The recent announcement by the Narendra Modi government to extend reservations to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) though the All India Quota in medical and dental colleges across the country is a clever move by a national party to try and appropriate the caste constituencies of several regional political parties while keeping its core voters happy.
The issue vis-a-vis OBCs was simmering for long since Independence and several commissions and committees examined it, including the Kaka Kalelkar Commission—which submitted its report in 1953—and over a dozen state commissions. The government did not act on the Kalelkar report because it felt the recommendations were flawed and there were serious contradictions. However, Devaraj Urs, as chief minister of Karnataka, appointed the Havanur Commission to identify OBCs in the state and took steps to implement its report in the early 1970s. Karpoori Thakur, as chief minister of Bihar, also announced job reservations for OBCs in his state in 1978. He was a strong votary of sub-classification of OBCs.
Finally, the issue picked up political momentum at the national level after the Mandal Commission, appointed by the Janata Party government in January 1979, submitted its report in December 1980. Its remit was to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes in the country and recommend measures to improve their lot. It did not go into economic backwardness.
In the commission’s view, 52% of the population belonged to castes that could be classified as OBC and therefore they had a right to claim 52% reservation of all jobs. However, in view of the Supreme Court’s judgments, which put a ceiling of 50% on reservations, the commission recommended that the OBC quota be limited to 27%.
The Mandal Commission had said that Article 14 guaranteed equality before law but the principle of equality “is a double-edged weapon”. It places the strong and the handicapped on the same footing in the race of life. The commission’s focus was on social and educational backwardness and identification of economic backwardness was not part of its remit. However, its observation that “to treat unequals as equals is to perpetuate inequality” would certainly apply to the economically disadvantaged. It took this argument further to say that “the humaneness of a society is determined by the degree of protection it provides to its weaker, handicapped and less gifted members”. This is another key observation that is relevant in this context.
Though caste remained central to the identification of backwardness, there had been a growing demand among poorer sections of castes regarded as being above the OBCs in the social ladder. Their miserable economic status reduced them to a lowly existence with little chance of finding their feet in the new social and political dynamic after Independence.
It was this feeling that led to the prolonged agitation against the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report on OBCs, leading to many self-immolation bids by college students, triggered by Rajiv Goswami, a Delhi University student who set himself on fire to protest against the policy of reservations in September 1990.
The pro- and anti-Mandal agitation further sharpened divisions within Hindu society, with politicians belonging to V P Singh’s Janata Dal cynically celebrating the anti-reservation agitation as they felt it was silently strengthening their vote bank among the OBCs. Since then, we have had various versions of the Janata Dal, including Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and H D Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular).
The Congress party, which dominated national politics, failed to gauge the impact of OBC politics and eventually yielded ground to these parties. The BJP, which has replaced the Congress as the dominant national party, has, on the other hand, decided to challenge the hegemony of caste-based parties and take initiatives to beat them in their own game.
While all this may appear to be a game to garner votes, the dictates of the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution should not be forgotten. There are several provisions that make it clear that the Indian state must take firm measures to ensure that the less-privileged sections of society move up the ladder and have a better quality of life. For example, Article 46 directs the state to promote “with special care” the educational and economic interests of weaker sections of society. Article 38 directs the state to endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status while Article 47 expects it to take measures to improve the standard of living of the people.
The amendments to Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution by the Narendra Modi government in January 2019 added Section 6 to Article 15 to provide reservation of 10% seats in educational institutions for the EWS category. Similarly, it added Section 6 to Article 16 to ensure reservation of jobs up to a maximum of 10% for this category of citizens. The rules define EWS in several ways but primarily as a category of individuals who belong to families with an annual income of less than `8 lakh.
The latest announcement regarding reservation of seats for OBCs and EWS in the All India Quota is therefore in line with the Directive Principles of State Policy even as it is indicative of the BJP’s determination to challenge the hegemony of caste-based parties and take initiatives to beat them at their own game.
A Surya Prakash
Former Chairman, Prasar Bharati and Scholar, Democracy Studies