Last week, the Narendra Modi government decided to begin the process for establishing the National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes with Constitutional status. Its intention was to tackle the increasing demand for reservation by an increasing number of castes across states.
The initiative aims to address immediate political bother in Haryana and Gujarat – and emerging conflicts in states like Maharashtra – where the dominant Patels and Jats are demanding ‘social downgrading’ and inclusion in the OBC list. Moreover, the move holds potential to address the long-due problem of new ‘inductions’ and ‘de-inductions’ into the quota list.
However, going by the response so far, the odds are high that the road of reservations, bumpy at best, will not be an easy one to pave.
‘Sanctity’of National Commission for Backward Classes
An early indicator of turbulence ahead was evident in Rajya Sabha last Friday when Samajwadi Party leader, Ram Gopal Yadav, led a stormy discussion, forcing an adjournment. During the raucous discussion, he alleged that the government was diluting the Mandal Commission’s spirit.
The allegation has the capacity to snowball into a major crisis for the BJP, as the Mandal framework is considered gospel and parties dare question it at their own peril.
The statement of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat on the need to examine the reservations policy was the principal factor for the BJP’s rout in Bihar in November 2015.
Yadav, who raised the matter in the Upper House immediately after government papers were laid on the table, questioned the constitution of a fresh commission instead of according statutory status to the existing National Commission of Backward Classes. He reminded that several MPs, especially from the OBCs, consistently raised this demand, but to no avail.
Yadav played the Mandal card without prelims and charged that the government intended to cheat OBCs by this decision. The issue was raised in Parliament today (28 March) as well as on 27 March.
The NCBC is surely going to be showcased as sacred territory and its scrapping will be cited by parties such as the SP as upper caste-backed sacrilege.
Modi Govt’s UPA Inheritance
Undoubtedly, Modi has gambled because parties adopt a stance on reservations issues with an eye on the gallery, and it is easy for them to raise passions among pro- as well as anti-reservationists.
Yadav levelled the serious charge that the government intends to “slowly end reservations. They want to exclude certain backward castes from the new OBC list...they wish to bring about a major change in the existing norms.” Yadav also alluded that the government move was at the behest of the RSS.
If the charge against the Modi sarkar gains currency, the BJP will find itself sans the OBC headgear it donned with success in UP.
The NDA government inherited the Jat problem from the UPA because it included the community in the central OBC list a day before the 2014 parliamentary polls were announced. This notification has since been scrapped by the Supreme Court.
When the government managed to ensure that the planned siege of Delhi by Jat groups was called off a few days ago, it was evident that the Modi regime assured action. The nature of the promise is now out in the open and explicitly spells that categorisation of educationally backward can be utilised to entitle Jats and Patels to reservations.
Going ‘Down’ the Social Ladder
The fact of the matter is that the clamour for getting on the OBC bandwagon has increased in recent years. Intermediary castes no longer aspire to ‘go up’ the social ladder and ‘graduate’ to forward status. Instead, more and more castes are eager to go ‘down’.
The politically and economically dominant Jats and Patels wish to be counted among OBCs because of the associated benefits. Many in the OBC list too clamour for downward revision to the SC list.
In July-August 2015, when Patels launched the reservations stir, the irony couldn't be missed because exactly three decades ago, the community derailed the then Congress government for hiking OBC reservations from 10 to 28 percent. Patels were part of a Savarna front comprising Brahmins and Vaishayas against OBCs. But now, they are willing to put this behind them.
The government’s move recognises that educational backwardness is a reality and cannot any longer be a secondary factor for inclusion in the quota list. Patels, for instance, remain politically dominant with 40 of the 120 BJP MLAs in Gujarat, though demographically they constitute about 15 percent of the population.
Yet for the majority of Patels, this provides little solace as they begin behind the starting blocks on the job market.
With little tradition of education among Patels (and Jats), breaking to the general list for admission to educational institutions is tough for the youth of these communities. The cry for reservations is firstly for admission to educational institutions and secondly for jobs.
Reservation Was Never Meant to Last This Long
When the idea of reservations was first conceived, not only was it to be phased out after a decade, but communities were also to be ‘de-inducted’ from the quota list. But the last time such a decision was taken was in the mid-1960s.
Thereafter, inclusion has been permanent as parties feared losing the support of the excluded community.
This issue will confront both government and opposition if the new commission determines that certain castes in the OBC currently do not require preferential treatment any further.
The added problem is that castes in the current quota list would loathe sharing the pie with new inclusions because their share will go down correspondingly. Upper caste uproar over the VP Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations had divided Hindu society vertically.
The BJP’s calculation is that its newly acquired caste cohesion, as seen in UP, will enable it to tide over protests and earn kudos by introducing updated reservations.
Agitations in the Offing
It is too early to jump to a conclusion on whether the proposal will result in a wave of protests from castes fearing exclusion, or greater competition. The Constitutional Amendment Bill will hold interest once it is tabled, especially over provisions that enable Parliament to add or delete castes from the list.
The composition of the commission will be of great import – subject experts must get favour over the politically connected – and it has to be seen how the government responds to attempts of well-established and forward communities to get into the OBC list.
Castes like Kapus and Marathas too will expect inclusion if Patels and Jats are included. Those who do not make the cut are likely to agitate.
Caste fissures in Hindu society has been the Sangh Parivar’s Achilles’ heel and has prevented Hindu consolidation. How the response to the government’s initiative plays out in the coming months remains to be seen.
(The writer is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. He authored Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)