A few years ago in a televised debate on the reservation issue, Bhimrao Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Yashwant was asked by a curious university student whether he faces or ever faced caste discrimination, in reply to which he quipped that he had too famous a surname. The Ambedkar name has indeed acquired such a halo, with iconic and historical resonances, that direct family memory of what his community faced under the Peshwas — when they had to carry brooms on their back to sweep the roads they walked on, to remove traces of their footprints — and Babasaheb’s own experience of having to sit separately on a gunny bag in his school in Mhow, the cantonment town in the old Central Provinces, is all but erased. In fact, both his grandsons run local political outfits in Maharashtra.
Politicians visiting BSF jawan Kishen Kumar Dubey, killed in the recent Pakistan firing at the LoC, were shocked to notice the abject poverty his family lived in. Sheets of blue plastic made up the walls of Dubey’s semi-pucca house in the small town of Bagbera on the outskirts of steel city Jamshedpur. His brothers live there with his parents; they were planning Kishen Kumar’s marriage this winter at the time the tragedy struck. One of the politicians, after his return from the East Singhbhum town, advanced an idea that has been around for a while: the economically backward among the privileged castes are equally to be thought of as needing state help. Destitution is its own caste, in a way. These are two obverse sides of the human story in India, with some troubling takeaways — both theoretically and at the level of policy praxis.
At one level, they signal a gap in the proposition that caste and poverty stand in a relation of absolute overlap. At another, these are admittedly two extreme cases that in no way negate the overwhelming case to be made for how entrenched caste practices still play out as a structurally causative factor in destitution: caste still systematically creates poverty, besides social forms of exclusion that carry over seamlessly into modern economy spaces. But a monochromatic streak in the broad Indian policy — which almost disallowed nuancing of the reservations narrative with pure economic factors, as it was originally intended — has perhaps only exacerbated the tensions in social/caste relations. The silence of the policy-makers is now broken by the rancorous voice of Hardik Patel. The 20-something’s troubling appearance on the landscape, where the sword and gun speak as much as the spoken word, is an unfortunate sign that a serious and legitimate debate cannot now be de-emotionalised and extricated from a matrix of caste animosity. The offer on the table is an either/or. Unless he gets what he wants for his Patidar community — a share of the 27 per cent OBC reservation pie — he would rather have caste/community-based quotas abolished altogether. Inspired by his aggressive rhetoric and the amount of news space he cornered with his violent agitation in Gujarat, his Jat counterparts up north have resumed their demand for reservation in jobs and education, recently rejected by the highest court. The Gujjars may follow suit.
At a time when the Centre seems chary of revealing the caste census figures — implicitly confirming the old suspicion that OBC numbers are actually far higher than 27 per cent — this will increase the degree of acrimony and competition, lend a social-Darwinist edge to what should be an egalitarian policy, and decrease the space for manoeuvre. Though it has received tactical support from the Mandalite satraps of Bihar, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, the Patel stir could very well be Mandal in reverse gear.
Here’s a social group well entrenched in power and integrated with the market forces now wanting to negotiate with the State for a space in the government sector — obviously as a result of the global and domestic economic retreat, which has thinned the scope for better earning opportunities. With a historical advantage in land relations as also traditionally engaged with the markets, the community has never been much driven towards the competitive examination system, as say an aspirational class in Bihar. Nor is it equipped to handle it, with the weaker thrust on education in trade-happy Gujarat — hence the demand for reservation, the fruits of which it sees the OBCs cornering. Whether the Patel agitation fizzles out — as is being expected by the BJP and the Congress, the two national parties for whom caste-based politics is a vote-dividing quagmire better avoided — or not, the troubling figure of Hardik Patel has yanked the system out of its theoretical apathy. The State now has to perforce revisit the whole structure of reservations, for the first time after V P Singh, that too in a situation of overt crisis. It’s a question that should never have vanished: should economic backwardness have a place in the reservation debate, or a role in better implementation of the existing policy, so that the benefits flow down and are not held in capture by the relatively privileged among the OBCs and other historically deprived castes? The caste census was in a way conducted on a Supreme Court directive, and the court had made it very clear, while allowing 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs in 1992, that it would need periodic reviews.
The National Commission for Backward Classes was set up to review and skim away the creamy layer from among the OBCs. In that sense, the OBC quota, in theory, is quite unlike the constitutionally mandated reservation for SC/ST communities — a product of the 1932 Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi — which has no such limiting provision and resulted in communities like the Meenas becoming the new elites among the reserved castes. But the Commission virtually threw its hands up after the OBC space started getting crowded in the last decade, with political parties wooing communities with a promise of reservations and state and central governments adding more and more communities to the backward list. All this with no verifiable audit.
The caste census — the first socio-economic household survey after 1932 — was conducted in the hope that it would reveal the actual statistics on backward communities, and help streamline entitlements. A sneak peek at the data (accessed by this writer) shows implementation has been rather poor — the arc of benefits has reached only 10 per cent of the OBCs and 18 per cent of the SC/STs. This is what complicates a Patel here and a Jat there asking for pockets of deprivation in their communities to be factored into the debate. If quota benefits have yet to percolate down, it has to be deepened, not narrowed further. The Constitution is very clear: reservation was to be a social equaliser, meant to end centuries of social oppression and deprivation. So, the poor Brahmin, Baniya or Kshatriya has to look for benefits from other sources.
The author is the Political Editor of The New Indian Express.