad has noted:
Kancha Ilaiah is a Shudra scholar. He targets Dalits’ sentiments. Tells them that Brahmans are the creators of the Chatur-Varna Order, that they developed the notion of untouchability. And therefore, they must be destroyed … But, he never says that it is not the Brahman, it is the Brahmanical Order which has to be destroyed. He never says that upper Shudras are turning more Brahmanical than Brahmans themselves. He never tells what is the performance of Shudra governments in the South and elsewhere.
Ilaiah talks about the “Dalitisation” of Indian culture, an idea that seems far more radical than Prasad’s magic potion of globalisation. Chandrabhan has claimed that Ilaiah is “drafting an intellectual trap to Shudraise the nation’s culture. Dalits and Shudras differ culturally as much as Dalits and Brahmans do … Dalits have a distinct culture. But we should not glorify it. Neither do we want Brahman/Shudra culture. We want European culture, which is the best.” On the other hand, Ilaiah talks of recovering pride in Dalit-Bahujan traditions of productive labour, as opposed to Brahmanical traditions of rote learning.
This seems no less than a clash of civilisations – many civilisations – without a moderate, middle-of-the-road answer. But look at the issue this way: if Ilaiah’s is a path of rapprochement and building alliances, and Prasad’s is one of seeing OBCs as the Dalit’s foremost enemy, how would the ramifications of these approaches differ? A doctrine of peace and integration would certainly be preferable to a prescription of permanent conflict.
An editorial in the Hyderabad-based paper Dalit Voice said that the Brahmanical hatred demonstrated in the anti-quota protests in April and May would help Dalit-Bahujan consolidation. Vidya Bhushan Rawat, an activist and follower of B R Ambedkar, wrote in CounterCurrents: “Dalit opportunists dance to the tune of their Brahmanical masters when they condemn reservation for the backward communities.”
This is a view also taken by many others. And this is exactly why Prasad opposes reservations for OBCs: they have the potential to bring together Dalits and Shudras. This writer’s contention is not so much that Dalits and OBCs should join hands – they inevitably will if they have to – or that the Dalit-OBC conflict is not a reality. Rather, it is that Mandal-recommended reservations for OBCs stand in good light irrespective of the kind of politics that Chandrabhan Prasad is subjecting them to. On the other hand, all who oppose reservations have been using Prasad’s statements to bolster their arguments. Does Prasad realise that the middle-class opponents of reservations are no friends of Dalits or Dalit quotas either?
For Prasad, the question is not whether Dalit-Shudra unity is possible, but that, “even if it takes place somewhere, should be stopped … [Shudras] will point to the social monster called Brahmans, rob Dalits’ support, come to power, and then turn to Dalits to oppress them.” It is impossible to tell to what extent this is justified, but could such fears be the real reason behind Prasad’s opposition to reservations for OBCs?
Prasad’s response to the Dalit association with Brahmans is again bewildering: “Since Dalits and Brahmans are both social minorities, both have a common enemy in Shudras. Thus, for their own different reasons … Dalits and Brahmans have no option but to come together politically in the near future.” If Brahmins and Dalits can come together, why must OBCs be made into common enemies of both?
Prasad’s chief problem with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), founded in Uttar Pradesh by the Dalit Sikh politician Kanshi Ram, is also that it should long ago have “dropped Bahujanwad, and must have spoken of a Dalit movement. After Mayawati was attacked by the Shudras, the BSP should have realised that Shudras are the Dalits’ prime opponents in rural India.” The greatest trouble with Prasad’s views on OBCs is that Dalit electoral politics cannot move beyond its immediate base without alliances. Its stagnation would make it impotent. If Mayawati is wooing all castes for next February’s elections in Uttar Pradesh, then surely the process must make political sense for the BSP? Prasad once wrote, “If any political movement of Dalits has to succeed, it must allow itself to be guided by Dalit Diary. Or else, chest-beating can go on.” Fortunately or unfortunately, that is not true.
Mayawati today, for instance, delivers little more than pride to her voters, but that pride matters greatly to those at the receiving end of caste oppression. To move beyond that, however, she needs credible competition from another Dalit force. Such dynamism in caste politics would be absent if Dalit politicians closed the door to anyone wanting to join the Dalit alliance. Indeed, if both Shudra and Dwija, the twice-born, were not to join the BSP alliance, there would be little caste churning.
Not that Dalit communities are particularly united amongst themselves. For instance, Chamars are more enthusiastic en masse voters of the BSP than other Dalit communities in UP, some of whom have some attraction towards the Congress and the BJP. But Chandrabhan Prasad gives little mind to such details. He considers globalisation, rather than political power, as the force into which Dalits should dive as though it were the flowing Ganga – and which would perforce leave behind a ‘national embarrassment’ called the “OBC elite”.
An Indian caste primer
OBC: Other Backward Classes. This group of traditionally marginalised castes is recognised in the Indian Constitution as comprising “socially and educationally backward classes”. SC: Scheduled Castes. Gandhi called them Harijans but Ambedkar coined the term Dalit, meaning ‘the broken and the oppressed’.
SCs: were traditionally relegated outside the Hindu-defined social structure. Although recognised by the government in 1937, specific mention was finally made in the Indian Constitution after Independence. Today, this group makes up roughly 16.5 percent of the Indian population.
ST: Scheduled Tribes. Also known as Adivasis and Girijans, STs make up hundreds of indigenous tribes, each of which has been officially recognised by the Centre and their respective state governments. Today this group makes up roughly 8 percent of the Indian population.
Shudra: Also known as Bahujan, the Shudras are the lowest ranked of the four Varnas of the Hindu caste system, and were historically labourers – often forced – for the other three Varnas. They have been classified as Other Backward Classes.
Dwija: Meaning ‘one who is born twice’, Dwijas are the three top Varnas in the Hindu social structure – the Kshatriya, Vaishya and Brahmin castes.
Mandal: In 1979, an official decision was made to convene a second commission on ‘backward classes’. Chaired by retired judge B P Mandal, the commission submitted a groundbreaking report in December 1980. Finding that India’s OBC population was around 52 percent of the country’s total, the commission recommended that proportionate reservations be instituted in all public-sector institutions, national banks, universities and colleges, as well as private-sector institutions that have received public money. When the Supreme Court said that the total number of reserved seats in an institution should not exceed 50 percent, OBC reservations were fixed at 27 percent.